© 1986 Bernard Cornwell
The year is 1813, and the Allied army stands upon the Pyrenees awaiting the invasion of France and victory. Napoleon’s empire is shrinking: he once stood as master of Europe, but Wellington’s army and shrew diplomacy have stripped the Iberian peninsula from his influence, and the eastern members of the allied Coalition are increasingly restive. Now even Austria seems ready to enter the war against Napoleon. For Richard Sharpe, this should be a proud, happy moment. Wherever Wellington has triumphed in this campaign, Sharpe and his chosen men have been nearby — in the thick of the fight, perhaps, storming a fortress, or perhaps engaged in a bit of quiet skulduggery. These triumphs have come at a price, the ever-increasing butcher’s bill of casualties. The South Essex has suffered dearly, and needs reinforcements — reinforcements that are long overdue. Sharpe, temporarily commanding the regiment while awaiting a new superior officer to be appointed, is dismayed to learn that the brass is considering breaking up his regiment, dividing his men up to strengthen other units. To Sharpe, this is a tragedy and an outrage. His men, who fought together throughout Portugal and Spain, who have seen their colors flying through the worst battles of the war, deserve to invade France at one another’s side. Taking advantage of a temporary armistice, Sharpe and Harper decide to undertake a mission in Britain — to find their lost reinforcements and save their regiment. They find that the unit is imperiled not by administrative bungling, but subtle malice: the South Essex is the victim of a racket, its soldiers being sold to other regiments — and like any racket, danger awaits those who seek to expose it.
I appreciate Sharpe’s series most for its variety; though military action predominates, Cornwell often treats readers to smaller-scale action — sending Sharpe on little missions into cities, in the interests of diplomacy or espionage. Regiment is in this vein, although Sharpe isn’t sneaking through a foreign city but his homeland, and those interested in killing him wear his own uniform. It reminds me in part of Gallows Thief, as Sharpe is stealing through the land attempting to solve a mystery: where are his reinforcements? They exist on paper; they draw rations, but they seem to be nowhere at all. Sharpe and his faithful sergeant (now a Regimental Sergeant Major) decide to track the path of new recruits by following it: by assuming false names and joining up. Thus we get to experience through Sharpe the mustering-in process for young soldiers, something we missed earlier given that the series starts with Sharpe as a veteran soldier (both in Sharpe’s Tiger and in Sharpe’s Eagle).
As ever, humor and plot twists abound, and a romantic thread from the past is finally plucked up and will become part of future stories…though sadly, there aren’t too many more left. From the Pyrenees,Waterloo isn’t far distance. Between there and here, though, adventures await!