The Battle Of Jersey Is Fought — 6 January 1781

This battle is the only battle I could find that was fought on British soil other than the British soil of the Colony of America in the American War of Independence.

It happened 14 miles of the coast of France on the island of Jersey

First though for my American readers who will undoubtedly be interested in this battle and could be a little puzzled how an Island only 15 miles from the coast of France is British I will explain.

Jersey, the biggest Channel Island at about 47 square miles, is 87 miles south of the UK and is considered the southernmost of the British Islands (the official designation — the “British Isles” being a literary and informal title). It is much closer to France than England at only 14 miles offshore.

Jersey is a popular vacation destination, for its mild climate, long beaches washed by Gulf Stream waters, and unusual hybrid “franglais” culture. How this little bit of France became a Crown Dependency of the British monarch is a fluke of history.

The Duchy of Normandy

As a result, a separate system of government was created with the British Monarch ruling as the “Duke of Normandy”. Although the systems have changed over time, Jersey retains its separate-ish status. It is not part of the EU — though it has an associate relationship to facilitate trade. It is not subject to the laws of the UK Parliament, though UK currency is legal tender, and it depends upon the UK armed forces for defence. The official languages are English and French and there is a local patois that blends them both.

Oh, and one last oddity — to islanders, Queen Elizabeth II is still considered the Duke of Normandy and referred to, by the island legislature, as “Our Duke”.

So now I have explained that little part of our British history lets get back to the battle its self.

France, as we all know, had an alliance with the newly formed Continental Army. As such France as an enemy of the UK at that time began supplying the money, troops, armament, military leadership, to the fledgeling Continental army. It made sense to France to do this as France and Britain was at war with one another anyway. Britain was now fighting three wars in three different parts of the globe. India, Europe, and the Americas and also in the Caribbean which at this point I have to say without a shadow of a doubt the British Government at the time felt that protecting the sugar-rich Caribbean islands that were generating enormous sums of money that they held along with India which also was generating enormous sums of money was far important than the thirteen colonies in America that they must have thought of as upstarts.

Jersey if you look at the map of where they are

Is a strategic Island and we British knew this. Any French ship sailing to the Americas had to pass close by therefore we built a series of fortresses and redoubts along the island’s coastline, some you can see today. You can even stay in them if you visit.

France, however, decided that the potential gain of seizing the island outweighed the strength of the island’s defences. Not everyone in France agreed that the attempt was a worthwhile endeavour, including the French military. The organization of the attack was trusted to one Baron Philippe de Rullecourt, a colonel in the French army. Though France considered the attack to be a private affair, de Rullecourt was fully funded by King Louis XVI, and by 5 January 1781, he had assembled a force of approximately 2,000 soldiers.

De Rullecourt’s force set sail for the island, hoping to take advantage of the British ‘Old Christmas Night’ celebrations. Luckily for the French, their plan worked, and the first division of soldiers landed at La Rocque, able to easily sneak past the town’s drowsy guards. The next morning of 6 January they were joined by another division of 200 men, bringing their total to only 1,000 strong. Two other divisions had been lost on the rocks before they could land, a cruel stroke of fate that cut their potential strength in half. With his 1,000 soldiers behind him, de Rullecourt advanced on the island’s capital of St. Helier.

Having easily established a defensive position in the town market, de Rullecourt sent a patrol to visit the island’s governor. The patrol surprised the governor while he was still in bed, and de Rullecourt convinced the confused governor that thousands of French troops had overtaken the island. Lacking any true information, the governor signed a capitulation. With the island’s governor, a French prisoner command of the British troops fell to 24-year-old Major Francis Peirson, who quickly assembled 2,000 of the island’s 9,000 soldiers. Having learned that the French force barely reached 1,000 men and that they had not gained control of the Howitzer guns, Peirson resolved to march on the town square and confront the invaders.

As the British under Peirson reached the town square, it became apparent that their 2,000-man force was actually a bit too large. The restrictive lanes made it so that a portion of his men could not join in the attack. Peirson could not turn back now: he had already dispatched the 78th Regiment of Foot to block off any French retreat and they had taken their place. Peirson did the best he could to send the surplus Regiments down side alleyways in order to approach the French from the side.

Within fifteen minutes of the battle’s first shot, the British force proved too strong. The British made good use of their Howitzer, with one British soldier commenting that each shot “cleaned all the surroundings of French.” Sadly for the British, as they were about to complete their victory, Major Peirson was killed by a musket ball to the heart. His death in battle was the subject of a painting by John Singleton Copley, entitled

The painting drew huge crowds when it was first displayed in 1784, and it served to make Major Peirson a national hero.

This painting by John Singleton Copley depicts the death of Major Peirson during the Battle of Jersey: The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (painted 1783).

In the end, the British took 500 French soldiers prisoner and the battle had taken the lives of about 86 Frenchman. The British sustained far lighter losses, with only 16 killed. De Rullecourt, the leader of the French forces sustained a wound during the battle and died the next day. It was de Rullecourt who had said after the British refusal to surrender, “Since they do not want to surrender, I have come to die.” The ill-fated French attempt to overtake the island was quashed at the Battle of Jersey on 6 January 1781.

What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.