Battle of Jersey

Battle of Jersey

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Jersey
partof=American War of Independence

caption="Death of Major Peirson" by John Singleton Copley
date=January 6 1781
place=Saint Helier, Jersey
result=Decisive British victory
commander1=Major Francis Peirson
commander2=Baron Phillipe de Rullecourt
strength1=More than 2,000
casualties1=Around 30 dead or wounded
casualties2=More than 30 dead and wounded
600 captured

The Battle of Jersey was technically the last battle fought in the British Islands (coming after the Battle of Culloden in 1745). It was the last attempt by France to invade Jersey militarily.


Only convert|14|mi|km off the coast of France, and placed on the principal sea-borne supply route to the French naval base at Brest, Jersey was a location of strategic importance during any war between Britain and France. Large numbers of privateers operated out of the island, causing chaos amongst French mercantile shipping. Jersey privateers were even operating in support of the Royal Navy off the coast of America. The French government were determined to neutralise this threat. Furthermore, at the time Gibraltar was in the midst of the Great Siege; contemporary British newspapers reported that the attack on Jersey was an attempt to distract British attention from Gibraltar and divert military resources away from the Siege.

Defences in Jersey

Aware of the military importance of Jersey, the British government had ordered the Island heavily fortified. Gun batteries, forts and redoubts had been constructed around the coast. The local militia comprised some 3000 men in five regiments, including artillery and dragoons. They were supplemented by regular army units: the 95th Regiment of Foot, five companies each of the 83rd Regiment of Foot (Royal Glasgow Volunteers) and 78th Highlanders, and around 700 'Invalids' (semi-retired reservists) — the total amounting to about 9,250 troops of all types. A naval force, the 'Jersey Squadron' was also based in the Island but was on a cruise against the Dutch at the time of the invasion.

The French plan

Despite the misgivings of the French military, who believed that an attack on Jersey would be a futile waste of resources, with any success being short-lived, the government approved a plan put forward by Baron Philippe de Rullecourt. De Rullecourt was an adventurer and a colonel in the French Army. King Louis XVI had promised de Rullecourt the rank of General and the "Cordon rouge" as soon as he had control of the town of Saint Helier, the Island's capital. The Second Commander was an Indian prince, named Prince Emire, who had been taken by England in wars in India, had been sent to France with other French prisoners and whom the French had since retained in their service; a member of the British force wrote of him: "He looked quite barbarian, as much as his discourse; if our fate has depended on him, it would not have been of the most pleasant; he advised the French General to ransack everything and to put the town to fire and to blood."

Officially the expedition was a private affair; however, funding, equipment, transport and troops were provided by the government. In order to conceal their involvement, the government went so far as to order the 'desertion' of several hundred regular troops to De Rullecourt's forces.

On January 5 1781 the expedition, consisting of some 2,000 soldiers in four divisions, set out. January 6 was still celebrated as 'Old Christmas Night' in Jersey, and the French were able to land undetected. The first, consisting of 800 men, landed at La Rocque, Grouville, and passed next to the body of guards without being noticed; a French officer even said that he had slept under the body of guards, but that the guard had not heard the French. The guards were subsequently put on trial, where it was found they had abandoned their post to go drinking. The first division of the French stayed there most of the night. The second division of the French, consisting of 400 men, was entirely lost, upon loading, in the rocks. The boats that contained the third division, consisting of 600 men, were separated from the rest of the fleet and were unable to join it. The fourth division, consisting of 200 men, landed early in the next morning at La Rocque. The total of the French troops unloaded on the island was therefore about 1,000, half the number of soldiers that France had expected to take into battle.

The day of the battle

The French in Saint Helier

On January 6 1781, between six and seven in the morning, the first division set up camp in the market while most of the town was asleep. About at eight o'clock a French patrol surprised the Island's governor, Moses Corbet, in bed in Government House (then situated at Le Manoir de La Motte). De Rullecourt convinced Corbet that thousands of French troops had already overwhelmed Jersey and threatened to burn the town and slaughter the inhabitants if the garrison did not capitulate. Corbet, unable to ascertain the true situation, surrendered. He was taken to the Royal Court building in the Royal Square and was persuaded to order Elizabeth Castle's commander Captain Mulcaster and 24-year-old Major Francis Peirson's troops at Saint Peter's Barracks to surrender as well.

The British preparation

The British troops and militia assembled on the Mont ès Pendus (now called Westmount) and Major Peirson soon had 2,000 men at his disposal, with which he resolved to descend the hill and attack. The French, who were camping in the market, had seized the town's cannons and had placed them at the different openings of the market, as to better stop the British troops from forcing them. However, the French did not find the howitzers. The British learned through different people who had been to observe the French troops that their number did not exceed 800 or 900 men. The French sent Corbet to Elizabeth Castle to offer a capitulation, which was refused by the Castle, which fired on the French troops and killed two or three men.

The 78th Regiment of Foot was detached and sent to take possession of the Mont de la Ville (now the site of Fort Regent), whence the British could stop a retreat of the French in case that they had wished to flee. When Major Peirson believed that they had reached their destination he gave the orders to his troops to descend to the plain and to directly attack the French. However the British were stopped at the plain, where Corbet was sent by de Rullecourt to offer capitulation terms and to tell the British that if the terms were not signed, the French would ransack the town within half an hour. Given their superiority in numbers, the British there refused, as did the 83rd Regiment of Foot and the part of the East Regiment in Grouville. When the de Rullecourt received their answer he was heard to remark: "Since they do not want to surrender, I have come to die."

The battle

The attack began. In the "Grande Rue" were the 78th Regiment, the Battalion of Saint Lawrence, the South-East Regiment and the "Compagnies de Saint-Jean"; and in the other avenues were the 95th Regiment of Foot with the rest of the militia. The British had too many troops for the battle, a member of the British service later saying that a third of the British troops would have been more than enough to destroy the French army. The British soldiers, confused and having nothing to shoot, unloaded most of their shots in the air.

The French resistance was of short duration, most of the action lasting a quarter of an hour. The French only fired once or twice with the cannons that they had at their disposal. The British had a howitzer placed directly opposite the market in the "Grande Rue", which at each shot "cleaned all the surroundings of French" according to a member of the British service. Major Peirson and the 95th Regiment advanced towards the "Avenue du Marché"; just as the British were about to win Major Pierson was killed by a musket ball in the heart, but his saddened troops continued to fight. When de Rullecourt fell the French gave up the fight, throwing their weapons and fleeing; several reached the market houses, from where they continued to fire.

De Rullecourt, through Corbet, told the British that the French had two battalions and an artillery company at La Rocque, which could be at the town within a quarter of an hour. The British were not intimidated, knowing that the number of French troops there did not reach 200. A guard of 45 grenadiers of the 83rd Regiment resisted against 140 French soldiers until the arrival of a part of the East Regiment, whereupon the French were defeated, with 70 prisoners taken and 30 dead or wounded. The remaining French soldiers dispersed themselves throughout the countryside to reach their boats, though several were caught doing so.

After the battle


The British took 600 prisoners on that day, who were subsequently sent to England. The British losses were around 30 dead. De Rullecourt was wounded and died on the next day.

It became notorious that there were traitors among the British. De Rullecourt possessed a plan of the fortifications, the towers, the cannons and so on, saying that had he not had good friends in Jersey, he would not have come. The French knew exactly the number of British troops and militia, the names of the officers commanding them, and more. In the papers found in the General's trunk was the name of one Mr. Le Geyt, a Jerseyman who was later seized, as was another suspect.

After the battle, it was decided to build 30 coastal round towers to improve the defence system of the island.


John Singleton Copley painted a dramatized version of the death of Major Peirson. That painting now appears on Jersey's 10 pound note and is in the Tate Gallery.


*cite book
title = Bulletins Volume 5
publisher = Société Jersiaise
year = 1905
location = Jersey Library
pages = pp. 268–275
url =

External links

* [ The Battle of Jersey, full chapter from "A Popular History of Jersey" AE Ragg, 1896]
* [ Jersey Heritage Trust page]
* [ BBC Page]
* [ BBC My Island page]
* [ Tate Gallery]
* []
* [ About Jersey]
* [ JerseyWeb battle summary]
* [ British War with France and Spain, 1778-1783]
* [ The Battle of Jersey]

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