Richard Sharpe and his men, quartered in a crumbling Portuguese fort, are attacked by an elite French unit, led by an old enemy of Sharpe’s, and suffer heavy losses.
The army’s high command blame Sharpe for the disaster and his military career seems to be ruined. His only hope is to redeem himself on the battlefield. So with his honour at stake, against an overwhelming number of French troops, Sharpe leads his men to battle in the narrow streets of Fuentes de Oñoro.
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: First published in Great Britain in 1995
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Chosen Format: Paperback
My Rating of ‘Sharpe’s Battle’: 5 out of 5
As with all of the Sharpe novels (I own all twenty-one) I find the paperbacks with the battle scenes depicted on the front look far more classy than any of the other cover variants out there. Being the book snob that I am, I gave a good few away to charity shops purely because they were not this kind of cover. It is lovely seeing them arrayed on my bookshelf side by side.
The blurb for this one pretty much gives a good summary of the whole story. It does, however, tell a bit of a white lie. General Guy Loup is not an ‘old’ enemy of Sharpe’s. He is merely an enemy he makes at the start of the book after Sharpe essentially commits a war crime against Loup’s men (don’t worry, though. Our hero had darn good reasons for being a naughty boy like he was.)
I will start by saying, although this is the 12th novel in the series, you do not have to pick up the first eleven to enjoy this one. All are written in a way that makes them stand alone tales that are part of a larger series. That series being Richard Sharpe’s life and progression through Wellington’s army in Spain and Portugal … except the first three which take place much earlier in India. Also, for fans of the film version of ‘Sharpe’s Battle’, you will be treated to a far different end than the screen adaption due to the book not being finished at the time of production. So this is really one of those 2 for 1 deals 😀
From start to finish, Bernard Cornwell sucks the reader into the year 1811 and whisks you off to the Napoleonic era, slotting you in line amongst the other poor buggers destined to be thrown against the massed might of France and the horrific number of men she can bring to bear against all of Europe.
The battle scenes, as are typical with any Sharpe novel, are incredibly realistic. Cornwell gives good working descriptions of how each weapon, be it a sword (of which there are many varieties), a cannon (of which their are a multitude of shells that can be slotted into the beasty) or be it a musket or a rifle works and the kind of carnage they can wreak on the human body. With every round shot fired from a canon the reader is treated to descriptions of how it bounces and scythes into the French columns, spraying blood, arms, and even heads aside as it carves its bloody way through. You laugh at the foolish French who refused to use rifles (placing their faith in the far less accurate musket) due to the slow loading time. The time of which is inconsequential when you have highly-trained sharp shooters picking off your men a good two-hundred yards before your own can return fire.
Sharpe’s Battle is not all about fighting, as the name would imply (although there is a lot of it). There is intrigue, betrayal, political jockeying between the British and the Spanish, both of whom want the role of ‘Generalismo of Europe’s armies’ to go to their respective country’s highest ranking officer.
Alongside the main plot of Sharpe’s disgrace and hopeful reprieve in the event of his doing something insanely brave in the face of certain death, there is an intriguing sub-plot regarding the aforementioned betrayal and the discontent felt by the hefty Irish population serving in the British army (roughly a 3rd were Irish and nearly all of their number had great hatred for their British masters. It’s a good job they never decided to riot and turn upon the British as, if they had, they would have won the war for Napoleon).
The thing I like most about this, and the rest of the books in the Sharpe series is how historically accurate they are and how interesting they are because of this. Cornwell’s research is impeccable and he always includes a ‘historical note’ at the back of the book detailing the events of the novel and how they differed or where they are factually correct to what happened at the time. He also does a good job of bringing the historical characters; the generals, the colonels and, my personal favourite supporting character, Lord Wellington himself, to life.
Unlike the Sharpe short story I reviewed earlier on my blog, this novel, and none of its brother novels, were written for a newspaper. Due to this, the language is not censored nor are the more graphic parts of the battle scenes. I say graphic and, in some cases I often dislike when an author pours blood and gore into a fight just for effect. In the case of these novels, it would be offensive to the history involved if the blood and gore was not present due to how hideous the prospect of war back in the 1800s truly was. Men suffered terrifically painful injuries and, as detailed near the end of the book, they often had naught but a drunk surgeon with a blood-covered, rusty bone saw to look forward to when the battle was done. Nothing says brotherhood like sharing an unwashed bone saw and having you foot or arm added to the ever growing pile of lopped of limbs. And then there is the numerous ways a wound could be infected. Infection and disease was a far bigger killer than any Frenchman could ever have hoped to be … but I am going off on a tangent. I promise to try and not to teach you anything else 😛
The accuracy and overall high level of writing makes it impossible for me to give this piece anything other than full marks. I look forward to pressing on with the series and following Richard Sharpe and his trusty friend Patrick Harper in their adventures through the early 1800s.