On this day in history : 6th January 1781 — The English defeat the French in the Battle of Jersey – the last attempt by the French to invade the Channel island of Jersey….

It was the height of the American War of Independence and the French wanted to remove the threat to shipping between themselves and America…. Jersey was a central base for British privateers….

Baron Phillippe de Rullecourt was a 36-year-old colonel in the French army, he was a bit of an adventurer and also very ambitious…. He put forward a plan to King Louis XVI on how he could take Jersey….and the king promised to make Rullecourt a general once he had captured St. Helier, the capital of Jersey…. A rough army, made up mainly of deserters and prisoners was put at Rullecourt’s disposal…. His second in command was an Indian by the name of Prince Emire, who had been captured by the British in India and sent to France as a prisoner – by all accounts he was a rather barbaric man….

French School; Philippe Charles-Felix Macquart (1744-1781), Baron de Rullecourt
French School; Philippe Charles-Felix Macquart (1744-1781), Baron de Rullecourt; Jersey Heritage; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/philippe-charles-felix-macquart-17441781-baron-de-rullecourt-137146

Rullecourt had inside information; he knew what he was up against….some sources suggest he had made a prior trip to Jersey disguised as a merchant…. The British, aware of the military importance of the island, had heavily fortified the coastline with forts and gun batteries…. The Jersey Militia consisted of some 3,000 men in five regiments; they were supported by the 95th (Yorkshire) Regiment of Foot and various other units – giving a total of around 9,250 troops…. However, being the time of year it was most of the British commanding officers were back in England, enjoying an extended Christmas leave…. Jersey also had naval support in the form of ‘The Jersey Squadron’ – but it was away fighting with the Dutch…. Rullecourt would no doubt have known all this….

Towards the end of 1780 Rullecourt’s rag-tag army of troops assembled at Le Havre….and then commenced to march to Granville – stealing what they could to eat on the way – they arrived on the 27th of December…. Around 30 small boats awaited them and they sailed on the 1st of January…. A previous attempt had to be aborted because of bad weather; this time they were to get just 12 miles from Jersey before once again having to turn back due to a severe storm…. It was the 5th of January before they had another chance….

Reports vary…. Some say as many as 2,000 men set sail – but it appears only around 1,000 landed…. Those that did were poorly equipped and half starved…. However, Rullecourt himself was successful at landing a contingent on the eastern coast of the island – by guiding his own division of 800 men through a narrow channel and landing undetected…. English guards who had meant to be on lookout duty had gone on a drunken binge – for this they later faced court martial….This first division landed at La Rocque and here they stayed the night…. A second division of 400 men were to perish on the rocks – and a third division of 600 became separated from the main fleet and either retreated or took refuge…. A final fourth small fleet of 200 men managed to land at La Rocque early the following morning….

Rullecourt marched his men to St. Helier – it was early and most of Jersey was still asleep…. On arriving in the town they set up their camp in the market square – and at 7am the Governor of Jersey, Moyse Corbet, was roused and detained at Government House…. He was told of how thousands of French troops had taken Jersey – Rullecourt threatened to burn the town and slaughter its inhabitants…. Corbet promptly surrendered….and ordered British troops based at Elizabeth Castle and at the nearby Saint Peter’s Barracks to lay down their arms…. Rullecourt set off to take control of the castle….

Moyse Corbet – Public domain

Only the commander at Elizabeth Castle, one Captain Alyward, was having none of it and refused to give in…. He sent word to Rullecourt that if he advanced any further he would have to face the consequences…. Rullecourt ignored him – the British opened fire, several French soldiers were killed and one officer wounded…. A furious Rullecourt retreated back to St. Helier….

Elizabeth Castle from the west – Image credit : Wolfgang Pehlemann CC BY-SA 3.0

Meanwhile the British were scurrying around mustering up their own troops…. Soon more than 2,000 had been assembled and plans for attack began…. Word was received from Rullecourt that if the British did not surrender then he would order the ransack of the town…. By now the British had got wind of just how few French troops there really were and quite understandably gave the notion of surrender the proverbial two-fingered salute….

Attack began…. The British had so many men that a third of the number could have done the job…. In fact some were at a loss at what to do, so resorted to simply firing their guns into the air…. The resistance from the French lasted all of 15 minutes….in panic their troops fled, trying to find the way back through the countryside to their boats…. Over 600 prisoners were taken that day – and found themselves on their way to England…. Others were not so fortunate – many were killed (whereas only about 30 on the British side lost their lives)…. Rullecourt himself sustained an injury from which he died the following day….

The Death of Major Peirson by John Singleton Copley – Pub

It seems obvious that the French had received help from informers…. They had details of fortifications, how many British troops there were – and even the names of their commanding officers…. Two Jersey-men were subsequently arrested…. Moyse Corbet was criticised for his actions and faced court martial in London – where he was convicted and sacked from his position as Governor of Jersey….

Historical re-enactment soldiers of 1781 Jersey Militia marching in the Royal Square, St. Helier – where the Battle of Jersey took place…. To the right of the picture a public house can be seen, ‘The Pierson’…. This was the home of Dr. Lerner, where Rullecourt died…. Image : Man Vyi – Public domain

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