Book Review
Sharpe's Escape

by: Jim Rae [ JIMBRAE ]

As Armorama is a military modelling site, you may (with some reason) be wondering why a work of fiction is present in the reviews section. Simply there are several reasons. Firstly, we all use a variety of sources for inspiration. The Sharpe Novels by Bernard Cornwell, in my opinion at least, certainly fall into that category. Secondly, as many of us read historical textbooks to get that elusive 'feel' for a period, what better than a well researched historical novel to give us some human contact with that period. Thirdly, and finally, this series of books is highly entertaining.
Introduction - The Period and the Historical Setting

The period of the novel is late summer, 1810. The British and Portuguese are making a strategic withdrawal to the south, from the northern part of Portugal. Hugely outnumbered, facing them is a French force of 65,000 men commanded by Mariscal (Marshall) Masséna. The campaign hinged on two factors - the first was the orderly withdrawal of the Allied forces. The second was to stretch the French logistic line to breaking point. As the military adage goes:
"Amateurs speak of tactics, professionals of logistics... Something which was going to become horribly true with the beginning of one of the most fascinating campaigns of the Peninsular War - The Torres Vedras Campaign.
The book and its well-travelled characters

Sharpe's Escape is the 20th in Bernard Cornwell's series of novels with his true anti-hero - Richard Sharpe. Interestingly enough, it is only the tenth chronologically.

Sharpe is not the kind of person you would invite to a polite social gathering. Sharpe however, is precisely the kind of person you would want covering your flanks in any kind of melee. Sharpe grew up (literally) in the gutter, the story of his joining the British Army in the late 18th Century was typical of hundreds of thousands - an escape from grinding poverty and the promise of some kind of regular work. Sharpe rose from the ranks to become an officer - what is known in the United States as a Mustang. The route of promotion at that time (until the late 19th Century), was through patronage or the purchase of commissions - not the most logical form to produce a professional officer class. Officer's promoted from the 'ranks' were always treated with some suspicion by both officers and the rank and file.

Sharpe's Escape begins with Captain Sharpe of the (fictional) South Essex Regiment, in Portugal with the not very exciting task of the destruction of a large quantity of flour - the key strategy of the campaign,the denial of any materiél or food which would be of any use to the advancing French forces.This simple task leads to Sharpe and his loyal friend and Company Sergeant Major Harper into some VERY unforeseen situations which culminate (after many adventures) in their eventual arrival at one of the most extraordinary series of fortifications ever constructed - The Lines Of Torres Vedras.

The book is 'classic' Bernard Cornwell, fast, furious, sometimes very funny and in various occasions, extermely violent. The character of Sharpe is well-rounded as well, at no time does he degenerate into one of those swashbuckling cardboard creations which are sadly all too prevalent in fiction of this type. The research done by Cornwell is also first-class. He has invested considerable time in investigating the minutiae of daily life in the British Army of the Peninsula campaign - an army which consisted of the 'sweepings' of 19th Century society. Uniform details are well researched as are the various weaponry of the day - Cornwell has a fascination, it seems, with the most deadly of weapons in the Peninsula Campign - the Baker Rifle and the most deadly of formations of that campaign - the British Infantry Regiment...

Few authors are (at least for me) capable of holding my attention as much as Cornwell. Few characters have ever captured my interest as much as Sharpe or Harper. Few campaigns have the sheer breadth and variation as the Campaigns of the Peninsular War. Living, as I do, on the route of both the retreat and advance of the Allied Armies of the Peninsula probably acts as a certain motivation as well. Ultimately though, they are simply damned enjoyable books - Sharpe's Escape is not perhaps the best in the series but as Wellington is alleged to have said following the Battle of Waterloo "A damned close-run thing"

Further reading and some interesting sites.

Sharpe is (probably) based on a combination of real characters. The most interesting of those, is an autobiography of someone who served in the ranks themself:

A Dorset Rifleman: The Recollections of Benjamin Harris Benjamin Harris, Eileen Hathaway (Editor), Foreword by Bernard Cornwell - Shinglepicker Publications, ISBN: 0952278227

For a very readable work on life in Wellington's Army, few books serve as a better primer than:
Rifles: Six Years with Wellington's Elite - Edited by Mark Urban - Faber and Faber Ltd, ISBN:0571216803

The most extraordinary work in recent years (in my opinion) has been:
Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket - Written by Richard Holmes - HarperCollins, ISBN: 0006531520

No mention of Sharpe would be complete without mentioning this book:
MARCHING WITH SHARPE: What it was like to fight in Wellington’s Army - by B. J. Bluth, Foreword by Bernard Cornwell -HarperCollins ISBN: 0004145372

Finally, no bibliography would be complete without at least one website on the author himself: Bernard Cornwell's Website
This series of books is highly entertaining.
Percentage Rating
  Scale: 1:1
  Related Link: Harper Collins
  PUBLISHED: Nov 13, 2004

About Jim Rae (jimbrae)

Self-employed English teacher living in NW Spain. Been modelling off and on since the sixties. Came back into the hobby around ten years ago. First love is Soviet Armor with German subjects running a close second. Currently exploring ways of getting cloned to allow time for modelling, working and wr...

Copyright ©2021 text by Jim Rae [ JIMBRAE ]. All rights reserved.


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