6th January 1781

French troops launch the Battle of Jersey

France had had its eye on the Channel Islands – and Jersey in particular – for some time before it finally launched an attack in January 1781. The so-called Battle of Jersey saw 1,400 French troops land at St Helier, resulting in 16 locals and 86 invading soldiers killed, 137 wounded, and 456 French footmen captured.

Two years earlier, French forces had attempted a landing at St Ouen’s, but were repelled by Jersey artillery ranged along the beach. By 1781, they’d re-thought their strategy, and had a greater degree of success. The French government didn’t want to be directly implicated, so as well as secretly providing troops to Baron Philippe de Rullecourt, who would lead the invasion, it ordered 2000 of its own troops to ‘desert’ the French army and take up arms alongside him.

Jersey was distracted

They chose to invade on 6 January as it was the 12th day of Christmas – Epiphany – and the date on which Jersey still officially celebrated the festive season. They reasoned, and were correct in doing so, that it would help them to land undetected. They marched into St Helier, set up a defensive position in the market and captured the Lieutenant-Governor, Major Moses Corbet, at Government House.

De Rullecourt forced Corbet to sign a surrender, but the troops at Elizabeth Castle took no notice and fired on the advancing French army.

A new leader

Major Francis Peirson took assumed command of the Jersey Militia and Jersey itself and directed the British forces now that Corbet could not do so. He didn’t remain in power for long. The unfortunate 24-year-old led 2000 men into battle against the French and within quarter of an hour they had largely subdued the French.

However, as he advanced, Peirson himself received a direct hit and just a few hours after assuming his position, had been killed outright. He didn’t live long enough to see De Rullecourt fall or the French soldiers retreat. De Rullecourt didn’t make it back to France, either: he died in Royal Square later that day and was buried in the yard of St Helier Parish Church, while Peirson was buried under the chancel. Moses Corbet was tried by Court-martial and dismissed from the role of Lieutenant-Governor.


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Other events that occured in January