The original series of books about Richard Sharpe
consists of 11 titles, following Sharpe and his group of elite,
green-jacketed ‘Rifles’ from the early campaigns in the Peninsula
through Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
“Sharpe’s Rifles” is the first volume in the set,
chronologically, although it wasn’t actually the first one Cornwell
wrote, and it finds the new Lieutenant Sharpe and the 95th
Rifles trapped behind enemy lines in Spain, cut off from the rest of Sir
John Moore’s army during the retreat to Corunna, in early 1809.
At the beginning of the book, Sharpe is just the Quartermaster,
despised by his commanding officer Major Dunnett, and still feeling
awkward and out of place. Then
Dunnett is captured, due to his own miscalculations; the only other
officer, the friendly Captain Murray, is killed; and Sharpe finds
himself in command by default. He
wants to head south, for Lisbon, where the British may still have a
garrison, but the men, resentful of his status, want to head for the
coast, hoping to find the Navy still hovering about.
“But the Quartermaster had first fought the French 15 years
before, and he had been fighting them ever since.
The stranded Riflemen might call him the new Lieutenant, and they
might invest the word ‘new’ with all the scorn of old soldiers, but
that was because they did not know their man.
They thought of him as nothing more than a jumped-up Sergeant,
and they were wrong. He was
a soldier, and his name was Richard Sharpe.”
The first thing the men try, when Sharpe won’t be
persuaded to head for the coast, is to kill him.
A big Irishman, Patrick Harper, a natural leader, is the would-be
assassin, but he learns that Sharpe is no easy target.
A Spanish nobleman, Major Blas Vivar, arrives in time to stop the
fight before either man is killed.
Vivar is leading his Cazadores to Santiago de Compostela on a
mysterious mission to revitalize Spanish resistance to the French
invaders, and he agrees to guide Sharpe to Lisbon in exchange for the
Rifles’ aid on his campaign. Vivar
also serves as a kind of teacher, helping Sharpe develop his own skills
as a commanding officer. It
was, after all, not very common for men to come up through the ranks in
the British army, as Sharpe himself bitterly explains to the major.
“It’s rare. But
men like me don’t become real officers, Major.
It’s a reward, you see, for being stupidly brave.
And then they make us into Drillmasters and Quartermasters.
They think we can manage those tasks.
We’re not given fighting commands.”
“Sharpe’s Rifles” is not just about the
Corunna retreat or the Spanish resistance; this book is really the story
of how Richard Sharpe first begins to overcome his background and evolve
into a real fighting officer, earning the loyalty of the 95th
Rifles as well as the friendship of one Patrick Harper, whom he turns
into a Sergeant. Through
encounters with an almost comical pair of British Methodist missionaries
and their beautiful and willful niece, Louisa Parker, and repeated
meetings with Vivar’s older brother Luis, a collaborator who wants to
stop Vivar, and his ally, the French Chasseur Colonel Pierre de
l’Eclin, Sharpe not only builds a strong relationship with his men but
also with the readers. Quite
simply, Richard Sharpe is one of the most vivid and compelling fictional
characters I have ever met, and this book serves as an excellent
introduction. We get to
learn about Sharpe’s past, his history in the army, and unexpected
promotion to lieutenant in an army where virtually all the officers were
nobility or from families with sufficient funds to purchase their rank.
We get to know a strong man, who knows very well how to function
on a battlefield, but has little experience off that field, a man who
questions his abilities to lead, but when the need presents itself,
leads with competence and courage.
He’s a man capable of ruthless efficiency, an occasional
berserker, and yet he can be sentimental and affectionate, even if he
feels embarrassed about it.
Fans of action stories will definitely get their
fill. There are various
combative encounters, ranging from the vicious mano-a-mano knock-down
drag-out fight between Sharpe and Harper, to French dragoons attacking a
company of English Rifles organized in a classic British square; from an
ugly, ragged retreat of British and Spanish fighters chased through the
streets of Santiago by the duplicitous de l’Eclin and his troops, to a
final battle in the countryside outside the city, with Blas Vivar and
his precious banner of St. James – Santiago – arriving to save the
day. There is even a
face-to-face fight between Sharpe and de l’Eclin, French sabre against
British Heavy Cavalry sword – with the interesting human sidelight of
Sharpe’s eagerness to preserve and claim the Frenchman’s uniform, so
the English lieutenant can finally get out of his gradually
disintegrating uniform trousers and into something that’s still in one
If character development is more your kettle of
fish, well, there’s plenty of that here as well, especially in Richard
Sharpe himself. There are
plenty of other interesting characters, too: Blas Vivar, Louisa Parker,
and especially Patrick Harper. There
are religious disputes, discussions about what makes soldiers follow
their officers, the deep sibling rivalry between Blas and Luis Vivar,
Sharpe and Harper trying to turn a group of Spanish civilians into an
effective fighting force, and, always, Sharpe learning more about his
men, both as a collective unit and as individuals, with introductions to
men who will appear in many more sagas of the adventures of this
remarkable officer. There’s
even a strong hint of romance, with both Sharpe and Vivar falling for
Louisa Parker. Sharpe has
to prove himself to his men, to his new allies, and most especially to
As an example of how the relationship develops between the Rifles and their new officer, there’s the rather amusing tale of what happens the first morning after Sharpe has reluctantly agreed to guard the missionaries on their way back to British lines. In the absence of Vivar and his strong influence, the British soldiers somehow manage to find a good supply of wine, and Sharpe discovers that his troops are decidedly under the weather. So, he marches them to a stream, followed by the missionaries in their carriage, and orders the men to strip naked, to the horror of Louisa’s dominating aunt, and jump into the late-winter icy water. Then, he lines them up on the shore, still naked, shivering in the cold, and, adapting some of Vivar’s teaching, he gives them his new rules of command:
“Sharpe stared his men down. He did not blame them for being frightened, for any soldier could be forgiven terror when defeat and chaos destroyed an army. These men were stranded, far from home, and bereft of the commissary that clothed and fed them, but they were still soldiers, under discipline, and that word reminded Sharpe of Major Vivar’s simple commandments. With one simple change, those three rules would suit him well.
Sharpe made his voice less harsh.
‘From now on we have three rules.
Just three rules. Break
any one of them and I’ll break you. None of you will steal anything
unless you have my permission to do so.
None of you will get drunk without my permission.
And you will fight like bastards when the enemy appears.
Is that understood?’”
With this wonderful scene, Richard Sharpe first
begins to really take command of his ragged group of riflemen, beginning
a journey that will take him, and Patrick Harper, all the way to
Waterloo. For this book,
Cornwell settles for getting Sharpe back to Portugal, to rejoin the
British Army, and that is more than enough for one satisfying read.
There are many reasons for the success of the Richard Sharpe books. Primary among them are Bernard Cornwell’s skill in character development, most particularly anything to do with Sharpe and Patrick Harper; his blunt but vivid descriptions of early nineteenth century military life, including battle scenes; and his brilliant use of setting, making the physical surroundings almost like human characters. He is also an exceptional historian who knows his material thoroughly, but who also knows when to sacrifice known history for the sake of interesting fiction. Each book concludes with his Historical Notes, where he discusses the actual historical background in relation to what he portrayed in the novel itself, as in this brief snippet from the Historical Note to “Sharpe’s Rifles”: “This, then, is an early story, told against the background of the brutal French occupation of Galicia. That much of the book is accurate. The French did capture Santiago de Compostela, and did sack its cathedral, and did fight vicious battles against the growing resistance in the Galician hills. The rest, alas, is fiction.”
But it’s so much better than most historical fiction, precisely because Cornwell uses real history where it counts: in the details, in the backgrounds and development of his characters, in realistic portrayal of battles, class conflicts, religious conflicts, and social standards, in conversational styles and the personal concerns of the characters, in the descriptions of everyday life down to having women and children accompanying the army into war and then falling along the road in the retreat. This gives everything the ‘feel’ of reality, even if the actual battle portrayed in the climax of this book never really happened, and most of these characters never really existed. If you want to read solely about real battles and their real officers and men, that information can be found in other sources. If what you want is a set of interesting and believable fictional characters set against a real historical backdrop, that is what you will find in Cornwell’s fiction, not only in the Richard Sharpe series, but also in his American Civil War series. I’ve yet to try his Arthurian novels, but I certainly intend to; his attention to detail paired with his dramatic skill almost guarantees that his version of Celtic myth will be fascinating. Even if you’ve seen the Sharpe films, all of which were excellent, I think you’ll be amply rewarded by reading the books, both because the filmmakers had to make changes to adequately present the stories on screen as opposed to the written page, and because Cornwell is such a good writer as well as being a good storyteller, that it’s worth the effort just to enjoy his use of language. I hope you will give the Sharpe series a try, and let me know if you agree with me … or not.
Let me leave you exactly as Cornwell does at the end of “Sharpe’s Rifles”, with a description of these elite infantrymen, from the viewpoint of their colorful new officer. “Sharpe raised his voice so every tired man could hear the extravagant praise. ‘They’re drunken sods, sir, but they’re the best soldiers in the world. The very best.’ And he meant it. They were the elite, the damned, the Rifles. They were the soldiers in green.
They were Sharpe’s Rifles.”
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