By Roberta

AUTHOR:  Bernard Cornwell
DATE:  c1988
LENGTH:  394 pages, paperback
GENRE: historical fiction


I first encountered Richard Sharpe, an English soldier who rose through the ranks during the Napoleonic Wars, in the Masterpiece Theatre presentations starring Sean Bean, who was absolutely superb in the role.  I didn’t actually start watching until the third or fourth film, however, and I found myself so intrigued that I decided to try the books to find out what I’d missed.  I will be forever grateful for doing so, because the books are excellent.  In fact, it was the Sharpe books that first enabled me to break out of the deep depression I was in, during the mid-1990s, so that I was able to read an entire book all the way through without any problems with focus or concentration. 

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 piece. 

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 himself.  

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.”


You can find a copy of "Sharpe's Rifles" at , or your local book store or library

The above material is considered the property of Roberta.
If you wish to use this article, in part or whole, please contact her at for her permission.