Sharpe's Triumph


Bernard Cornwell




Date Reviewed:

June 17, 2022

harpe's Triumph is chronologically (set in 1803) the second novel in Bernard Cornwell's meticulously researched series feature Richard Sharpe, a soldier serving in the British Army during the Napoleonic wars. In this volume, Sharpe is still in India in the army led by Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington. Sharpe was promoted to Sergeant in the previous volume, but he has ambitions of still higher rank, to become an officer. Colonel McCandless warns Sharpe that being an officer is an expensive proposition - you have to pay for your horses, your meals and servants. But McCandless doesn't know that Sharpe is carrying a prince's ransom in jewels that he looted from the Tipoo during the seige of Seringapatam. But it takes more than wealth to become an officer, a non-aristocrat is rarely given an officer's stripes. It takes acts of incredible courage and luck to earn a battlefield promotion.

Sharpe's Triumph begins with a disaster. Sharpe is at the fort of Chasalgaon, on a routine mission with six men to collect 80,000 cartridges of ammunition and bring it back in ox-carts to Wellesley's army. Sharpe has just ventured from the cooking pot to use the privy, when a regiment of red-coated troops marches into the fort, led by Major Dodd. Unknown to the British, Dodd has renounced his allegiance to the crown and has joined forces with the rich Mahratta. Once inside the fort, Dodd's troops suddenly attack and slay everyone. Sharpe only escapes by playing dead (he's a lucky guy, a shallow scalp wound bleeds copiously, allowing him to convincingly portray a corpse). Dodd's men loot the fort, and then march away. Only then can Sharpe dare move, and hurry back to Wellesley's army to report the tragedy.

Cornwell does not shirk at portraying the craven greed and cruelty on both sides of the conflict. When Sharpe comes to claim those 80,000 cartridges, the commander informs him that six or seven thousand had been lost due to "spoilage". In reality, the ongoing warfare in India has made ammunition incredibly valuable, and a few thousand rounds can command a healthy price. And if those bullets are then used against the British troops? Just the cost of doing business.

The British storming of Ahmednuggur is described in detail in this book, the frontal attack was an act of suicidal courage that somehow succeeds because the defenders cannot imagine the British would attempt such a dangerous assault. In the aftermath, the British soldiers rampage through Ahmednuggur, raping and looting. The citizenry suffers horribly.

Cornwell also describes the sorry lot of the horde of followers that tramp behind the armies. Women to act as whores, children as servants. Sharpe witnesses one woman slicing through elephant dung in the desperate hope of finding undigested grain she can eat. When a battle ends, the horde descends upon the fallen and strips them of everything of value. They lead a life of desperate poverty, and the leaders on either side of the conflict are indifferent to their fate.

The Mahratta offers big money to European officers who will join his side and train and lead his troops. Anthony Pohlmann was once a sergeant with the East India Company, now he rides an elephant and has a vault full of gold and he commands the Mahratta's vast armies. Sharpe himself is tempted to defect. The wealth is certainly a lure, and the chance to be an officer is a bigger enticement. Sharpe genuinely considers Pohlmann's offer, but seeing the treacherous Major Dodd in the employ of the Mahratta is offputting. Plus, Sharpe desperately wants to wear the coat of a British officer so that when he returns to England he can strut in front of all the cruel louts who said he would never amount to anything.

The highlight of the book is the description of the battle of Assaye, in which a vastly outnumbered British army attempts a daring attack the Mahratta's European-trained soldiers. The Indians have the numbers, the resources, the guns, and training. But do they have the will to fight? Sir Wellesley aims to find out.

Book 3 in this series, Sharpe's Fortress, completes the "prequel trilogy" in India, before Sharpe finally gets down to fighting Napoleon in the final seventeen volumes in the series.