Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Assaye, September 1803
by Bernard Cornwell
384 pages, HarperCollins
Review by Pat Black
Sergeant Sharpe, reporting for duty.
Richard Sharpe, having earned his sergeant’s stripes after the siege of Seringapatam in 1799, is back in action in Bernard Cornwell’s all-action sequel, Sharpe’s Triumph.
We catch up with Sharpie in 1803. He is still billeted in India, his uniform weighed down with the jewels he looted from the Tippoo of Mysore in the previous book. The British Army under General Wellesley – known to generations of Glaswegians as the horseman with the traffic cone hat on Queen Street; to everyone else, the Duke of Wellington – is set for a dust-up with the Mahratta confederacy for the greater glory of the British East India Company at the turn of the 19th century.
After Sharpe narrowly escapes a massacre at a fort, ordered by one of the enemy commanders, the English officer William Dodd, he itches for revenge – as well as a promotion. Fate places him in the path of the young Wellesley, who has yet to prove himself in a full field engagement.
Scowling in the shadows is Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill, Sharpe’s twitchy, bible-quoting nemesis. Hakeswill sniffs out Sharpe’s plunder and engineers a false charge, accusing him of assaulting an officer, and obtains a warrant for his arrest. Hakeswill wants the Tippoo’s fortune for himself – but he also wants some payback, after Sharpe left him at the mercy of some big cats at the palace of Mysore in Sharpe’s Tiger. However, his plan to capture and murder Sharpe runs into a formidable obstacle – Sharpe’s sponsor, a god-fearing presbyterian Scots colonel in the Company called McCandless.
Meanwhile, Wellesley marches his forces towards Ahmudneggur, where he hopes to link up with General Stevenson’s forces. After an audacious attack, Wellesley takes the city and marches on. But the Mahratta confederacy, under the command of the Hanoverian officer Pohlmann, has laid a trap for the British and Indian forces at the village of Assaye. Wellesley, despite being massively outnumbered, decides to fight.
This is a gripping novel. Cornwell’s great skill is in mingling personal conflicts with larger scale engagements, and maintaining a natural flow of events. So you go from being in the teeth of the action with Sharpe – who is also taking part in his first full-scale land battle – before pulling back to see Wellesley and Pohlmann deal with the larger pieces on the board.
Sharpe relishes a chance to prove himself on the battlefield, but also doubts himself. He wonders if he would have the nerve to stand in the front lines, facing musket balls, obliterating cannon fire and the flashing sabres of the enemy. Would you? Would anyone?
The personal clashes reminded me of school novels, from Billy Bunter right up to Harry Potter. Sharpe has friends and supporters, but he also has deadly, lifelong enemies. You’re desperate for Sharpe to get even with these dastardly villains. It sounds reductive and corny – goodies v baddies - but Cornwell draws his characters beautifully. From Wellesley’s cold manner and legendary ruthlessness to Hakeswill’s quirky loquaciousness ("Assaulted him with a jukes pot, sir, liquids and solids, not proper for an Englishman"), the impressions take a long time to fade. Whether fair or foul, you are pleased to see every character reappear.
There’s plenty of blood and thunder, and the research is meticulous. Although one part, where a sword-wielding Sharpe fends off hordes of enemy soldiers in defence of Wellesley, seems far-fetched, it is based on a real incident. Wellesley’s horse Diomed was brought down in the midst of a battle and the general was, briefly, marooned deep in enemy territory. To go tribal on you for a moment, it was also pleasing to see the Scots being portrayed particularly well, thanks to the exploits of the 78th Highlanders at Assaye – an entrails and limbs-strewn triumph which is still marked by the regiment’s successors, the Royal Highland Fusiliers (2 SCOTS), every year.
You will probably have quite strong opinions about imperial wars fought for money, materials and influence in eastern lands, and rightly so. At least we didn’t bother with the propaganda so much back then – the state was upfront in its rapaciousness. But the Sharpe novels are stirring adventures with heroes and villains facing off amid pitch-perfect battle sequences. There are other historical novels and other writers of action and adventure, but surely there are few to combine both so skilfully as Cornwell.
Every boy likes toy soldiers.