The face of defeat

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From the Jersey Evening Post of 5 January 2007, by Rob Shipley

Major Francis Peirson

The story of Major Francis Peirson's victory at the Battle of Jersey, the 226th anniversary of which will be marked next week, is well known, and his heroism has been honoured for over two centuries. But his adversary, the highly mysterious Baron de Rullecourt, was also a colourful and memorable figure.

The hero of the Battle of Jersey, which was fought in the streets of St Helier on 6 January 1781, was the young Major Francis Peirson, who refused to surrender to the French and defeated them in a sharp action in and around the Royal Square.

The villain, as far as Jersey is concerned, was Baron de Rullecourt, a man usually described as a 'soldier of fortune' - an expression that can be taken to mean much the same as mercenary.

Many people know that, like Peirson, de Rullecourt received a mortal wound in the battle, dying the day after his attempt to capture the Island had ended in disaster. Some will also know that the musket ball that killed him took away his lower jaw, but that is where most information about the infamous Baron has traditionally tended to peter out.

It is, in fact, far from easy to find out more, but it seems that de Rullecourt was not quite what he appeared to be.

Born in Flanders

For a start, he wasn't French, although he was happy to lead French troops if the price was right. His full name was Philippe-Charles-Felix Macquart and he was born in an area of Flanders once confusingly known as the Austrian Netherlands. Quite where the title Baron de Rullecourt came from is ot clear, although a French website that provides a biographical detail or two says that we are dealing with un aventurier qui avait pris le titre de Baron de Rullecourt.

That avait pris - 'had taken' - suggests that the title was assumed rather than conferred as any sort of honour.

Meanwhile, A Popular History of Jersey, written by the Rev Alban E Ragg and published in 1896, fills in a few more of the gaps. The Baron, who was apparently aged between 40 and 50 when he led the 1781 invasion force, was connected to 'many Spanish families of distinction' and had 'acquired the rudiments of military art in Spain'.

It is said that among his accomplishments were a sentence to hang for theft in Poland - obviously never carried out - and the abduction from a convent of Marie Félicité, an illegitimate daughter of the Marquis of Argenson. The Marquis seems not to have been too concerned, for as well as consenting to the couple's marriage, he also helped to advance his son-in-law's military career.

Benjamin Franklin

More specific detail comes from a website devoted to the voluminous correspondence of Benjamin Franklin, the great American statesman, philosopher, economist, scientist and flyer of kites.

As plain Macquart, the Baron entered service in the Compagnie Flamande des Gardes du Corps in 1761.. By 1767 he was a captain in the regiment of Nassau-Luxembourg, throwing in his lot with the French two years later. He was promoted to major of cavalry in 1774 and then joined the Polish army, where he was made colonel of the Massalski Regiment.

In 1777 he was introduced to Franklin by Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, a Frenchman often described as one of the 'fathers of the American Revolution' - in spite of his nationality and aristocratic background.

Franklin, who spent years in France drummiong up support for the American revolutionary cause and then representing the new American government, spotted the Baron's potential as an ally and later wrote to him asking him to lead a force to capture the Zaffarine Islands off the coast of Morocco, which the Americans thought might be a useful base on the fringe of Europe.

Nothing came of that plan - or of another to raise a force of 600 to fight on American soil on the revolutionary side - and the Baron rejoined the French army as lieutenant-colonel des volontaires de Luxembourg au servuce de Frabce.

1779 expedition

However, before accepting that commission, in 1779 he sailed as second-in-command with the Prince of Nassau on an expedition to capture Jersey. The attempted invasion was a complete failure. Although a landing was attempted in St Ouen's Bay, none of the attacking force even set foot on Island soil.

The Baron, of course, came back for another try in 1781, landing at La Rocque, marching on St Helier and surprising the Governor, Moses Corbet, in his bed.

The story of the successful defence of the Island, led by Peirson, who with more than 1,000 troops at his disposal refused to be taken in by the Baron's claim that he had many more men waiting offshore, is well known. Far less well known are some intriguing details about the nature of the French force and its commander's character.

According to the Rev Ragg, de Rullecourt was a man of 'extraordinary courage, mendaciousness and audacity, fierce and violent in temper, impulsive, deficient in prudence, and mingling giddiness of spirit with morose sullennness'.

Cruel man

The Reverend, who wrote almost like an eyewitness, even though his subject had been dead for more than a century when A Popular History of Jersey went on sale, also says that de Rullecourt was capable of great cruelty. On the way to Jersey, storms held lup the invasion force for many days in the shelter of Chausey. During the wait for the weather to clear, he split the skull of one of his soldiers who complained about the harsh conditions.

Allegedly, another man was chained to a low-water rock to be drowned by the incoming tide because he had complained about the poor quality of the rations.

A contemporary source, Dumouriez, also had something to say about the villain of 6 January 1781. He describes a man who was 'a roué in every sense of the word, head over ears in debt, who pays his creditors with sword-thrusts and then puts himself at the head of those light-fingered gentry, the Luxembourg Volunteers, who pillaged Normandy from end to end as the marched along'.

Bewhiskered Turk

Meanwhile, as well as having 400 'convicted felons' in his force, the Baron was accompanied by a 'bewhiskered Turk', described by Ragg as a cousin of the Emperor of Morocco, and by other sources as a southern Indian prince called Mir Saïd who had taken to Britain before being sent to France with other prisoners.

Ragg also says that the Turk - or was he a Muslim Indian? - was promised a 'seraglio of Jersey ladies should the enterprise prove victorious'.

Other prominent members of the French force were called d'Aubry, de Varannes, de Boislandry, Dèmes de Montardat, de Ste Ange, and, bizarrely, Lieutenant l'Ecrivisse - which translates as Lieutenant Crayfish.

Sem were mortally wounded alongside de Rullecourt as the Jersey garrison raked the Royal Square with musket and cannon fire. The others were among the 600 prisoners taken and eventually transferred to England.

Baron de Rullecourt was buried outside the old west door of the Town Church in a simple tomb that receives few visitors. Major Peirson, by contrast, was laid to rest with full military honours inside the church, just in front of the pulpit.

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