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Sharpe's Famous Deed -- Finally Explained
on July 27, 2001
Readers of Cornwell's Sharpe series have long been tantalized by references to infantry Sergeant Sharpe being raised (promoted) from the ranks of the enlisted men to the gentleman's officer corps by Lord Wellington in gratitude for having saved his life on the battlefield at Assaye in India, back in 1803. In this volume, we finally get the full story behind that seminal event in Sharpe's career, one that is mentioned in every volume in the series. At the time, a number of Indian princes (the Mahratta confederation) had banded together to resist further British incursion into their territory, and assembled a massive army of European-led units along with local and Arab mercenaries. As in many of the other books, Sharpe is sent on a small mission and ends up meeting the main villain of the piece, here a renegade English officer who is part of the Mahratta forces. Sharpe is later detailed to help capture the rogue officer, leading him to Wellington's first major set piece battle, at Assaye. And while the book is ostensibly a Sharpe book, it is this battle which Cornwell is clearly most interested in, and with good reason. In defeating an army some 10-20 times its number and equal equipment, Wellington's victory is one the great feats of military history (one which he ranked above his more famous win at Waterloo). Cornwell's recreation of the battle makes it eminently clear that two Scottish Highlander regiments (the 74th and 78th won the day for the British.
Many of the usual Sharpe elements are there, bloody fighting, foul villains (including the odious Sgt. Hakeswill), treachery, and climactic massive battle. What's more interesting about this book, however, is how different this younger Sharpe is from the scarred veteran we meet in the Peninsular Wars. He has yet to be in a real battle, and is clearly tentative and bewildered by the fog of battle. He's on his own, with no men of his own to command, and without a sidekick to add any dram of levity to the tale (although the dour, Bible-thumping, vegetarian, Scottish Colonel he's attached to is a somewhat comic figure at times). There is a woman he beds, but she�s much more peripheral to the plot compared with the ladies of Spain and Portugal Sharpe later encounters. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is when he is tempted by the offer to become an officer in the Mahratta army, with men to command, and riches to follow. He is clearly wavering but his true dream is to be able to return to his gutter origins wearing a British officer's uniform, the only one that counts.