Sergeant Richard Sharpe and a small detachment arrive at an isolated East India Company fort to transport 80,000 recovered rounds of stolen ammunition to the armory at Seringapatam. Whilst Sharpe and his men rest, a company of East India Company sepoys arrive under the command of Lieutenant William Dodd. Dodd abruptly has his men massacre the unsuspecting, outnumbered garrison. Sharpe is wounded and feigns death, allowing him to escape Dodd’s determination to leave no witnesses.
Back in Seringapatam, Sharpe’s friend, Colonel McCandless, whom Sharpe met four years earlier during the siege of Seringapatam (Sharpe’s Tiger), questions him about Dodd. Dodd deserted the East India Company, taking with him his sepoys, and McCandless has been tasked with bringing him to justice, lest it give others similar ideas. McCandless orders Sharpe to accompany him since he can identify Dodd.
Dodd joins Colonel Anthony Pohlmann, commander of Daulat Scindia’s army, at the city of Ahmednuggur and is rewarded with a promotion to major and command of his own battalion. Since the Mysore Campaign, the British have been pushing further north into the Maratha Confederacy’s territory. Scinda is one of the Maratha rulers who have decided to resist the British advance. Scinda orders Pohlmann to assign a regiment to defend Ahmednuggur, so Pohlmann gives Dodd command of the unit and instructions to inflict casualties on the British, but most importantly, withdraw and keep the regiment intact.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill correctly guesses that Sharpe killed the Tippoo Sultan four years earlier at Seringapatam and looted the corpse. Hakeswill frames him for an attack on his former company commander, Captain Morris. Given a warrant to arrest Sharpe, Hakeswill recruits six cutthroats to help him murder Sharpe, so they can steal the treasure.
Sharpe and McCandless travel to the British army, escorted by Syud Sevajee, the Maratha leader of a band of mercenary cavalrymen working for the East India Company. They reach the army, now under the command of Major General Arthur Wellesley, Sharpe’s former regimental commander and the future Duke of Wellington. Upon arrival at Ahmednuggur, Wellesley quickly launches a risky escalade without the usual days-long artillery bombardment, in a bid to take the enemy by surprise. He quickly captures the poorly fortified town, to the amazement of Dodd, who has a poor opinion of Wellesley. Despite this, Dodd manages to extract his troops from the rout and retreats to Pohlmann’s army, much to McCandless’s anger. In the chaos of the battle, Sharpe rescues Simone Joubert, the French-Mauritian wife of a French officer in Dodd’s regiment. Under the pretext of returning Madame Joubert to her husband, McCandless hopes to be able to reconnoitre the Maratha army. They do not leave immediately, however, and Sharpe spends the night in Ahmednuggur with Simone.
The next day, they reach the Maratha army. Pohlmann deduces McCandless’s real intentions, but knowing that his army vastly outnumbers the British, allows McCandless to see everything he wants. At the same time, Pohlmann tries to recruit Sharpe, offering to make him a lieutenant. He tells Sharpe of the various successes that lowly Europeans have had in India, including his own rise from East India Company sergeant to commander of Scinda’s army. That evening, Sharpe considers defecting, but, before he can make a decision, his and McCandless’s horses are stolen, with McCandless being wounded. Sharpe apprehends one of the thieves, who turns out to be one of Dodd’s men. Both Sharpe and Pohlmann suspect that Dodd ordered the theft, but Pohlmann only has the thief executed. Meanwhile, Hakeswill takes his request to arrest Sharpe to Wellesley, who informs him that Sharpe will not return for some time. He assigns Hakeswill to the baggage train in the meantime, infuriating the impatient sergeant.
The Maratha army moves on, leaving McCandless behind, at his own request. Sharpe decides to look after the wounded colonel, which he uses as a reason to refuse Pohlmann’s offer. Nevertheless, he begins to wonder about how he might become an officer. Recognizing the ambition Pohlmann has stoked in the sergeant, McCandless cautions Sharpe. At the time, almost all of the officers in the British Army came from wealthy families and paid for their commissions. Those exceptional few who rose from the ranks were resented and had little chance of advancement. Whilst McCandless recovers, Syud Sevajee locates them and delivers McCandless’s report to Wellesley.
When McCandless is recovered enough, he and Sharpe rejoin the army as it advances towards Borkardan. Using some of the Tippoo’s jewels, Sharpe buys one of Wellesley’s horses for McCandless, though he pretends to Wellesley that McCandless is the purchaser. The surprised McCandless learns about Sharpe and the Tippoo’s death. The next day, Hakeswill attempts to arrest Sharpe, but McCandless smudges the ink on the warrant so that it reads “Sharp”, not “Sharpe”, and refuses to let him take Sharpe.
After weeks of aimless marching, the Maratha leaders meet and finally decide to engage the British near Assaye. Pohlmann is given overall command. The British have two forces, one under the command of Wellesley and the other under Colonel Stevenson. Pohlmann plans to fight and defeat them separately, before they can join forces. Wellesley discovers that the enemy is closer than he thought and fully aware of the situation, but is still determined to attack.
Pohlmann sets a trap. He deploys his army at what he is told is the only usable ford of the River Kaitna, but Wellesley deduces that there must be another one between two villages on opposite banks of the river. Using the second ford, Wellesley crosses the river to try to launch a flank attack, but Pohlmann redeploys to face him. Wellesley’s aide is killed, and Sharpe takes his place. Back with the baggage, McCandless confronts Hakeswill about the warrant and warns Hakeswill that he knows he lied and that he will inform his commander. On the British left, the 78th Highland Regiment and the sepoys advance through heavy artillery fire and rout much of the Maratha infantry. On the right, however, the 74th and some picquets advance too far towards the village of Assaye and are forced to form square against attack from Maratha light cavalry. Dodd’s regiment then attacks the two pinned-down units.
Meanwhile, some Maratha gunners retake their guns and fire them into the rear of Wellesley’s men, so Wellesley orders a cavalry charge. During the fight, he is unhorsed alone amidst the enemy. Sharpe launches a savage attack, saving his commander and single-handedly killing many men. Friendly troops arrive, and a shaken Wellesley leaves. With the collapse of the Maratha right, Dodd is forced to retreat. Hakeswill finds McCandless alone and kills him to save himself.
As the Maratha forces flee in disarray, Sharpe comes across Pohlmann, but does not apprehend him. He also finds Simone Joubert. Dodd killed her husband during the retreat, so Sharpe takes her under his protection. Eventually, he catches up to Wellesley’s staff and is astonished when Wellesley rewards him by giving him a battlefield promotion, making him an ensign in the 74th. Afterward, Hakeswill tries again to arrest Sharpe, but Sharpe’s new commanding officer points out that the warrant for Sergeant Sharpe is useless against Ensign Sharpe. Sharpe forces Hakeswill, who initially refuses to acknowledge Sharpe’s new rank, to address him as “sir”.
I’ve been trying to think what to say about this book and author. I enjoyed my time reading this. Cornwell can write and write well and engagingly. The people, the situations, they’re all quite fleshed out and drew me in.
At the same time, the titular character, Richard Sharpe, is a godless, immoral jackass with an attitude. It makes it very hard for me to want to like him and I don’t want to read about a character who I don’t like. Cornwell, who I have gathered has a thing against Christianity, never cross the line. But he’s exactly like that annoying kid in the back seat who puts his finger ON the line and starts denying that he’s done anything wrong. The only real Christian character is an old doddering man who is so uptight that he could run a grandfather clock for a decade. It isn’t that that isn’t inaccurate, but it is that that is the only example Cornwell chose to use. Like I said, finger on the line.
I was introduced to Sharpe by Inquisitor Jenn. So when she read a much later book (Sharpe’s Rifles) I asked her if Sharpe still had his attitude on. Apparently, he still does. Which means the finger is staying on the line and it’s going to feel like Cornwell is going “neener, neener, neener” to me while I holler at our parents “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad, make Bernard stooooooooop” and he’s screaming “But I’m not touching him!”
With all of this, I’m going to read the next book and see if Sharpe’s attitude bugs me still. It might just be that it bothered me this time because like Scrooge, I had a sandwich with too much mustard or something. Or it could be that Sharpe IS a real jerk. I’ll be making up my mind next book.