The Diary of Ensign John Carter

Thanks to our guest blogger, Emily Pomeroy, who wrote this piece as part of the MA module HIST5020M Making History: Archive Collaborations at the University of Leeds.

John Carter

Ensign John Carter was a soldier during the Peninsular War fought between Britain and Napoleonic France between 1807 and 1814. John’s journal (Reference: WYL639/388B), which covers the period between December 1811 to March 1812, is full of colourful anecdotes and interesting details about life as a soldier in the 1800s. He talks about what they ate, what they drank, what they did for entertainment – and how they got into trouble!

“I dined with the doctor & he unfortunately upset our allowance of rum. This brought to my recollection a letter which I had received a few days before from my mother advising me not to take drink.”

John Carter diary entry, 14 December 1811
An example page from the diary of John Carter

The diary is at times moving, at times genuinely quite funny, and full of vibrant imagery which brings to life a war that’s often little more than a footnote of the 1800s. While military journals often have a reputation for being a bit of a dry read, Ensign Carter’s is set apart by its colourful anecdotes, its observations of Carter’s surroundings and companions, and the way it brings to light the lives of people often left out of the history books.

I’ve been very lucky to have been able to work with this exciting piece of local history through the Making History module at the University of Leeds. Though it is available to view alongside a comprehensive transcript at WYAS, part of the challenge of working with the diary has been determining the best way to present it to the public in a way that is engaging and also informative. To that end, rather than simply digitising what already exists, we’ve decided to ‘live tweet’ excerpts of the diary – after all, what is a Twitter if not a sort of publicly-facing journal? Through these bite-sized extracts, we hope that people will get a sense of Ensign Carter’s humour and character and engage with his life on their own terms.

“…I took a walk into the town & there beheld a most melancholy sight, the streets covered with dead bodies, broken fire locks, bayonets, balls, caps…”

John Carter diary entry, 20 January 1812

The Peninsular War

The Peninsular War was a side-show to the greater Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s. While it’s often overshadowed by what was happening in the rest of Europe and the Americas at the time, it was still an important moment in history, and jumpstarted the military careers of figures like the Duke of Wellington…while in some ways leading to the downfall of figures like Napoleon himself.

Napoleon Bonaparte was labelled ‘the most enlightened of the enlightened despots’. He ruled France fom 1799-1815, as First Consul, and later as Emperor. Clever, power-hungry and ambitious; his rule over the French Empire spread across the European continent, and only ended with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

By the early 1800s, Napoleon’s army had conquered much of Europe. Britain was holding her own against this growing threat but in 1807 Napoleon invaded Portugal via Spain, deposing the Spanish monarchy. Sensing a new ally against Napoleon in Spain, Britain sent an expeditionary force to Portugal.

The war officially began in 1808, when Wellington arrived in Portugal.  The British, Spanish, and Portuguese forces fought against the French in many battles, the bloodiest of which occurred in the summer of 1812.  Napoleon withdrew in 1812, and from this point, Britain advanced into Spain.  In 1813, the British won the Battle of Vitoria, and all but ensured a French defeat.  In 1814, France officially withdrew from Spain, and put King Ferdinand VII back on the Spanish throne.

Artwork created by Emily Pomeroy, inspired by the diary of John Carter

The 30th Foot Regiment

Ensign Carter was a soldier in the 30th Foot (the 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment of Foot), an infantry regiment in the British Army which was raised in 1702.  Carter was part of the 2nd Battalion. The 1st Battalion was posted to India in 1807, while the 2nd was sent to Portugal to reinforce General Wellesley’s troops.  Wellesley ‘had a very poor opinion at that time of the second battalions, and, leaving the 30th in garrison, he requested to have this regiment and the 29th exchanged for two seasoned regiments.This might explain Carter’s observations that the 30th Foot often seem to miss the bigger action! However, on arrival in Portugal in October 1812, the 30th Foot joined up with the 5th Division and spent months drilling and training under Wellesley’s command. They would go on to participate in many significant battles of the Peninsular War.

“in the evening Ensign Pratt & Brooke invited us to partake of a ceg of brandy which they brought us from Lisbon with them, we got pretty merry…”

John Carter diary entry
Artwork created by Emily Pomeroy, inspired by the diary of John Carter

The 30th Foot experienced quite a few successes alongside the 5th Division, in that summer of 1812. These include the Siege of Badojoz, as well as victory in Salamanca and Madrid. Sadly, we know that Ensign Carter died of heatstroke that same summer. Through what remains of this diary, we’re able to piece together a glimpse of the real life behind the scant military records, as well as the real people behind the war. Putting the puzzle of Carter’s life together has been one of the great challenges of this project (along with mapping out place names that don’t always exist anymore!). The fate of Carter’s friends (like the frequently mentioned Doctor Evans) and family are still largely a mystery, at the moment. What we’re left with instead is the vibrant impression of a man and his rag-tag regiment – not the historical facts, but the smell of bitter coffee and Portuguese oranges, and the image of a young man reading letters in the moonlight.

Artwork created by Emily Pomeroy, inspired by the diary John Carter

As part of the project, we’ve also mapped out Carter’s journey on Google Maps (click here to see the map)– you can follow along with the diary via Twitter (use the #EnsignCarter), or view his travels in their entirety. Each pin includes the associated diary entry, so you can see exactly how we’ve traced his steps (…and where aspects of the diary (like Ensign Carter’s spelling!) may have made this task a little difficult). We hope you enjoy following along over the next few months.

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