Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sharpe's Eagle

Sharpe's Eagle
© 1981 Bernard Cornwell
270 pages


The year is 1809, and much of western Europe has been subdued by the First French Empire. Napoleon Bonaparte rules as Europe's greatest emperor, but there are those who resist. England stands apart from Europe  and has employed her mighty navy to forestall an invasion of the British isles. In Spain her armies stand beside those of the dons. Richard Sharpe of the 95th Rifles is an accomplished soldier, having spent half his life in uniform, and on the eve of one of the bloodiest battles of the war he's been tasked with helping a newly-mustered battalion of troops destroy a bridge to make things more interesting for La Grande Armée .

Unfortunately for Sharpe -- a man who rose through the ranks on merit and brazen accomplishments --  the officers in charge of the expedition are aristocrats more interested in playing soldier than learning how to fight. For them, a soldiering is a dashing affair involving men in bright uniforms marching to the sound of the fife and drums, scaring the enemy way by sheer presence. Their incompetence is matched only by their contempt for the men they lead and their own hubris. So woefully inadequate is one such man -- Colonel Sir Henry Simmerson of the South Essex -- that a simple expedition ends in humiliating failure. French horsemen route a force ten times their size and spirit away the King's Colors: the regiment's battle-standard. The actions of Sharpe salvage the affair somewhat, but make him an enemy of the Colonel.  In the larger battle to come, Sharpe must find a way to redeem the regiment's honor despite its leadership.

Richard Sharpe is an interesting character to read about: closer to Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds than to the archetype of the noble hero, beyond reproach. He cares for honor in his way and looks after those around him. Cornwell's writing is up to the job of describing the toils of character and war. He portrays 19th century warfare well enough to make maneuvers clear to someone lacking particular interest in troop maneuvers, and unexpected humor abounds.

This went well for my first foray into the Sharpe series: it's a fun read, and I'm hoping further books will give me an image of the peninsular war, something more or less unknown to me. (My knowledge of the Napoleonic wars is limited to Trafalgar, Austerlitz, and Waterloo.)

Related:

  • Sharpe's Eagle on Youtube. The novels have dramatized, and I enjoyed the first one. The actor portraying Simmerson does a terrific job of making him loathsome. (He shows up in the beginning of this clip.)
  • Jeff Shaara's  American Civil War novels. The style of warfare is somewhat similar, though cavalry's role is much less prominent. Shaara uses a panel of viewpoint characters to portray the same events from multiple angles. 

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