Popular History of Jersey Chapter 22

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Battle of Jersey 1 - The landing

1779 raid

Jersey had for several centuries enjoyed immunity from war when the French again undertook its conquest, the attempt, this time, being first made on 1 May 1779, on which date, in the early morning, a French fleet was discovered once more in St Ouen's Bay, with a force of some five or six thousand men, under the command of the Prince of Nassau; spreading alarm and consternation all around. In less than two hours the 78th Regiment, together with the local Militia, were ranged on the shore in order of battle.

The enemy's troops, under the cover of a couple of gun-boats, each carrying a 24-pounder in its bows, attempted a descent upon the Island, the assault, it appears, being made before those on Jersey's side were quite ready to return it; but, notwithstanding this, the French were once more compelled to retire, whilst the enterprise was, for the time, relinquished with but small loss or dangerous effect on either side, the only disabled one, on the part of the defenders, being a man who was injured through the bursting of a gun. The enemy, after their repulse, proceeded, as in former years, to St Brelade's Bay, where, finding themselves exposed to a similar reception, and on the naval commander informing the Prince that he could not remain for his protection in the bay, the fleet finally set sail for France.

Christmas Day fires

Another and much more serious alarm, though not resulting in anything but a fright, occurred on Christmas Day of the same year. A fire, which continued to burn about eight minutes, was discovered between Rozel and La Coupe, by one of the guard of Trinity watch-house, this being clearly answered by a like fire, only of a quarter of an hour's duration, on the French coast. The next morning, it appears, with a force of 2,000 under his command, Baron de Rullecourt left Granville with the intention of once more attempting Jersey's conquest, but evidently without considering the elements, over which no man has control.

His idea had been to surprise the Islanders whilst in the midst of their Christmas festivities. He left the French coast in the midst of such tempestuous weather that many of his transports were dispersed and many lives lost at sea, whilst he himself was obliged to seek shelter at the rocky Island of Chausey, thus checking his progress and reducing his little army to 1,200 men, though the check he received was but temporary. He returned again, reinforced for the conquest, on the ever-memorable morning of 5 January 1781, and then commenced the historic Battle of Jersey.

Soldier of fortune

This Baron de Rullecourt, whose name figures so prominently in connection with the affair, it must be remembered, was to all intents and purposes a soldier of fortune. In age, apparently between 40 and 50, a native of Lower Flanders, and connected with many Spanish families of distinction, he first acquired the rudiments of military art in Spain, afterwards serving France for the space of some 19 years during the wars with Poland, and subsequently distinguishing himself as an officer in the Russian army. His first appearance in connection with Jersey was when, as second in command, he accompanied the Prince of Nassau on his proposed conquest of the Island in 1779, he being afterwards made Lieutenant-Colonel of the Legion of Luxembourg, and obtaining the grand cross of St Louis, with the promise, in 1780, of the governorship of the Island as a reward for his enterprise, if such should prove successful.

In disposition he appears to have been a man of extraordinary courage, mendaciousness, and audacity, fierce and violent in temper, impulsive, deficient in prudence, and mingling giddiness of spirit with morose sullenness, whilst a natural tendency to cruelty seems to have been at times not the least prominent point in his character, as evidenced. during the short stay on the rocky Isle of Chausey during his enforced visit from 5 December 1780, to 5 January 1781, when, his temper certainly not sweetened by his late disability to land at Grouville owing to the boisterous state of the weather, he severed in two the head of one of his soldiers for complaining of the severity of the season, and caused, another to be left at low-water mark on an outlying rock, to be drowned by the incoming tide, for displaying discontent at the quality of his food.

No artillery

Another peculiarity in connection with Rullecourt is the fact that he brought neither fifes, drums, nor colours in connection with his undertaking; nor did he bring into play or even land the artillery (comprising four field-pieces) that accompanied the expedition; whilst, amongst others forming his troops, were to be found 400 convicted felons, taken out of various gaols; and, as though to add a comic element, he was accompanied by a "be-whiskered" Turk (professedly a cousin of the Emperor of Morocco), to whom, acting in the capacity of an officer and confidential adviser, he promised a seraglio of Jersey ladies should the enterprise prove victorious.

He also brought with him, it may be added, numerous papers (some of which, after the defeat, fell into the hands of English officers) containing, amongst other things, the French estimate (2,000,000 livres) of the value of shipping belonging to Jersey; a great number of signed commissions, with blanks left for names of his own choosing, and with directions to advance to the best military and civil posts those who had most distinguished themselves in his service; several letters from Renier, proprietor of Chausey, indicating him to have been a great promoter of the expedition; numerous maps and descriptions of Jersey, and an account of 600 livres paid to an engineer, who, in November, 1780, had made plans and various observations on the fortifications, strength and military discipline of the Island.

Such was the man — the would-be conqueror and Governor of Jersey — and his connections, as unfolded by his actions, plans, and associations with respect to its conquest; and who, with a diminished force of 1,200 men, set sail from Chausey, 5 January 1781, to accomplish that feat which no foreigner was ever able to achieve.

700 troops landed

The fates were again most unpropitious even at the commencement of the task, for instead of effecting a landing where he had reckoned on doing so, Rullecourt's vessels were carried by the strong currents of the Channel to the rocky coasts outlying, and at the eastern extremity of St Clement's Bay, where, on Le Banc de Violet, at the south-east corner of the Island, and about two miles from the shore, near the spot where Seymour Tower now stands, he ordered his troops to land, of which about 700 only out of the 1,200 gained the shore; 200 were drowned in their vessels, wrecked in the attempt, whilst the remaining 300 were tide-kept prisoners on board their ships.

As may well be conceived, reaching such a position in the dark of the night — it being then close on the hour of eleven — and on such a coast, the perilous landing could only be carried out through the aid of local knowledge; but such knowledge, be it added with shame, was supplied by an experienced Jersey pilot, formerly, it is true, a convicted murderer, who had escaped from the Island, and who accompanied Rullecourt, and guided him and his small following to La Rocque, where the first act in the scene seems to have been the capture and manning of a small battery of four guns; after which, leaving a small company to protect the boats and secure, if necessary, a retreat, Rullecourt set forth on his memorable march to the town of St Helier, passing on his way, with his usual audacity and without being detected, both near a barrack occupied by invalided artillerymen, and close to a small battery; disabling by wounds the few he met upon the road.

On entering the town, one Pierre Arrive, an elderly man over 60 years of age, was slain in cold blood, when innocently standing on his own doorstep in wondering astonishment; whilst the arrival in the Market Place, now the Royal Square, at early dawn, was the signal for the slaughter of the sentinel and the surprising and making prisoners of the guard. One man only escaped, who, with fleet feet and in an agony of terror, ran to the General Hospital, erected in 1756-57, where a regiment of the afterwards celebrated 78th Highlanders were quartered. And it was to the astonishment and utter consternation of the inhabitants that they found the Market Place, at sunrise, filled with French troops, and this without a gun being fired or a signal of alarm being raised.

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