Reviews: Books

The Peninsular War Diary of Captain John Frederick Ewart, 52nd Light Infantry, 1811-12

Ewart, John F. The Peninsular War Diary of Captain John Frederick Ewart, 52nd Light Infantry, 1811-12.  Gareth Glover (editor). Godmanchester: Ken Trotman, 2010. 130 pages. 8 pages of color images. Paperback. ISBN# 9781907417122. £20

Captain Ewart initially served in the 52nd Foot for two years from 1804 to 1806, when he was promoted captain in the 3rd Garrison Battalion.  A year later, he exchanged back into the 52nd Foot.  He would served with them for the next five years, fighting in the early days of the Peninsular War, where he was wounded at Vimiera in August 1808 and participating in the subsequent campaign in Spain under Sir John Moore.  He returned with the regiment to England after the disastrous retreat to Corunna and would fight in the Walcheren Campaign.  He returned to the Peninsula in March 1811 with the 2nd Battalion. Captain Ewart would spend 21 months on active service, fighting at Sabugal, Fuentes d’Onoro, the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, the Salamanca Campaign, and endure another arduous retreat in November 1812.  Shortly after the British Army reached the safety of the Portuguese border, Captain Ewart learned he had been promoted to major in the Royal York Rangers.  By the end of December 1812m he had left the Peninsula, never to return.

The 52nd Foot was part of the famed Light Division and among the regiments ranks were several officers who had would have their letters, memoirs, and diaries published.  These included John Colborne, John Dobbs, William Hay, Charles Kinloch, and Charles Napier. Their works are often considered among the best.  Yet even when compared to them, Captain Ewart’s diary stands out for a variety of reasons.  First is the period they cover.  Only Dobbs’ memoirs cover the same years.  William Hay had left the regiment by 1812.  Colborne and Napier were both severely wounded at the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo in early 1812, while Kinloch was badly wounded at Badajoz three months later.  All of them would miss the Salamanca Campaign, leaving Captain Ewart the only one to write about this pivotal campaign. [1]  

The Peninsular War Diary is similar to Alexander Dickson’s Papers in the sense that both reflect the immediacy of the writer.  The Peninsular War Diary was written on the spot and the entries cover the activities of the day. Some are only short notations, while many are several hundred words long.  It is not a book of grand strategy and battles, but tells the story of a company commander in a British regiment. . . the daily activities that consumed so much of his time, the boredom of waiting for something to happen, and the intense moments of combat.  Interspersed throughout the diary is the gossip that a junior officer could be expected to have heard.

The Peninsular War Diary is particularly valuable because Captain Ewart lists where he and his battalion were daily.  A researcher can track his movements from the moment he landed in Lisbon on 6 March 1811 until it returned to Ciudad Rodrigo after the Salamanca Campaign in late November 1812.  Although Captain Ewart occasionally tells how far he marched on a given day, he usually recorded the conditions of the road, how difficult the terrain was, the weather, and the conditions of the villages they were billeted in.  With a good map, a determined reader can easily re-trace the route and see the exact distances covered. Interestingly, he had visited some of the same towns and villages in 1808.  He would often compare the devastation he saw to the thriving villages he had passed through three years earlier.

Captain Ewart was a keen observer and his daily entries are filled with matter-of-fact statements of life of a British company commander.  Picquet duty, court-martials, and paperwork are all mentioned.  Some of the more interesting duties he was given included commanding the force that guarded the 700 French prisoners captured at the taking of Ciudad Rodrigo. . . his force was supposed to be two companies, but was considerably less due to most of the men being absent plundering the city;[2] during the retreat back to the Portuguese border in late 1812, he escorted 1500 sick and wounded British and Portuguese soldiers to Ciudad Rodrigo.  Once there he sent the convoy onto Viseu, rounded up the healthy soldiers in the fortress and marched back into Spain to help with the retreat.

In the space of 14 months, Captain Ewart fought in two major battles (Fuentes d’Onoro and Salamanca) and two sieges (Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz).  He was in the midst of the epic withdrawal across the plains of Fuentes d’Onoro, where the Light Division was surrounded by thousand of French cavalry and a false step could lead to the destruction of the battalion; he was part of the assault on the smaller breach in the walls of the fortress at Ciudad Rodrigo; and three months later during the siege of Badajoz, he led the assault that captured Fort Picurina, where he was badly wounded in the arm. Yet he writes with a curious dispassion, describing the events of his battalion and other units, but sadly little about his own accomplishments.

After the battle of Salamanca in late July 1812, Captain Ewart was part of the force that liberated Madrid.  For several weeks, he lived the life of a liberating hero and the diary is filled with descriptions of celebrations, balls, and bull fights, which had to be a welcomed relief after almost eight months of non-stop campaigning!

One of the more interesting events he witnessed was the discovery of French General Claude Ferey’s body near Olmedo.  General Ferey had been mortally wounded at Salamanca and was buried outside of the town.  As soon as the French left, the Spanish inhabitants dug him up and left him lying along a road. Yet, neither Six[3] nor Charaway[4] mentions the final fate of General Ferey.

Although it is a diary and was written on the spot, there is ample evidence that Captain Ewart did go back at a later time and edit it. However this appears more to clarify an entry than to add more material. As usual Gareth Glover did a supreme job editing the diary, especially identifying the various officers mentioned throughout the text.  I strongly recommend this book to all who are interested in the Peninsular War or the life of a regimental officer in the British Army.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2012

Notes:

[1] Muir, Rory and et al.  Inside Wellington’s Peninsular Army 1808-1814.  Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2006.  Page 292.

[2] Ewart; page 69

[3] Six, Georges. Dictionnaire Biographique des Généraux & Amiraux Français de la Révolution et de l’Empire (1792 – 1814). 2 volumes. Paris: Librairie Historique et Nobiliaire, 1934. Volume I, page 444.

[4] Charaway, Noel. Les Généraux Morts pour la Patrie. Paris: Au Siège de la Société, 1893. Volume II, page 81.

 

 

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