Tag Archives: Napoleon

“Sharpe’s Company,” by Bernard Cornwell

16 Feb

“Sharpe’s Company,” by Bernard Cornwell (332p)

Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Badajoz, January-April 1812

The third novel he had ever written, and originally published in 1982, Sharpe’s Company continues the story of British Rifleman Richard Sharpe during the Napoleonic Wars. It is a new year, 1812, the most tumultuous year of the Napoleonic wars, and Britain is finally ready to march into Spain itself. Standing in its way were the twin fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and the monstrous, towering citadel of Badajoz, which the British must take if it were to drive France out of occupied Spain.

The story begins with the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo, which was the northern barrier into Spain. Sharpe and Harper lead an assault on the French and are apart of the party which successfully breaches into the city, overwhelming the French defenders and capturing Ciudad Rodrigo. Unfortunately, during the assault Sharpe’s commander and long-time friend Col. William Lawford is severely wounded when a mine is detonated, losing an arm and retires from his post as commander of the regiment. Sharpe, saddened by the lose of his friend, has new issues to worry about as Lawford’s departure meant a new colonel would arrive, and that also placed Sharpe’s captaincy (his gazette had yet to be confirmed) over the Light Company in severe jeopardy. It gets worse for Sharpe, though, when his old enemy, Obadiah Hakeswill makes his return. Hakeswill’s hatred of Sharpe and Sharpe’s of Hakeswill sees them soon feuding when Hakeswill makes his first attempts to wrap the Light Company around his fingers by attempting to rape Sharpe’s mistress and the mother of his child, Teresa Moreno.

Lawford’s replacement, Col. Windham, arrives into camp as Sharpe finished dealing with Hakeswill. With him is Sharpe’s replacement: Cap. Rymer. Sharpe is demoted back to lieutenant and placed in charge of the baggage train as the regiment digs trenches around Badajoz. While visiting the men the French attack but neither side is able to use its weapons due to the rain and it turns into a fight with shovels and spades, eventually seeing the French attackers run back to the city. But in Sharpe’s absence the baggage train had been ransacked – by Hakeswill – and the sergeant made his move against Harper, planting a prized possession of the colonel’s in Harper’s belongings. Harper is flogged sixty times as punishment and demoted to private, handing full control of the company to Hakeswill as Rymer is incapable of leadership.

As Britain prepares for its assault on Badajoz, Windham is charged with leading an expedition to blow up a section of the fortifications. Before the attack, Harper’s seven-barrelled gun, a gift from Sharpe, is taken from him by Hakeswill, as it is a non-regulation weapon. When the Light Company takes longer than expected Windham sends Sharpe to find out the cause of the delay. Sharpe arrives to see the Light Company doing nothing due to Rymer’s incompetence. Sharpe fires at a French sentry and decides to blow the wall himself. Riflemen give him cover fire as he attempts to light the fuse on the powder barrels and barrels explode, but the wall is too strong to be destroyed. As Sharpe falls back into the dam he is shot in the leg by Hakeswill, using Harper’s seven-barrelled gun, until being rescued by Harper.

Sharpe recovers from his wounds quickly enough but is dealt another blow by Windham – he is removed from the company all together under the pretence of allowing Rymer to gain control of the Light Company. Hakeswill continues to control the company, however, and soon sees to it that the Rifleman attached to the South Essex<sup>1</sup> are stripped of their honours, rifles and green jackets, and all returned to the level of redcoat privates. Sharpe intervenes and humiliates Hakeswill by pretending to shoot him with the discarded rifles, to which Hakeswill vows revenge by getting to Teresa, who is in Badajoz, before Sharpe does. Sharpe seemingly might not even be participating in the battle after Wellington picks his brain over the strength of the breach; the general refuses Sharpe’s request to lead the Forlorn Hope (called forlorn as it meant certain death, “somebody has to go first”) and instead will guide those men into position and falling back. Wellington explains his reason to Sharpe as he thinks Sharpe is too valuable otherwise sacrifice during an attack which will likely result in a heavy loss of life.

Sharpe nevertheless ignores Wellington’s order and finds his way back to the Light Company. Upon arrival he finds them devastated by cannon fire, Rymer dead and Windham attempting to lead the attack on the breach. Sharpe resumes leadership of the company and takes them over the breach. Captain Knowles, Sharpe’s old lieutenant, is the first into Badajoz and his men overrun the remaining French defenders and begin to break into homes, raping women and pillaging and destroying. Hakeswill had also managed to climb into Badajoz after conveniently disappearing during the siege, and armed with a bayonet and pistol he sets off in the direction of Teresa Moreno’s home. Knowles reached Teresa’s house first but Hakeswill, who had been following, climbed to the upstairs room where the baby Antonia is and as Knowles enters, Hakeswill shoots him. He then threatens to kill the baby unless Teresa has sex with him as Sharpe and Harper had fought their way across Badajoz. They meet Hakeswill face-to-face in Teresa’s bedroom, only wresting away the child and Teresa when Harper provokes Hakeswill’s madness, but the rogue sergeant escapes through a window, running off into the Spanish night as a deserter. Following the siege Harper is returned as a sergeant and the riflemen have their green jackets returned to them, and Sharpe is praised for his bravery and loyalty, now officially made a captain of his Light Company.

I liked Sharpe’s Company quite a lot. It is one of the Sharpe novels written before the series really took off, still in Cornwell’s infancy as a writer. Thus, like all the early Sharpe novels, it’s a simple story with an easy to follow plot. By no means is it a by the numbers adventure tale – which, unfortunately, some of the later Sharpe novels closer resemble – because in Sharpe’s Company, Cornwell began to properly expand the character and his world by introducing more side characters with their own backgrounds and roles to the story. Hakeswill represents this and would later become extended beyond just the one novel, becoming Cornwell’s favourite villain. Other developments to Sharpe’s character also include facing adversity from within the army, which I enjoyed as something different because at times Sharpe’s independence and free will of the norm is often taken to beyond believable lengths. In Sharpe’s Company he is often brought back down to earth and that’s an important aspect to any character’s development. So to is the emphasis on the bond Sharpe has with his men because such a bond is a crucial side to successful groups of men. Cornwell went to great lengths to explain how and why Sharpe has such a command of the Light Company, a change from the common mistrust and feelings of lack of support that he endured in the earlier novels.

Easy to read, Sharpe’s Company is certainly up there among my favourites in the Sharpe series. There is a certain rawness to the story and the feel of the novel itself that, I think, many fans of this genre and novels like this will find appealing. Obviously, if you had read the previous Sharpe’s there is no reason for you to stop as the remaining novels – the “original series” – are all fantastic. As I always say when reviewing Sharpe novels is if this review has interested you into reading the Sharpe series than go back to the start and read from there. While this novel would actually be great as a stand-alone anyway you would be really missing out on what is a truly fantastic historical fiction series by one of this generation’s great storytellers.

8.5/10.

“Sharpe’s Battle,” by Bernard Cornwell

23 Jan

“Sharpe’s Battle,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, May 1811 (387p)

Sharpe’s Battle is the twelfth book in the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. Written in 1995 at the behest of the production company behind the Sharpe television series (and thus out of order from the original series), it was ordered by them to provide added filler in the series and is dedicated to Sean Bean. It tells the story of the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro in May of 1811.

Sharpe and the rest of the South Essex had been tasked to do dull patrolling and scouting on the fringes of the Spanish-Portuguese frontier, a wild and lawless land where neither side had any control. The villages are deserted and people are scarce, but there is a reason for that – the detached French battalion of Brigade Loup, led by the ruthless Brigadier Guy Loup. Sharpe encounters Loup in a recently ravaged village, capturing two of his men caught raping teenage girls. Sharpe, without authorisation, orders them to be executed. Despite Loup’s pleas to hand the men over and allow him to discipline them, Sharpe carries out the executions by firing squad and makes an enemy of Loup off the bat, the fur skin covered Frenchmen swearing vengeance on Sharpe and his men. Back at army headquarters, Sharpe is tasked by Wellington to take temporary command of a Spanish guards regiment sent from the exiled King Ferdinand, the Real Compañía Irlandesa, and train them into proper troops. But that isn’t really the plan. Suspicion is rife that the guard is full of French spies and so Sharpe’s real task is to treat them so mercilessly and make them so miserable that the guardsmen resort to desertion rather than real army life.

The Real Companies Irlandesa is in fact a guard made up of Irish Catholic exiles (most of whom were Spanish born by several generations) and hopelessly inadequate for the task. Many desert on the first few nights while Sharpe butts heads with their insufferable commander, a womaniser drunkard who seeks glory by suicide named Lord Kiely. The fears of French spies are made true, as well, by the arrival of Doña Juanita de Elía, who is Kiely’s lover but also in the employ of the French spymaster, Pierre Ducos (Sharpe would meet him later). Sharpe’s attempts to organise the Real Companies Irlandesa prove nightmarish with desertion rife, useless weapons and inept commanders, but he opts to defy Wellington and Hogan and tries to make a unit out of them after all. Things start to improve until an American newspaper surfaces in the camp, proclaiming brutalities committed by British garrison soldiers in Dublin, which threatened to cause a mutiny among the Irish troops until Sharpe dismisses it as folly. Soon after, a Portuguese infantry battalion arrives at the fort and the following night, Loup attacks the fort. The Spanish and British hole up in the barracks, but the Portuguese infantry are butchered. Sharpe fears they are all doomed, but a massive explosion kills dozens of Loup’s attackers and he departs from the fort quickly. Sharpe and Harper discover that Tom Garrard, an old friend of Sharpe’s in Portuguese service, blew up ammunition carts, causing the explosion, and sacrificing himself in the process.

The Spanish demand an inquiry into the assault and Sharpe and Runciman are set up as a political sacrifice. To avoid this fate, Sharpe attacks Loup’s hideout, but Loup’s Battalion is missing because he has been tasked to join Marshal Andre Masséna, on the move to relieve the besieged fortress of Almeida and on a collision course with the Viscount of Wellington. Meanwhile, Lord Kiely has killed himself in disgrace and the true saboteur among the Real Compañía Irlandesa is revealed as Father Sarsfield, a close friend of Wolfe Tone. Sharpe is then set to administrative duties to guard the ammunition carts and is essentially barred from participating in the coming battle, but he still finds himself involved anyway and links up with “Black Bob” Crauford and the Light Division, finding himself at the summit of the battle where he enacts his revenge on Loup while Wellington wins narrowly his battle. With Loup dead and Masséna defeated there is to be no court of inquiry against Sharpe, leaving him exonerated and back in the good graces of Wellington’s army.

I did not mind the television version – which differs in its conclusion after the first attack by Loup – and I did not mind the novel version of Sharpe’s Battle either. However, it is far from the best in the series and I immediately got the impression Cornwell was writing within parameters. I am sure the production company, who made the request for it to be written, had some set ideas of what they wanted Cornwell to write and thus provide them with a basis of the story. Much of the dialogue from the film is taken straight from the novel. It is little wonder it is dedicated to Sean Bean because the dialogue in the novel was written for Sean Bean’s Richard Sharpe, not Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe that appears in the first series. That is often the main criticism levelled at the second series of Sharpe novels, that it is Sean Bean’s Sharpe in written form, and I can see where the character has changed, particularly because this was only written to be made into a movie. Mostly the change is in the dialogue because Sharpe never says “bloody this!” and “bloody that” every few sentences in, for instance, Sharpe’s Eagle, he doesn’t give inspirational speeches, and he is never that cocksure about himself around superiors and blue bloods out of the field. One of Sharpe’s most defining characteristics is his self criticism and immediate demur response to those above him, yet in the novel Sharpe brazenly talks in a way that would probably see him lose his commission in Sharpe’s Eagle. Simply because Sean Bean is allowed to do as such in the films.

As it is, the novel is fine, but it does have a bit of a “well okay” feeling to it at times. In the first half of the novel, before the producers changed the ending, I knew what would happen as I had already seen the film. No matter, I still enjoyed it enough. The action is what one can expect from Cornwell and the bloody and gritty battle of Fuentes de Oñoro makes for a captivating read in its own right, particularly since it is almost wholly told without Sharpe present. However, much of the business with the Real Compañía Irlandesa was often annoying and unnecessary, not to mention implausible – Sharpe even says as much. Just how on earth can an American newspaper be able to report on goings on in Ireland scarcely a month after they had happened and have a printed copy floating among the ranks in Spain? I didn’t get it, and even the most uneducated soldier would have realised it was a forgery. I would be willing to bet money, however, that that was a request from the production team and not something of Bernard Cornwell’s creation as he is far more inventive than that.

I doubt I would ever read Sharpe’s Battle again unless it takes me on a whim. Like I said, it is not a bad novel by any means. It is just a tad on the ho hum side. There were parts I really did enjoy and there were parts that I could have skipped. So should you read it? Well, it depends. If you are working your way through the series, like I am, then I guess it is probably the thing to do. But if you are a casual reader with no interest in reading the lot then don’t bother, Cornwell has written far better books than this one and it would be a shame to spoil your opinion of him.

6.5/10.

“Master and Commander,” by Patrick O’Brian

26 Dec

“Master and Commander,” by Patrick O’Brian (401p)

Following the death of C.S. Forester in 1968 publishers sought a replacement to the acclaimed Hornblower series of high-sea adventure tales, and so British author Patrick O’Brian was tasked with succeeding Hornblower with his series, the similarly acclaimed Aubrey-Maturin novels. Master and Commander is the first in the twenty part series, depicting the budding friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s doctor best friend, Stephen Maturin, as they trawl across the Mediterranean in King George’s Royal Navy.

It is 1800 and Jack Aubrey, a shipless lieutenant in Port Mahon, Minorca, is wasting away in port. Aubrey meets Stephen Maturin, a poor half-Irish and half-Catalan doctor and natural philosopher, at an evening concert at the Governor’s Mansion. The two of them do not quite get along during this first encounter. A duel almost occurs when Jack Aubrey gets elbowed by Maturin to stop humming while the string quartet is playing. Later that evening, on his way back to his living quarters, Jack Aubrey finds out that he was promoted to the rank of Commander and has been given a command. His joy overcomes his animosity towards Stephen Maturin and they quickly become good friends. The ship’s surgeon having left with the previous captain, Maturin is asked by Aubrey to sign on in that post. Although Maturin is a physician, not just a mere surgeon, he agrees, since he is currently unemployed.

Also introduced into the story are Master’s Mates Thomas Pullings, William Mowett, midshipman William Babbington, and James Dillon, Sophie‘s first lieutenant. Dillon has a secret background as a member of the United Irishmen which crosses with Stephen’s own. Aubrey improves Sophie‘s sailing qualities by adding a larger yard which allows him to spread a larger mainsail. She then is sent to accompany a small convoy of merchant ships. During their journey east, the new captain, Aubrey, takes the opportunity to get to know his sailors and work them into a fighting unit. As he does this, he and the crew explain many naval matters to Maturin (and to the reader) since the doctor has never served aboard a man-of-war.

After the convoy duties, Lord Keith allows Aubrey to cruise independently, looking for French merchants. After a number of prizes are taken, they meet and defeat the Cacafuego, a Spanish frigate, losing a number of crew, including Dillon, in the bloody action and gaining the respect of other naval officers. However, Captain Harte, the commandant at Mahon, has a grudge against Aubrey because he has been having an affair with his wife. His malevolence ensures the victory brings Aubrey and his crew no official recognition, promotion, or significant prize money. On her following escort duty, Sophie is captured by a squadron of four large French warships after a pursuit and a brave but hopeless resistance. The Battle of Algeciras begins, and after a short period as prisoners of war, they are exchanged, missing the fighting. Back at Gibraltar, Aubrey must undergo a court-martial over the loss of his ship, but he is cleared of the charges.

When the movie adaptation of this series – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – was released I was keen to see what’s what and started reading this, but put it down as I found the intensive naval jargon a confusing mess and too difficult to get into, so I just gave up and read something else instead. Now, some five years later, I decided to give it another chance now that I’m a few years older and a little more well read. Reading it now it is easy to see where the high praise for O’Brian comes from because it is very much a good read with an interesting setting, backed up by a simple plot. The characterisation is very strong and developed with all the main characters having their own voice and personality – Aubrey is big and bluff and jovial while Maturin is a different sort, an intelligent secretive man totally out of place aboard a nineteenth century man of war. The supporting cast are equally well set out and interesting with their own unique personalities and backgrounds. It is obvious O’Brian knows the period well and has paid an intensive level of attention to making sure the novel is as close to the reality of the Napoleonic Wars at sea is possible, so all in all, it reads not as a novel about that period but rather as a novel in the period.

But as I said when I reviewed the first novel in the Hornblower series, naval fiction is not for everyone. It is hard to recommend because it is so technical and there is so much to consume and nowhere is this truer than with Patrick O’Brian. It is a maze of jargon and things that are difficult to remember. O’Brian tries to get around this when Maturin is given a tour of the Sophie, where most of the important things are explained, but even then it is given in the manner that you should just know this, and that is that. His style also doesn’t help to create an overly thrilling novel either with long passages of relatively uninteresting descriptive narrative or a style of dialogue that is very flowery. I consider myself to have a pretty good vocabulary but at times I had to reach for the dictionary. Combined with the often multi-page sections of dull narrative and a distinct lack of action, it can be a difficult to novel to get completely absorbed in. It is still clear why O’Brian’s novels are held in such high esteem and I respect that a lot, but I don’t think it’s for me, not yet.

7/10.

“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” by C.S. Forester

25 Oct


“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” by C.S. Forester (299p)
1793, the eve of the Napoleonic Wars, and Midshipman Horatio Hornblower receives his first command …

After the great success of the first five novels about fictitious Napoleonic-era seaman Horatio Hornblower in the 1930s and 1940s, British author the late C.S. Forester (1899-1966) set about going back to the beginning of his heroes life in the Royal Navy as a midshipman. Written as the sixth book in 1950, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is the first in the series chronologically where the young Hornblower begins his navy career, finding out he actually isn’t too bad at this naval caper.

The novel is essentially ten short stories put together, roughly in a continuous flow, beginning a short time after the last one ended. So, the first story is naturally Hornblower’s first ever assignment on a ship, the HMS Justinian. Hornblower hates life aboard the Justinian and dreads waking up every morning, and his depression becomes so severe he contrives an elaborate way to commit suicide – by challenging a much older tyrannical midshipman to a duel after a game of cards. But when the duel is a draw Hornblower transfers to HMS Indefatigable as Britain declares war on Revolutionary France. On his new ship Hornblower takes part in a capture of a French cargo ship, but when he is given command of it he forgets to make necessary repairs and the ship sinks. But that, an offence that could be a court-martial offence, is forgotten when Hornblower burns down a ship he had been taken prisoner on and rescued by the Indefatigable. Later, he commands the jolly boat in a mission to capture another French ship, but is deeply affected when a man left behind is killed as he loses the jolly boat.

Hornblower then takes part in his first land mission, albeit in the capacity as a translator for the commander of a French Royalist attempting to land an invasion in the Vendée as the locals revolt. It is unsuccessful and the revolutionary force repels them back to the waiting British ships, and Hornblower is deeply troubled by the sight of a guillotine in action. He develops a darkened view of the revolution because of it. The war then takes a turn against Britain as Spain and France sign a peace treaty, making Spain Britain’s enemy as well, and Hornblower leads a dangerous attack on a Spanish galley ship near Gibraltar. This act of bravery leads to him being made acting lieutenant but a surprise attack by the Spanish sees the sudden cancellation of his lieutenancy exam.

Hornblower then later travels to North Africa to purchase a supply of livestock, but more catastrophe befalls him when there is a fear of a plague outbreak (the last time the plague affected Europeans was sometime in the early 18th century) and he is forced to mill about in the Strait of Gibraltar for three weeks. The final short story of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower takes him to Gibraltar where he is told he is to take command of a French prize ship and transport a Duchess back to England. Predictably, the dangerous waters of the Atlantic turn against Hornblower and he is taken prisoner by Spain. He spends two years in captivity in the town of Ferrol but sees an opportunity to do … something, and with the permission of his captors, sets off into choppy sea to rescue stranded Spanish sailors. This act of bravery sees him eventually released by Spain and promoted to lieutenant by the admiralty.

The series is one of the most influential ever written – this is the inspiration of fellow historical fiction giants Sharpe and Aubrey-Maturin, Hemingway lavishes it with praise, Gene Rodenberry based leading characters on Star Trek off Hornblower, not to mention plenty of other British productions that draw inspiration from the series. With that in mind, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is certainly an interesting read, but different because it has no set plot other than these are some things that happened to Hornblower in his first year or so in the Navy. One of the main things a reader will notice about this is that there really aren’t any supporting characters to take on their personality. They are just names who drop in and out of the novel in each chapter/short story; they do not really have an identity, meaning that it is almost solely about Hornblower. And that is a good thing because it works superbly within the framework of the novel. It makes Hornblower and all of his various problems with himself all the more central to the story, so the reader is immersed in his world and spared being troubled by minor characters dominating the narrative.

Another area where Forester as an author succeeds with these novels is his skill in the narrative. One of the difficult things with Naval fiction is all the technical terms that are used, words the average reader will have no idea of. Forester is very good at explaining the meaning of something in understandable terms without it disrupting the story – he, unlike Patrick O’Brian, assumes the reader does not know how it all works, much like a young Hornblower would not, so it becomes readable and easy to follow once you get used to it.

As far as recommendations go, well, it’s hard. Naval fiction is obviously not for everyone. It can be a mouthful, and at times difficult to comprehend and understand with all the outdated technical terms. But at the same time the Hornblower novels manage to fly in the face of all the technical blustering and keep the reader entertained with a truly magnificent leading character as its star. That is why these novels remain so popular over half a century after their publication, and for that reason, if you have an interest in reading a novel of life at sea in the 18th and 19th century as Europe fought France, these are the best place to start.

7.5/10.

“Sharpe’s Fury,” by Bernard Cornwell

14 Oct

“Sharpe’s Fury,” by Bernard Cornwell (371p)
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Barrosa, Winter 1811

The most recent novel in Bernard Cornwell’s acclaimed Sharpe series is Sharpe’s Fury. Written in 2006 this falls eleventh in the chronological order, and tells the story of the Battle of Barrosa in 1811.

Sharpe and his men are detailed to blow up a pontoon bridge just over the border in southern Spain, but their mission goes awry when a French regiment of the line intercepts them, stranding Sharpe and a small number of riflemen on a broken pontoon with his superior officer. Sharpe is infuriated that the colonel of the French regiment, Henri Vandal, broke the agreement they made and kept his prisoners, among them the likeable Lt. Bullen. They eventually make their way to the last remaining Spanish city not in the hands of France: Cádiz. There, Sharpe finds something else to keep him occupied because anti-British conspirators in the city are blackmailing the British ambassador to Spain, who just so happens to be the Duke of Wellington’s youngest brother Henry Wellesley.

Two years prior Henry suffered the indignity of his wife running off with Lord Harry Paget, later Lord Uxbridge of Waterloo fame (whose fictional daughter is the mother of Harry Flashman), and was now a love-stricken divorcée. Henry had written a series of love letters to his new mistress, a high-priced whore named Caterina Blázquez, and those letters had fallen into the hands of a group, led by a manipulative priest named Montseny, wanting to blackmail the British out of Cádiz by publishing them in a newspaper, so Britain must get them back before the true identity of the author is made public.

Sharpe is chosen by the embassy’s official to get them back – Lord Pumphrey is he, the effeminate diplomat that Sharpe met in Copenhagen (Sharpe’s Prey). Working together Sharpe and Pumphrey eventually destroy the newspaper and retrieve most of the letters, thus sparing Henry Wellesley the embarrassment of his private life being made public. The final third of the novel then takes Sharpe and his small number of riflemen – Harper, Hagman, Perkins, Harris and Slattery – to the Battle of Barossa, as Sharpe wants to get revenge on Col. Henri Vandal for taking Bullen prisoner. As Graham’s allied forces battled Marshal Victor’s French side into a relatively pointless yet bloody draw, Sharpe eventually makes his way across the battlefield to meet Vandal, capturing him amidst the scenes of Sgt. Patrick Masterman’s capture of an imperial eagle.

This is one of my least favourite Sharpe novels. I just found it hard to care about Sharpe’s Fury and the whole time I felt as though I would have rather read something else, like I just wanted it to be over so I could tick it off the list. Yes, of course, it has all the usual expectations of any Sharpe novel – the Battle of Barrosa is told excellently, the villains are good, and the intrigue in Cádiz was quite interesting. I liked that part. Henry Wellesley made for an interesting character, so different from his more illustrious brothers, and I was delighted to see Lord Pumphrey return, as it is a great character. But overall I just struggled to care, I found myself having little interest in the novel as a whole, partly because I somewhat knew what the outcome would be. As a big fan of Sharpe and Bernard Cornwell I persevered and eventually finished it, but I shan’t remember much about it after the letters were retrieved, or have any real interest in reading it again.

I wonder if Cornwell himself cared all that much about this one either – it came in between two novels in his current Saxon series, so it is entirely possible he only wrote it to appease Sharpe fans wanting another novel. I find Sharpe’s Fury difficult to recommend for anyone to read. It offers nothing to Sharpe’s overall story due to the constraints of the ten novels that follow it; the author can hardly add a new dimension or part of his story when ten more novels succeed it, so readers won’t miss out on much if they skip it. I guess one thing that was different about Sharpe’s Fury is that a senior officer in Sir Thomas Graham did not come across as a big-headed incompetent idiot, making it a nice change from the usual description of officers in Sharpe novels. If you are interested in reading it then you know what to expect and it is interesting enough for what it is, but for casual fans not interested in reading all twenty-one don’t bother, go and read one of the better ones. You will not miss much.

6/10.

“1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow,” by Adam Zamoyski

21 Sep

“1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow,” by Adam Zamoyski (656p)

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow is a 2005 non-fiction historical study of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 by Polish historian Adam Zamoyski. Using a combination of contemporary diaries, later historical studies and interpretations from drawings by Johann Adam Klien and Faber de Faur Zamoyski constructs a descriptive analysis that tells the story of France’s invasion of Russia, both proceeding and during 1812.

The first part of the novel provides the lead-in and sets the tone for the events of 1812. Zamoyski spends a chapter detailing the face of the European landscape at the beginning of the second decade with Napoleon virtually as its master. At the end of 1811 Napoleon controlled the French lands and made himself King of Italy, his puppet-states in Germany (the Confederation of the Rhine), his brother-in-law Joachim Murat as King of Naples and Sicily, and his brother older Joseph as King of Spain. He had also married Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria making his father-in-law Emperor Francis II, thus dragging Austria into an uneasy alliance by marriage. Lastly, he had entangled Russia in a treaty signed at Tilsit in 1807 after he had crushed them in the previous three years, and he had beaten the only other continental nation, Prussia, so badly it was only the intervention of Alexander I that kept Prussia on the map. Meanwhile, Britain had been hemmed into the southern half of Portugal and posed next-to-no threat to Napoleon’s control over Central Europe.

Zamoyski then moves onto the second half of his background to 1812 by analysing the complicated relationship between France and Russia. Throughout, it is placated by Napoleon’s wish for peace with Russia but also his demands of them to adhere to the Continental System, a policy devised by Napoleon to damage Britain economically by blocking access to ports and making British trade redundant. Russia, of course, imported many goods from Britain as she only had limited agricultural options and as a result they blatantly ignored the Continental System, enduring Napoleon’s wrath as a result. Zamoyski hypothesises of Napoleon’s reasons for invasion, but Zamoyski believes the most likely reason for it was that he had always intended to formally put Russia under his thumb through conquest than any well-meaning treaty. Intermittent between this is the goings on at the Russian court and Alexander’s position amongst the nobility, where Zamoyski details Alexander’s tenuous grip on the throne. It had only been a few years since Alexander played his part in the assassination of his father, Paul I, and coup d’état to snatch the throne. As a result he had a less than frosty relationship with his boyars, of whom Alexander was largely dependent on to draft troops.

Nevertheless, why would Napoleon fight two wars on two campaigns, so far apart from each other at the opposite ends of Europe? He was already well entrenched in the guerrilla war in Spain, although he had been conspicuous by his absent, leaving it up to Masséna and Soult to command the campaign. But this question, of why Napoleon would fight two major campaigns simultaneously, is the main question Zamoyski asks (the second being the question of Poland) as the narrative rumbles along leading up to his mobilisation of le Grande Armée in spring of 1812.

Napoleon assembles the largest army to date to march on Russia. Le Grande Armée consisted of an estimated 610,000 soldiers and officers drawn from France, Italy, Germany, the Duchy of Warsaw and a nominal corps from Austria and Prussia that had been required by treaty and marriage. Through Napoleon’s adjutant, Armand Caulaincourt, Zamoyski constructs the early weeks of the campaign as the French stormed through modern Lithuania and Belarus and into Russia itself more or less unopposed. Russia’s tactics to fall back deeper and deeper into Russia were already at work.

When not discussing and analysing the French advance into Russia, Zamoyski, through Caulaincourt, poses the question how much of an affect did Napoleon’s ailing health have on the campaign? Throughout, Napoleon was uncharacteristically undeceive and unable to make a clear aim for the campaign. Likewise, Zamoyski shifts back to the goings-on at the Russian court and the demise of Barclay de Tolly and his replacement with the popular charismatic yet incompetent Mikhail Kutuzov. From there, come the battles that led to Borodino, which of course did irreparable damage to le Grande Armée as they collapsed into a Moscow on fire.

France is devastated as Moscow burns. It had been Napoleon’s goal to capture the city, with its obvious large food stocks for the coming winter, and billet there until winter had passed. Russia had other plans and instead set Moscow ablaze, burning about a third of the city (mostly comprised of wooden buildings) completely and rendering it about 70% destroyed as a whole. Napoleon demanded Russia’s defeat but Alexander and Kutuzov did not even give it a thought – why would they? They were safe behind Moscow; or in Alexander’s case, in his imperial capital at St. Petersburg, hundreds of miles to the north in safety. But Moscow was lost for both sides. Gone was food and housing and the French soldiers went on les maraud. Churches and other places of business were ransacked, homes of the nobles were looted, women were raped and gangs of Russian men roamed the city, looking for a fight with the largely drunk soldiers. Zamoyski describes les maraud in intricate detail, owed to a painting by an unknown artist depicting French soldiers storming a house and looting and raping the inhabitants as well as the diary kept by Caulaincourt. They spend around three weeks in Moscow as Napoleon is forced to lick his wounds and come up with an escape plan.

But Napoleon has no plan other than to run for the Prussian border, some 900km west. Here is the greatest triumph of 1812 with Zamoyski’s brilliantly detailed description of France’s flight from Moscow. Winter was already setting in, food was scarce, uniforms and equipment were falling apart, and they were constantly harangued by Cossacks out for revenge. The retreat to the border is not for the weak of stomach as every bloody gory horrible detail is described. This includes one particular story of a woman breastfeeding her newborn that had frozen to death, but the child was still living and crying, so a soldier pulled the child off the frozen woman’s breast ripping the breast clean off the woman’s body. The hopelessness of the retreat is brought to life as le Grande Armée dies by the thousand as Napoleon flees ahead of the main pact and hurries back to Paris, but eventually they make it to the Prussian border after the terrifying crossing of the Berezina, where even more die after falling into the freezing water when the bridge boats collapse. As the last men cross the border, with Marshal Ney one of the final to cross, le Grande Armée had been reduced from 610,000 soldiers to barely 25,000. So too had Napoleon’s myth died.

1812 truly is an excellent, detailed and historically accurate historical study of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign into Russia. If there is one criticism of this novel to bad had is that it mostly tells the story from the French perspective, there being more French sources than Russian available, but the Russian side does get plenty of attention regardless. But otherwise, it is a superb read, not least of all because Zamoyski’s writing style is easy on the mind and eyes.

The descriptive style flows from page-to-page and you really do get wrapped up in the narrative. I would almost say Zamoyski’s easy style, use of diaries and quotes makes it like reading fiction. While he gets down to the nuts and bolts of the campaign it never gets boring, like many non-fiction novels can do, and leaves you constantly wanting more. It’s engrossing, comprehensive, detailed and brilliantly written. If you have some interest in Napoleon, Russian history or the Napoleonic wars I just cannot recommend it any higher, it is a top notch read.

9.5/10.

“Four Days in June,” by Iain Gale

19 Sep

“Four Days in June,” by Iain Gale (358p)

Four Days in June is the debut novel by Scottish author Iain Gale. It depicts the three battles (Quatre-Bras, Ligny and the main one at Waterloo) from June 15 to June 18 that brought an end to Napoleon for once and for all.

Primarily, Four Days in June tells the story from the viewpoint of five men that fought it: Col. Sir William Howe de Lancey, Wellington’s personal aid; Gen. James MacDonnell; the man defending Hougoumont; Gen. Hans Ernst von Ziethen, commander of a corps of Prussians at Ligny; Marshal Michel Ney, second-in-command of the French Army; and Napoleon. Gale weaves in and out across the four days from the five points of view, constructing a very compelling story in the process with this style of storytelling.

It begins on the 15th with von Ziethen and de Lancey as the allied commanders hear word of Napoleon’s deceptive tactics at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, where with de Lancey we read Wellington’s famous line – “humbugged, by God!” From there, it sweeps across the next day as the twin battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny are fought where de Lancey and Ney narrate Quatre-Bras while von Ziethen mainly narrates Ligny, intermitted with a chapter told by Napoleon and the action at Hougoumont told from MacDonnell’s perspective. Gale fully encapsulates Napoleon’s ailing health and his errors at Waterloo, describing Napoleon’s thought process quite unlike any other author I have encountered.

The second half of the novel takes place on the 18th as the action moves to the main battle, at Waterloo. All five narrators take it in turns to describe Waterloo, de Lancey provides most of it as his position alongside Wellington gave him the best vantage point of all. Wellington attacks and de Lancey describes it, Ney and Napoleon counter it and commentate on their moves, while von Ziethen leads a hurried Prussian army from Ligny to Waterloo to assist Wellington after being checked by the French two days prior. One of the best chapters in the entire novel is Ney’s narration of his foolish cavalry charge into a mass of squared British troops that more or less undid the French at Waterloo as well as the chapter describing de Lancey’s death from a cannonball, where he tells of his love for his wife.

This is a gutsy novel to write. It is historically accurate, but for a new author in his first attempt to delve into the mind of Napoleon (which, by 1815, was probably a load of mush too) takes some courage, yet Gale really does deliver. The self-appraisal, the self-gratification and the self-adulation that flow through Napoleon’s narration are more or less what I imagine Napoleon had been thinking on those four days. It is the same with the other four – Gale has mainly used contemporary diaries as well as his own writing skill to construct the story.

I also found this to be a challenging read. Challenging in a good way, however. Admittedly Gale used an interesting style to write it and because of it the reader has to concentrate. The way the story is told means you have to use your own brain to work what is really happening and what is just fluff. So, if you are just looking at the page and not reading the words you won’t fully understand Gale’s somewhat complicated description of Waterloo, and miss out on a lot of interesting little details. I found that I sometimes had to go back and re-read the narrative, as I had misinterpreted something. In many ways this is more of a political thriller that uses Waterloo as its backdrop than the type of pulp-adventure usually found in this genre.

It is an interesting new take on one of the most famous military clashes in history. Read with caution, however, as it is not a light read and is more serious fiction. But if you are after a cerebral version and an original take on the Battle of Waterloo then I highly recommend Four Days in June.

8.5/10.