The Grey-Jervis Expedition
The first major expedition that set off for the West Indies was commanded by the experienced Lieutenant-General Charles Grey. Known for his aggressive tactics, Grey had earned the nickname ‘no-flint Grey’ during the American War of Independence due to his fondness for the bayonet. It was decided that his naval counterpart would be the equally well-practised Sir John Jervis.
When the British began planning this West Indian campaign, they tried to learn from past experience. Lieutenant General Grey was chosen to command the 1793 expedition by Dundas because he had previously taken part in amphibious assaults, like the raid on Rochefort in 1757. He had also been to Cuba in 1762. The British understood that for success in an amphibious theatre, close cooperation was needed between the army and the navy. Consequently, Jervis was chosen as naval commander as he had served with Grey during the 1780s, and they had built up a solid friendship. He had learned his trade in the West Indies, and so understood the unique preparations that were necessary for a Caribbean expedition. He requested from the Admiralty new fumigating lamps in an effort to protect his men’s health, and lightning conductors for his fleet. Also, he had the decks of his transports strengthened so they could carry and disembark field guns. As was customary, an effort was also made to combat the effect of tropical diseases that ravaged European regiments in the region by organizing the campaign for the ‘healthier’ winter months. The complications that naturally arise when organizing such a large expedition led to a number of delays, but Grey and Jervis finally set sail on the 26 November with 16,00 men and 33 ships.
The 1793-4 expedition secured nearly all of its strategic objectives in a single campaign. The British successfully used shock tactics, often marching at night and storming fortified positions with the bayonet wherever possible. Grey’s relentless aggression demoralised his opponents, and resistance to his invasion crumbled. Grey was also able to skilfully coordinate amphibious operations with Jervis, who supported infantry assaults with off-shore artillery bombardments.
The British first secured Martinique, which capitulated on the 28 March. This island was France’s most important West Indian naval base, and without it France would be unable to send a fleet to contest control of the sea in the region. A day after the garrison surrendered, British ships approached St. Lucia and after a rapid assault of the island’s main fortifications the defending French troops yielded to the British. A force was then sent to take the island of Guadeloupe, which was captured on the 22 April, despite a botched disembarkation of Grey’s infantry. At this stage, the expedition had to halt, as the British force was diminishing daily due to disease.
Buoyed by the news of British success, Dundas enthusiastically sent reinforcements to Martinique, and they arrived on 5 May. Consequently, an offensive was attempted on the island of Saint Domingue, modern day Haiti. Saint Domingue was the wealthiest of France’s Caribbean possessions, and its capture would have represented a huge coup for the Grey-Jervis expedition. The operation initially got off to a promising start, as the fortress town of Port-au-Prince was captured, along with forty-five merchant ships, on the 4 June. However, General Whyte, who led the Saint Domingue campaign, failed to take the initiative and he remained with his men in Port-au-Prince, one of the unhealthiest towns in the Caribbean. The ‘sickly-season’ took hold of Whyte’s men, and his force was decimated by disease under the hot tropic sun.
In the meantime, Grey was caught off-guard by the arrival of substantial French reinforcements that were sighted off Guadeloupe on the 2 June. The French moved quickly, and it took time for British high command to realise what was happening. Consequently, they managed to land on Guadeloupe and capture the key fort of Pointe-à-Pitre. After three weeks of bitter fighting, exhausted British soldiers could no longer contest the island, and Grey departed with what remained of his force on the 5th July for the safety of Martinique. With no further manpower available, and sickness ravaging their regiments, the Grey-Jervis expedition ground to a juddering halt. The two commanders finally departed the region on the 27 November. As one historian has written, ‘the Caribbean had yet again shown its capacity to devour within a year any expedition sent to its shores and left to its fate.’
For the next page in this section, click here.
Got a question? Join the discussion in the Forum now!
The Grey-Jervis Expedition 1793-4
The Abercromby-Christian Expedition 1795-6
The Abercromby-Harvey Expedition 1796-7