The Militia and the military role of Jersey in history

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The Militia and the

military role of Jersey in history

This article by Major F A L de Gruchy was first published in the 1956 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Norse islands

The key to the military role of Jersey and the Norman Islands in history lies in the fact that these Islands were first and foremost Norse and part of Normandy as far back as 800 AD; that the first wars between England and France were wars between the Normans, who were masters of England and Normandy and the French, who were based on Ile de France; that the Islands were tucked under the Norman or French Coast; that, when Normandy fell to the French circa 1202 AD the Islands would have nothing to do with French Normandy but stood in with their Duke, who was King of England.

Their strategic role thus became through the ages a British advanced base in every war of England against France, and other enemies, including Spain and Holland.

As far back as 347 AD there was compulsory service in Jersey and military commanders were appointed in 578 AD. Jersey and Guernsey furnished armed men to fight raiders. Hence come the Roman terms of Constable, Centenier, Vingtenier, essentially designations of military rank.

The first military system was the allodial one of the fyrd, each free man having to serve. This sytem appears to have been so ingrained in the spirit of the Islanders that, even after the Norman system was introduced with Rollo and the Seigneurs became responsible for their military formations, the Islanders retained a far greater degree of liberty than the men on the mainland in England after the Conquest.

This is hardly surprising, inasmuch as the Normans gave England her aristocracy, and English was not allowed to be taught in English schools till I265 AD.

In 850 AD Rollo the Norman overran Armorica, including Normandy and these islands, which became Norman. In 9I2 AD, in return for a purely nominal tribute to the King of France, Charles the Simple, Normandy became de facto an independent kingdom, including the Channel, or Norman, Islands.

Thus the Norman Dukes ruled Normandy, including the Channel Islands, which ever after retained complete loyalty to their Duke. In I066 the Duke of Nor¬mandy conquered England; in I202, under King John, Normandy fell to the French, but the Islands retained their allegiance to their Duke, who was King of England, and henceforth their role in history was that of a front line outpost of England in every war in history against her Continental enemies, including at various times France, Spain, Holland, lastly Germany.

Mont Orgueil garrison

Between 1201/1202 John raised a military force from the men of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and supplied them with arms. Mont Orgueil was garrisoned by British troops even then, and was the first military headquarters of Jersey, as Elizabeth Castle was to become the second headquarters circa 1603, and Fort Regent the third head¬quarters in Jersey history, held as a strong point about 1802, and built entirely by 1818. In 1214 the Jersey Militia defeated Eustache Le Moine, when he invaded Jersey.

In 1337, King Edward III ordered "all his faithful peoples of the islands" to be levied for war. There was already a militia in being, every man being bound to serve. Men were already being arranged in companies, apparently of 1,000, 100 and 20. In 1372, an army of the inhabitants encountered and defeated Owen of Wales when he invaded Guernsey.

During the reign of King Edward III, du Guesclin invaded Jersey with a strong force of regular troops. He pillaged the Island, took Grosnez, then a strongpoint in the north west of the Island, but failed before Mont Orgueil. The outer defences did indeed fall to the enemy but the Keep held. He left the Island on hearing that a British fleet was approaching, on which of course would be serving a large contingent of soldiers or men-at-arms.

There were two raids on Jersey in 1338 and in 1339. In the first case Nicholas Behuchet, Admiral of France, ravaged the island, but failed before Mont Orgueil. In the second case Sir Robert Bertram, Marshal of France, invaded Jersey, but, after failing before Mont Orgueil, withdrew to Normandy.

In 1406 Pierre de Pontbriand, along with the "unconquered knight" Pero Nino Comte de Buelna, a Spaniard, as tactical commander, landed with 1,000 armed mercenaries, Spanish and French. The Jerseymen fought back with 3,000 men and HM Receiver-General was killed on St Aubin's sands fighting gallantly in command. The Jersey troops withdrew to Castel Sedement, where they held out successfully, and, both sides having had enough, a truce was made, with terms regarding an annual tribute of arms, which the Jersey people much resented and found humiliating.

Margaret of Anjou

Later in this 15th century, Margaret of Anjou sold Mont Orgueil to the French, the Lancastrians seeking French allies against the patriotic Yorkists. For seven years the French held the east while the Jerseymen, under de Carteret, held the west of the Island. Finally Harliston appeared with a fleet from England and de Carteret, from his headquarters at Grosnez, planned with the Navy a combined operation.

The Militia crossed the Island to blockade Mont Orgueil from the land, while the fleet appeared at sea off Gorey. After a short siege the French surrendered, and the partial occupation ended. This affair earned for the St Ouen's detachment the proud honour of parading evermore on the right of the Militia line. On one occasion later, failure to accord them their lawful position, led to a mutiny, due to no spirit of disloyalty, but to injured pride.

In I454 a French raid on the Island was repulsed. It is worthy of note that the so-called period of neutrality, I484 (by Bull of Pope Sixtus V) to 1689, was a mere composition between England and France, excluding officially, but not actually in practice, the Channel Islands area as a theatre of war. Work was done on castles and fortifica¬tions. Jersey was armed to the teeth in the interests of the Crown. A French raid was repelled more than once during this period.

In 1545, we see the germs of the modern Militia, 12 parochial bands, under their captains; St Ouen under the de Carteret, being the senior detachment and holding the right of the line.

In 1549, a French expedition under Capt Francis Breuil (de Bretagne), with a fleet under Leon Strozzi, Prior of Capua, after attempts on Sark and Guernsey, attacked Jersey, landed at Bouley Bay, and were defeated in a bloody battle at Jardin d'Olivet. In this fight, the Militia appears to have fought in a brigaded formation for the first time. Some 60 French gentlemen were landed dead at St Malo after the battle.

There is still existent in an old manuscript the Jersey order of battle for the year 1617. In 1622 three regiments, each under a colonel, the West (Senior), North and East were formed out of the trained bands.

Civil War

During the Civil War, Elizabeth Castle and Mont Orgueil, both held out for the Crown till Sir George de Carteret won over the Island to the Royal cause. He harried the Parliamentarians by sea till 1651, when the Parliament had to undertake a major operation of war and carry out an amphibious expedition to reduce Jersey.

Elizabeth Castle surrendered with all the honours of war after a three-weeks siege, Sir George de Carteret being confirmed at the Restora¬tion in a grant of land in the New World, which he called New Jersey. During the Civil War Charles II was under our protection, for two months, when Prince of Wales, in Elizabeth Castle in I646, and, when King in exile during the winter of 1649-50.

In 1678, Sir Thomas Morgan undertook the remodelling of the Militia and of Jersey defences, including Elizabeth Castle, St Aubin's Fort, Mont Orgueil, and the various bulwarks and batteries around the coastline.

By 1685 the Militia consisted of the three regiments and a troop of horse. There were 24 field pieces, described as "mostly" small-bore Robinets". Towards the end of this century, horse and foot were wearing red coats, and both islands were receiving arms and equipment from the British Government.

In 1730 there were five regiments with six battalions.

  • 1st - St Ouen, St Mary, St John
  • 2nd - Trinity, St Martin
  • 3rd - St Saviour, Grouville, St Clement
  • 4th - 1/4th St Helier, 2/4ths St. Lawrence, ie two battalions
  • 5th - St Peter, St Brelade


The artillery consisted of 25 field pieces, kept in the churches and ready for action. The reason of this practice was that defence of one's native land was considered a sacred duty, the church being deemed therefore the best store for the artillery. The men provided the necessary horse and wheeled transport. By the Code of 1771 all youths from I5 to 17 were bound to drill once a week during the summer, and every male from 17 to 35 was bound to serve. There was one regiment of artillery, one of cavalry, six battalions of infantry in Jersey, besides regular troops holding the castles.

In 1779 the Prince of Nassau was repelled by the Militia, and by the 78th Regi¬ment, the Rector of St Ouen, the Sire du Parcq, taking a leading role in bringing up the Jersey artillery under fire to a favourable position from which to fire at the hostile fleet. His name was given later to the most northern battery field work of St Ouen's Bay.

Regarding the famous 6 January 1781 battle, it must be remembered the final short fire fight and British victory in the Royal Square was the climax of a series of more or less simultaneous tactical moves carried out by Major Peirson and other commanders, including the Militia Colonels.

The Rev Francis Le Couteur, Rector of St Martin, played a role very similar to that of the Sire du Parcq in the Nassau raid. These moves were the wiping out of de Rullecourt's base at La platte Rocque by the 83rd and Militia, the holding of Elizabeth Castle and repelling of the French attack there, the holding of Gallows Hill, and the Mont de la Ville (site of Fort Regent); all these moves covering the march on St Helier by Peirson at the head of the 95th Regiment and the West Militia.

It was a first-class show considering the early tactical surprise effected by the La Rocque landing, the French march on the town, and the inexplicable surrender of Corbet.

French opinion

Of the Militia the French Officer planning the invasion of 1781 had written: <blockquote."L'habitude braver les dangers de la mer rend les habitants tres braves. Ils forment un corps de milice bien discipline, bons tireurs, et qui seraient en etat presque seuls de repousser l'ennemi qui en serait descendu". </blockquote>

During the 1793-1815 wars of the French Revolution and Empire, the Militia, backed by Regular troops, "stood to" throughout. The armed castles and batteries gave Jersey a first class system of all round defence.

Elizabeth Castle had 66 guns, St Aubin's Castle had 14 guns.

The Castles and bulwarks of Jersey provided the Island with a perfect all-round system of converging, cross, and covering fire backed by supports and reserves of Infantry with some cavalry. In principle the Castles were held chiefly by Regular troops, while Bulwarks batteries and strong points were garrisoned by Militia.

During this period Jersey followed the policy of Castlereagh and the Militia, by 1808, became a depot, as it were, for the Regular Army.

Sir Hilgrove Turner

On 17 November 1814, during the interval between the first defeat of Napoleon and the return from Elba and the 100 days and Waterloo, Lieut-General Sir Hilgrove Turner, having inspected the Militia regiments of Jersey, so saw fit to address them in an order of the day

"Considers it a dereliction of his duty not to express his approbation of the Colonels, Officers and NCOs and men of the several regiments of their manly and soldierlike appearance, their expertness in handling their arms, the facility and precision of their movements and their general efficiency for the defence of the Island. To the Inspectors of Militia, the inspectors and drill sergeants he has the satisfaction to observe that their labours have been highly beneficial and he attributes to them the full value they may justly claim for their services. The Lieut-General looks with reliance to them for the future continuance of their necessary duties, while he thus contemplates what zeal and exertion have effected when directed to an establishment superior to any of that nature existing in Europe, he desires to call to their attention that the state of efficiency was only brought to its present perfection by a long period of constant military exercise and application; that steady discipline and knowledge of tactics is with difficulty acquired but easily lost, and that he feels most anxious to impress deeply upon the minds of all Jerseymen that the period when they may be called upon to defend their wives, children and houses will be sudden, and at a moment when after a Peace the enemy might hope to fmd them unprepared. Whenever a difference may arise between the two countries an attempt on this Island will probably be the first act of aggression.”

The warning was true enough for the following year witnessed the return of Napoleon and Waterloo.

It is worthy of mention in regard to this period of 1792-1815, that, as in the Civil War, so against revolutionary France the sea front of the Islands was splendid. A chronicler of the period remarked at one time there were more enemy prizes in St Helier's harbour than ships in St Malo.

Mont Orgueil under Admiral d' Auvergne was the Headquarters of an Intelligence Service which operated most efficiently between the islands and the France of Napoleon.

In 1831 the Jersey Militia was created "Royal" on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the defeat of de Rullecourt. In 1832 the Militia put down a riot. In 1844 arsenals were built and the field pieces were removed to them from the churches, where they had been kept as "the defence of our country is a sacred and religious duty.

Further reorganisation

In 1877 there was a further reorganisation of the Militia. The Royal Jersey Artillery was formed with four batteries, manned by 280 gunners under a Lieut-¬Colonel. The three Infantry regiments consisted each of 500 ncos and men each under a Lieut-Colonel.

The 1st or West included the old St Lawrence Battalion members living in St Lawrence, and the old 5th or South Regiment.

The 2nd included the old 2nd or North Regiment and the old 3rd or East Regiment. The 3rd included the St Helier's Battalion, plus the residents in St Helier, who had previously served in the St Lawrence Battalion.

The Artillery were mobilised as five field batteries in the country and one Field Battery in St Helier.

By GO 134 of 1881 of HM the Queen, the battle honour "Jersey 1781" was awarded to the 1st (West) 2nd (East) 3rd (South) Regiments.

In 1889 the artillery was organized as follows:

  • Four batteries of Militia artillery along with one regular battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery, formed one regiment and were responsible for the whole of the southern defences of the Island, including Noirmont, St Aubin's Fort, Elizabeth Castle, St Aubin's Bay.
  • Two mobile artillery forces were raised as Field Artillery, each with four 20-pounder guns. These formed two batteries: The West manned by the artillerymen of the six western parishes; the East manned by the five eastern parishes.

Heavy batteries

In a word the Island defences consisted of heavy batteries defending the south coast and other fixed defences, supported by three Militia regiments to which wase attached two mobile field batteries.

The gunboat, based on Gorey, was associated with all field manoeuvres.

In 1861 the Jersey National Rifle Association had been founded. Several similar associations were finally merged into the present JRA. They were affiliated to the Militia, and by their help our Militiamen achieved a very high standard of shooting, a standard still found today in the civilian Jersey Rifle Club and the JRA, albeit the day of the Militia is for the moment over.

In 1890 the Militia consisted of two field artillery companies, four garrison artillery companies, three battalions, the West, the Town, the East. Each battalion had six companies of an average of 60 men. Each battalion had a Colonel, two Majors, six Captains, six Lieutenants, six 2nd Lieutenants.

Each regiment had also a permanent staff of regular officers and ncos. There was an Adjutant, a Sergeant Major, a Quarter Master Sergeant, and some three Sergeant Instructors. The field batteries were each armed with four rifled muzzle loading field guns, firing a 9-lb shell. The garrison companies had (probably) 64 pounder guns and also rifled muzzle loaders. The Infantry were armed with the Martini-Henry rifle.

Then"mutiny" of 1891 was due to no fundamental lack of discipline, and to no disloyalty. The St Ouen Company on a manoeuvre parade on the St Aubin's Bay sands imagined that they were being deprived of their lawful place on the right of the line. The affair was not serious, for in such an unpaid force discipline was essen¬tially patriarchal. The Militia was a school also for officers of the Regular Army. It was a somewhat easier channel than Sandhurst for many.

Basic training

Quite wrongly criticisms have been directed against the training of the Militia at this period. These were wholly without cause. The men did receive the basic training of discipline, and of musketry. Moreover, 1891/92 was a period of comparative peace. The Entente Cordiale had not yet indeed come about. France however was full of the troubles which led to the notorious Dreyfus case not very long afterwards.

Many of the officers and men were to fight with credit soon in the coming South African war.

Similar criticisms have been levelled against the training of the Regular Army in the years before the South African war. The writer was at Sandhurst 1900/1901, and he regards these criticisms as wholly unjustified. Every war, and every new theatre of war demands changes in tactics.

Fire and movement remain constant, and the Army of the South African war was destined later to beat the Prussian attempt on Paris in I914. Of that Army, Von Kluck, GOC 1st German Army, said: "It was the finest field force which ever took the field and the BEF of I914 prevented my reaching Paris".

The wonder of the South African war was how in the early days some 22,000 regular troops spread in detachments over an enormous front (1,000 miles separating the two initial bases of Cape Town and Durban) succeeded in keeping at bay some IOO,OOO Boers, under good European officers.

This is the tactical truth of the South African war. The guerilla war in South Africa only lasted so long because, as in Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus today, the British Army is not allowed by Home Govern¬ment, to employ the only means by which a guerilla war may be put down rapidly and effectively.

In 1905 new laws on the Militia were adopted and the Militia was placed under the Army Act. The Militia was organized as a regiment of artillery, divided into two field batteries and two garrison companies, a company of engineers, a medical company, and three battalions of infantry. The field batteries had Is-pounder guns, and one garrison company manned 4.7 quick-firing guns on travelling carriages, thus consti¬tuting a heavy field battery, while the other garrison company helped to man the fixed armament of Jersey. Training was modernized. The cost to the States was £5,000 per annum.

In 19I4 the Jersey Militia was mobilized, but in 1917 the danger of invasion was considered over, and the Militia was demobilized, and the compulsory Military Service Act was promulgated in the Royal Square.

Overseas contingent

On 2 March 191, the Jersey Overseas Contingent, under Captain, later Lieut-Colonel, Stocker, proceeded overseas to be incorporated in the Regular Army, as part of the Royal Irish Rifles.

Between I914-I8, 6,292 men served in HM Forces of whom 862 died in action, of wounds, or disease. Jerseymen won 212 decorations during the war.

After the 1914-I8 War the policy of Jersey was on all fours with the general disarmament policy of England.

On 24 December 1921, a new Law reduced the Militia to one regiment. In 1925 new colours were presented and the old colours laid up in the churches of St Helier, St Mary, St Martin.

In 1929 a new Militia Law made Militia service voluntary and the strength was reduced to 260. All costs of the force were thrown upon the States. The force, with an establishment of 250 men, a HQ, and a Rifle Company, and a Machine Gun Company, all volunteers, was formed and enrolled "for Island defence only".

On 1 September 1939 the Militia was mobilized, and with HQ at Fort Regent, provided guards for the Airport and vital points of Island defence.

On 2 June 1940 came the evacuation of Dunkirk and on 18/19 June came orders for the demilitarisation of Jersey, a fault in no way due to the States of Jersey. Colonel Vatcher, MC, requested permission of the Lieut-Governor, Major-General J M Harrison, to take the force to England. On 20 June he took the force, 11 officers and 193 other ranks strong to England in the ss Hodder, and on 21 June the Hodder dropped anchor at Southampton.

Hampshire Regiment

The Militia became the nucleus of the 11th (Royal Militia Island of Jersey) Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. They did excellent work in England till in 1941 the policy was adopted of drafting the personnel into other regiments.

While, of course, Jerseymen in the battalion became fewer and fewer, right up to the end it possessed a nucleus of Jerseymen, most of whom were wos and ncos, and the backbone of the battalion. On 7 November 1942, the colours were laid up in the Bishop's Chapel at Wolversey Castle. Of the 193 "other ranks", 13 attained commissioned rank, 70 were promoted to ranks higher than they had held in 1940. Losses were: Killed in action, 8; wounded, 6; prisoner of war, 4.

After the war on the 14 February 1946, the War Office wrote to Lieut-General Sir Edward Grasett advising and ordering the disbanding of the battalion. The letter said: "The battalion has given splendid service in whatever role it has been called upon to perform”.

The Jersey Militia was accordingly disbanded. A resolution for its reconstitution proposed by the writer was heavily defeated on 6 April 1953. The National Service Bill was passed by 26 to 25 votes on 6 April 1954•

On l0 January 1954, the colours of the old Militia were laid up in the Town Church, the Dean officiating, and His Excellency the Lieut-Governor, Admiral Sir Gresham Nicholson, and Colonel Vatcher reading the Lessons. The drill of the colour party was perfect.

During the 1939-45 war many Jerseymen and Channel Islanders served with great distinction in the Forces. The splendid story of Jersey at sea remains to be published.

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