1794 plans to capture Jersey

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This article by S W Bisson was first published in the 1972 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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G R Balleine, in his History of the Island of Jersey, briefly records that in 1794 the Committee of Public Safety ordered the capture of the Channel Islands and sent an army of 20,000 to St Malo for the purpose. As far as I am aware, no details of this proposed expedition have ever been published, but the Public Works Committee of the States has now acquired five documents which reveal the nature and extent of the project.

Documents purchased

The documents, which were bought at an auction at Sotheby's, had previously formed part of the collection of Percy Millicen. Despite inquiries kindly made on my behalf by Miss Jill Harris, it has not, however, been possible to trace their earlier provenance. The Public Works Committee intends to exhibit them in the Militia Museum at Fort Regent and I am indebted to Mr G I G Pitman, its Chief Administrative Officer, for giving me the opportunity of describing them in advance.

The most informative of the documents is a copy of a decree extracted from the Registers ot the Committee of Public Safety of the National Convention dated the 12th day of Pluviose in the second year of the French Republic One and Indivisble (31 January 1794).

The style of the handwriting suggests that this copy was made at a much later date. It is unsigned and is not a first-hand copy, but there seems to be no reason to doubt its authenticity. It purports to reproduce an earlier copy, certified by B Barere, Carnot, Robespierre, Collot d'Herbois, C de Prieur, Billaud-Varenne, Jeanbon St Andre and R Lindet, of the original decree, which was signed on the Register by Carnot, Billaud-Varenne, C de Prieur, B Barere, Couthon and Lindet.

The decree sets out, in a remarkably concise manner, in twelve short Articles, the Committee of Public Safety's orders for the launching of an expedition against Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney between 19 and 28 February, 1794, with the object of capturing the islands and occupying them in strength.

Army of 20,000

An army of approximately 20,000 infantry, 200 to 300 cavalry and 200 artillery, with field guns and howitzers, was to assemble in or near St Malo. After a preliminary naval reconnaissance, the expedition would set sail one evening and attack the three islands simultaneously the following day at dawn. When the enterprise had succeeded, the ships which had taken part would immediately return to Brest.

The attack on Guernsey was to be effected by half of the infantry only. Four ships of the line would bombard Castle Cornet; other vessels would have as their objectives the town of St Peter, the harbours and St Martin's Battery. If Castle Cornet continued to resist after the infantry had landed, mortars would be disembarked from the transport vessels and trained on it.

Jersey was to be attacked by the remainder of the infantry, the cavalry and the artillery, supported by warships of various types: 2 ships, 4 frigates, 2 corvettes, 12 to 17 sloops or luggers, gunboats or warships, and 2 armed transport vessels.

The more heavily armed ships would anchor broadside on to the forts and cover the landing. Lighter vessels would cruise, with the object of intercepting any ships that might attempt to leave the harbour. As in Guernsey, fishing boats would be used in addition to the ships' boats to put the troops ashore. Landing-places would be determined by the commander of the expedition, according to the direction of the wind. This article by S W Bisson was first published e taking place, a frigate, a corvette and a gunboat, with 100 to 150 men, would proceed to Alderney and take possession of it.

Once the troops had landed on the islands, they would immediately establish defensive positions. Resistance would be punished with death. All the inhabitants would be disarmed, horses commandeered and captured war material removed to France. Military commanders and prominent civilians would be taken to St Malo. "Emigres" were to be sentenced to death by a military commission and executed. As a temporary measure, the inhabitants would be forbidden to assemble in groups of more than two on pain of death.

Secrecy maintained

Strict measures were to be taken to ensure the secrecy of the operation. Orders given to both military and naval forces would convey the impression that they were taking part in the project for the invasion of England. Troops and ships would be directed to assemble at places other than St Malo, but the timing of their movements was to be co-ordinated in such a way that at a given moment all would find themselves in the neighbourhood of St Malo, where they would receive new orders to proceed no further.

In conclusion, the Committee of Public Safety directed the Minister of War to select for the expedition, as far as possible, troops with experience of naval operations.

Further information about the naval forces that were to take part in the expedition is contained in another document, which bears the signature of Jean Dalbarade, Minister for the Navy, and is dated 17 February 1794, in his hand. This is a list of 20 ships which had been ordered to sail to St Malo from Le Havre, Cherbourg and Nantes, with the names of their captains and particulars of their armament. A note adds that the ships listed had been detained by contrary gales and no news of their departure had yet been received. Others would sail to St Malo from Cancale, Portrieux and other ports in Brittany.

Three letters

The remaining documents are copies of secret correspondence between the Minister of War, Jean-Baptiste-Noel Bouchotte, and General Rossignol, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Coasts of Brest, who had evidently been entrusted with the task of organising the military side of the expedition. The copies are numbered 9, 10 and 11 and each is authenticated by the Minister's signature, suggesting that they originally formed part of an official dossier.

  • No 9 is a copy of a letter from the Minister of War to General Rossignol dated 16 February 1794, acknowledging the General's letter of 14 February. The Minister expresses satisfaction with the progress of the preparations and stresses the importance of including in the expeditionary force, as far as possible, only seasoned troops with sea-going experience.

He has ascertained that Rear-Admiral Comic had been placed in command of the naval forces and names other officers who had been posted to the expedition for special duties. Impressing on the General that secrecy is essential in order to ensure success, he complains that a breach of discipline by the Chief of Staff (who had opened a despatch marked for the General's personal attention) might have had serious consequences if that officer had been less trustworthy.

  • No 10 is a copy of a letter from the Minister of War to General Rossignol dated 17 February, 1794. He tells him that the Committee of Public Safety has ordered General Moulin to report to him for employment on the expedition and suggests that Moulin might well be placed in command of the more important of the two operations. It would appear that Rossignol had previously expressed doubts as to the result of the expedition, for the Minister adds that the news of Moulin's posting should make him more hopeful of success.
  • No 11 is a copy of a letter from General Rossignol to the Minister of War dated 19 February 1794, with a postscript dated the following day. Rossignol writes at length in a self-congratulatory vein detailing the strenuous efforts he had been making to remedy alarming deficiencies in men and materials that had only become apparent at the last moment.

As a result, he will be ready to embark his 20,000 men on 22 or 23 February at the latest, provided that the naval section of the expedition is ready - which he doubts. Not till the end of the postscript does he reveal that all these activities have seriously affected his health, which had not been good for some time, and that he is now confined to his bed.

He assures the Minister, however, that he will continue to attend to the public interest as zealously and as actively as always. "At all times," he concludes dramatically, "my life belongs to the Republic".

The documents that I have summarised clearly reveal the danger in which the Channel Islands stood in February 1794. Plans had been laid for an impressive operation against them; large forces were assembling under a cloak of secrecy; the military preparations were almost complete. It is regrettable that, having told us so much, the documents do not reveal why the operation miscarried. One can only hope that further research may provide the answer.

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