“Sharpe’s Rifles,” by Bernard Cornwell

10 Sep

“Sharpe’s Rifles,” by Bernard Cornwell (304p)
Richard Sharpe and the French Invasion of Galicia, January 1809

At last, Richard Sharpe has reached the country he spent most of his soldiering in: Spain. It is early 1809 and Sharpe has finally made his debut in the Peninsular War in 1988’s Sharpe’s Rifles. While this is the sixth in the series chronologically, Sharpe’s Rifles was actually written ninth, between Sharpe’s Siege and Sharpe’s Revenge. However, it is set before either of those – five years before – and is the first prequel Cornwell produced.

The British army is retreating into Portugal after being battered and beaten by Marshal Soult’s forces at the Battle of Corunna. Its leader, Sir John Moore, died after being struck by a cannonball on the battle field. Sharpe is with them and is on campaign with the 95th Rifles for officially the first time, and they are soon cut off from the rest of the British forces by a French ambush. Almost all of the officers are killed in the attack leaving Sharpe as the only fit officer left, and so he was left in command of the tattered remnants of the 95th Rifles.

The only problem for Sharpe is that no man in the 95th respects him or recognises his authority. Men in the ranks expect their officers to be gentlemen, men of repute, and not low-born former thieves like Sharpe. His first task is to win over the men in the face of mutiny, at least enough to make it back to safer lands still under British control. To do that, he convinces the burly soldier Patrick Harper to become his sergeant as the men of the 95th seemingly listen to Harper more than they do their newly instilled commanding officer.

On the retreat, Sharpe encounters Maj. Blas Vivar, and a new adventure begins. Vivar is desperate to protect a secret chest from the French and the sympathiser, the Count of Mouromorto. Vivar wants to take the chest to Santiago de Compostela and begin an uprising against the French. He asks Sharpe to help him which he does for Sharpe sees this as an opportunity to show his metal to the remaining men of the 95th.

This then takes him to Santiago de Compostela where they fight the French almost to the death, but in true Sharpe fashion, escape and with the victory after the peasants loyal to Vivar rise up with them. Sharpe leads his few men out of Spain where he meets Maj. Michael Hogan on a ridge overlooking the Atlantic and Portugal. He then hears the greatest news of all: Arthur Wellesley was coming to the Peninsular.

I really enjoyed Sharpe’s Rifles. It’s one of my favourite in the series because it captures what Sharpe is all about – no frills adventure, near death escapes, balls first action with little room for apologies. But what is really great about this one is how Sharpe, for the first time (chronologically), is in command of not just his own destiny but the lives of the men of the 95th Rifles. It changes his character a little as Sharpe constantly questions himself, his lack of self-confidence as an officer on full show, all because of his unique responsibility.

There is a rawness to Sharpe’s Rifles that makes it special, I think. Sharpe is in command but he isn’t at the same time. There are other people around who can change his fate, be it Maj. Blas Vivar or the rebellious future Sgt. Harper. But in the end Sharpe comes through, as does this novel. It is a compelling story that pays special respect to Spain’s religious fanaticism (the rational French with their liberal ideas are actually the villains), but above all Sharpe’s Rifles is great because of the characterisation of Richard Sharpe before he became the James Bond of the Napoleonic Wars in Spain.

9/10.

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