It Is Not War #2: Sharpe’s Eagle

Disclaimer: I have a feeling I’ll be putting a lot of these up before “It Is Not War” posts.

Anyway, the vast majority of what I’m planning on covering in this series are big budget type stuff, the kind of CGI filled entertainment that invariably ends up getting it wrong.

In this case I’m discussing something where, in fairness, most of the inaccuracies are the result of a limited budget. The Sharpe television adaptations (this one was made in 1993) weren’t made on a shoestring budget, but they were hardly flush with cash.

I just want it to be clear, when I criticise and poke fun, I’m aware that they couldn’t afford to do anything else. With that said, I’m still going point out the flaws regardless, but the excuse is reasonable.

Also I love Sharpe and I love Sharpe’s Eagle, both the book and adaptation. I won’t go into plot details too much, but you should get a copy/watch it at some point. Because it’s awesome.

And before we start, ahem,


Ok, let’s get to it.

Sharpe’s Eagle – The Left Flank at Talavera

The tail end of this video is the start of the battle (and includes some of the skirmishing the night before the battle which I’m not including) starting around the 8 minute mark.

Above is the conclusion of Sharpe’s Eagle, the 1993 television adaptation of the Bernard Cornwell novel of the same name. It depicts the actions on the British left flank (the French right) during the Battle of Talevera, 28 July 1809.

Set-Up: The fight takes place in a number of fields in slightly uneven ground with the French side emerging from hills. A deep trench lies to the right of battlefield.

The British forces are the (fictional, though based loosely on the 44th Foot) South Essex Regiment. They compose somewhere between 30 to 50 or so bog standard redcoat infantry, a handful of Riflemen of the 95th Regiment, and a number of mounted officers.

The French (unnamed in the adaptation, but in reality, the division of General Francois Ruffin, part of the French I Corps) consist of a single large column of troops. It’s hard to estimate their numbers from the above, but they’re clearly outnumbering the British at least two or, more likely, three to one. They seem to be mostly ordinary infantry, a few in a skirmishing role. No cavalry. The French also have some artillery support behind them.

The British are commanded, at first, by Colonel Henry Simmerson, the arctypical incompetent, cowardly, British officer who has bought his commission. Later, the role of command gets shared by Captain Leroy, a more competent American loyalist and Captain Richard Sharpe, a Rifle officer raised from the ranks and one of the best soldiers in the Allied Army.

The French have no visible commander save for an officer holding the French Imperial Eagle.

The French aim is to simply break the British line and turn the flank of the Allied armies.

The British aim is twofold: turn back the French assault and, for Captain Sharpe, to capture the French Eagle (for those who don’t know, the French Imperial Eagle is the equivalent of a battle standard, the capture of which is the main driving force of the plot in latter half of the novel/adaptation).

So, the very first thing is: that (8.00, first vid) is not a regiment.

This is what’s protecting the left flank. This.

A regiment is a military unit that, in this historical period, usually numbered between 1’000 and 1’500 troops. What we have here is something in the region of a large platoon/small company. Calling them a regiment is a little odd. The TV adaptation takes pains at avoiding the word ‘regiment’ mind, but they’re a regiment in the book and Sharpe compares them directly to the Connaught Rangers and 48th Foot here (both regiments), so as far as I’m concerned they’re being presented as a regiment.

What’s even odder is the fact that Arthur Wellesley, the overall commander, has sent this bizarrely under strength regiment to be the far left flank of the entire Allied position. Just so we’re clear, these guys get turned about and the Allied Army is in very real danger of being flanked by a superior force. Game over. In reality, the defence of that flank was undertaken by far more men, close to 4’000 under Rowland “Daddy” Hill.

The French attack force is also quite small though. For such a critical objective (this is the far left flank after all), it’s a measly force. Then again, considering the amount of men Wellesley has spared for the defence, it’s not surprising Marshal Victor has sent little more than a company. In reality, the attacking troops were closer to 6’000 in number arrayed wide and deep.

Anyway, the reason that the South Essex is in such a critical position appears to be some kind of Machiavellian scheme concocted by Arthur Wellesley. His adjutants don’t seem to know what the hell is going on, which is a tad concerning for what is a rather important battle. Major Hogan (Brian Cox) outlines what they do know (8.13): the French won’t hit the British right flank because the position is too strong. The French won’t break through the centre (in the TV adaptation, this is where “Daddy” Hill is located, but he was on the left in reality. John Sherbrooke and Alexander MacKenzie held the centre). And they know, through previous experience that the left, held by Simmerson, will run.

I like to imagine a bit of dialogue got cut here:

Hogan: He knows Simmerson will run.

Lawford: I see…wait, what? Simmerson’s going to run?

Hogan: Well yeah.

Lawford: You’re sure about that? You’re not screwing with me?

Hogan: Haven’t the slightest doubt.

Lawford: Why…why the hell is our left flank being commanded by a guy you are certain is going to break and run?

Hogan: Well you see Lawford, I was talking Sir Author and he says to me ‘Hogan, you know…

Lawford: I’m getting the hell out of here before we get flanked. See ya.

Actually, scratch that. He says Simmerson will run, rather than the South Essex. You see, this is incredibly odd and risky behaviour being undertaken by Wellesley here (very out of character). He knows Simmerson, a coward who just a few days previously lost the Kings Colours (the British equivalent of an Eagle), will cut and run. But he’s banking on Sharpe, a personal favourite, to rally the regiment and hold the line knowing the Rifleman is going to make a grab for an Eagle. If all goes to plan the French will be thrown back, Simmerson will look like a coward and won’t be a problem anymore and Sharpe will be the hero.

Risky much? What happens if Simmerson (based on past form) launches an attack? What happens if Simmerson gets the Regiment to retreat? What happens if Sharpe screws it up? (He is just a Captain, albeit a very capable Captain, after all. And Wellesley knows his mind is full of revenge, not the best mindset for a commander). This whole plan is a zero sum game. One part of it doesn’t work out and the regiment, the flank and perhaps the entire army is done for.

But screw it, that’s the plan and Wellesley’s sticking to it.

A word on the artillery. Firstly, there isn’t a lot of it. Secondly, it’s woefully inaccurate. Third, it’s not making a very big bang. The role of artillery is reduced to a few squibs going off a bit close to the soldiers. And not very big squibs. Moreover, the French appear to have developed some form of stealth cannonball that makes no sound upon its approach. Also, the French guns appear to suffer from no recoil whatsoever. Amazing tech, those French have.

It’s a far cry from the real battle, where the British positions were pounded all morning by extensive barrage.

Cavalry is sorely lacking here, with the exception of a handful of mounted officers. In reality, a mounted detachment of the Kings German Legion was nearby to offer support to the left flank, though they didn’t get actively involved in the fighting till a bit later. While the British are able to get most of their officers on horseback, the French appear to think better of it for some reason.

The British line, due to its small size, is way too thin in terms of width. Look at that farmland to the (viewers) right. Why the French are choosing to walk straight at this thin red line, rather than attempt to outflank it in any way, is unrealistic of Napoleonic combat. In reality, the French attacked without realising the extent of the defenders numbers (they were able to stay concealed for as long as possible), and the British line was far wider, making flanking moves impossible.

Here, the situation screams for a flanking move. Lined up, the French would outmatch their opponent big time.

Anyway, Simmerson, as expected, runs off upon first sight of the French along with his equally worthless nephew Lt Gibbons (9.45). This leaves the British with only one horse, but since the French don’t have any, they still have the advantage. Sharpe rallies the men into line.

As an aside from my critique, when Richard Sharpe tells you to stand fast, you bloody stand fast.

Anyway the South Essex stays in line, two ranks deep. The Riflemen engage in their skirmisher role at this point (0.04 second vid). But it’s presented in an extremely limited fashion. The Skirmisher portions of the defence should be larger, and they should be advancing further out before they fire. At this point they don’t seem to have any opposition from opposing skirmishers for no good reason. As a result, they start picking off men.

The French offering no response to this is a little strange. We briefly see a few men ahead of the column but they don’t seem to do anything (9.32, first vid). It’s a morale killer for them and a boost for the British. In more tangible terms, not deploying their own skirmishers to counter the British leaves their officers and, by extent, their organisation and discipline in jeopardy.

The argument can be made that the British Baker Rifle, with its long-range, means the Chosen Men get to shoot first anyway, the only reason the French haven’t deployed their own skirmishers being that their muskets don’t have the range to compete.

But it is this very limitation that necessitates the skirmishers being deployed early and ahead of the main force. A good bit ahead. Some apparent French skirmishers do turn up in a minute, but only after their main column has come within range of the British line, far too late for them to do their jobs properly.

At this point Sharpe, the officer whose words just got the regiment to hold their positions in the face of their commander’s retreat, promptly leaves to enact his own part of the plan (0.40, second vid). He tells Leroy to keep up a firing rate of three rounds a minute and runs off with the Riflemen and the last remaining junior officer, the young Lt Denny, who throws his hat off as he goes.

I want you, the reader, to put yourself in the shoes of one of these South Essex Redcoats. You and your paltry regiment are all that’s holding the left flank. You got your ass handed to you a few days ago by the French, losing your battle standard and, by extension, your honour. Your CO is a horse’s ass whose has driven your morale into the ground through pointless assaults and floggings. The best officer the regiment had was killed a few days ago.

Now your CO rides off with another of the junior officers, telling you to retreat as he goes. You panic, understandably, and start to break. But just then, the northern accented Riflemen, the Captain who has taught you more about how to be a soldier in the last few days then Simmerson ever did, orders you to stand. So you do. And suddenly Riflemen are killing the French (where the hell are their skirmishers you think to yourself?) and it doesn’t seem so bad.

But then, the Officer just runs to the right down a trench with not only all of the Riflemen, the only experienced soldiers here, but your last remaining junior officer. He hasn’t explained where he’s going, or what he’s doing. He just runs off.

How would you feel? The officers are running off, the enemy’s getting closer and closer, you’ve never even stood in a line like this in battle. I’ll tell you, when Sharpe runs off just then, it’s kind of a miracle the South Essex’s morale and discipline doesn’t shatter into pieces.

This is really a personal interpretation of course, but I find it hard to believe that the “regiment” stands fast at that point. None of them run, or even seem to think about running. Morale and the ability of a unit to stand its ground was the deciding factor, remains the deciding factor, in so many battles and wars. I just think that, at that moment more than any other, the regiment would hightail it out of there. I suppose they still have Leroy, but he’s just had his orders disobeyed by a subordinate and the men have never seen him in a battle.

Anyway, Sharpe, the Chosen Men and Denny end up in this trench, another eerily silent cannonball going off behind them (1.07).  They are now to the right of the advancing French column. The column apparently hasn’t seen them go, or taken any notice of them whatsoever. Certainly, you’d think the French would be watching their flanks, but then again, that’s was cavalry is for.

Sharpe proclaims, as the French come within range of the British guns, that “It’ll take six (rounds) to stop ‘em.” (1.16) That’s an oddly specific number for him to pick out. British experience in the Peninsular War was not one of simply firing at the advancing French until they broke and ran (though I’m sure that did happen occasionally). Rather, the more common tactic was the to fire once, perhaps twice, to loosen the enemy up. then charge with bayonets attached. Considering six rounds will take the two ranks around a minute to fire (not represented at all well in this scene), it’s a big risk to wait that long to charge. They end up firing eight volleys as far as I can tell.

The line opens up in any case and the French start to fall. You’ll notice the actors are aiming their muskets somewhat high (1.24). In reality, they’d be firing over the heads of the French. Whether this was a safety precaution on set or, less likely, an attempt to represent the reluctance some had to actual fire their weapon at another human being, it looks a little silly.

The French finally employ a few of their skirmishers, but to little effect (1.59). It’s just too late for it at this point. Especially with what’s coming.

Finally, Sharpe springs into action. He and his Chosen Men emerge from the trench and charge headlong into the French flank (2.16).

Really though, the French column should be able to handle such an attack made by around six guys (though a number of Riflemen who didn’t exist a minute ago appear to have materialised out of nowhere at this point). After all, they still have the numerical advantage.

But in the face of this (for some reason, previously unseen) assault, the French stop dead, some of them throw down their weapons (mostly unfired) and start to run (2.25). It’s truly bizarre. Sure, they’ve lost some troops, but they were still going on. I don’t know what’s happened to make the French column lack the discipline to stick with the attack through some misfortunes, but they are a pretty poor reflection on Napoleons Army if this is all that they can take (In the book, it’s actually a French controlled Dutch regiment that Sharpe faces here, but no such identification is made in the adaptation. They certainly look French, check out the moustache on that Eagle bearer).

The South Essex cheers the French’s behaviour, I can only presume because it’s such a surprise. But, on the face of it, they do the right thing and charge (2.36 though I notice Leroy doesn’t actually say “Charge” they just go. Dodgy). Leroy, for his part, pulls out a pistol and rides with them. Really, this is kinda stupid. The French cavalry could just about do some firing from horseback if it was required (nice sequence earlier in the book, where French cavalry break a British square using carbines) but using a pistol, on horseback, while moving, in the middle of a battle, is just stupid. It’s one shot, the likelihood of hitting anyone is astronomical, and then you have to get your sword out anyway.

The Redcoats and the Riflemen are in among the panicking French now. Given the wide space we see in during the battle, most of the French are already dead or run off (more in a minute.) We get some hand-to-hand combat sequences here (2.40 on). I like Sharpe, but the actors clearly didn’t know how to make it look good. Everything seems a tad slow, Baker Rifles are being fired from the hip, and they generally look like some re-enactors of Talavera on a day out. “I tap you in the back with the butt of my rifle, and you fall down” that sort of stuff. The peak is Sharpe’s attack on the Eagle bearer, where he’s supposed to have run him through with his sword but Sean Bean has very obviously done the “lodge it between his arm and flank” trick (3.23).

Anyway the remaining French, those still putting up a fight, see Sharpe with his hand on the Eagle and hightail it back the direction they came in (4.03). Just so we’re clear, this Eagle is the physical embodiment of the regiments honour. Protecting it is always a top priority. Losing it is a disgrace. It will actual become a stigma to any survivors and it will ruin the lives of surviving officers. The regiment will likely be disbanded in shame.

My point being, the French give it up very easily. Previously (more so in the book) the British fought tooth and nail to save their Colours when the French got them, even when they were caught in a hopeless tactical position. Infantry charged at French cavalry trying to get the flag back. It should be the same for the French column here. The British aren’t that many and the Riflemen look wrecked. The guy with his hand on the Eagle (and remember this is some stinking British scumbag as far the French should be concerned) is wounded and gasping.

The French should be, by all accounts, flinging themselves into the fray if only to get the Eagle back before they retreat. At worst, they should be trying to reform a distance away and try again. Without the Eagle, they have nothing but scorn, shame and disgrace to go back to. But they don’t. Instead they run off, leaving the British with their prize.

While the battle dies down, young Lt Denny dispatches a few remaining French before getting a bayonet through the back for his trouble (3.40). The French soldier in question leaves the bayonet in the Lt for a dramatically long few seconds, just enough for the Lt to look down and see it sticking out of him, before running off. Bayonet combat is stab, remove, stab, remove, fast, fast, fast. His column has collapsed around him, he shouldn’t be sticking around to make sure the Lt knows what’s happened to him.

As Denny lies dying, Leroy rides up, dismounts and cradles him like any good commander. You’ll notice in the background, a whole heap of French running away. Firstly, this means Leroy must have ridden on, alone, a way ahead of his men and into the French lines (Denny too, but on foot).

Secondly, the retreating French inexplicably pay no notice to the two British officers, backs turned, undefended lying just to their right. You can put it down to the panicked retreat but two points:

  1. A captured British officer meant promotion, ransom money and fame for anyone lucky enough to grab one.
  2. Even if you don’t want to take a prisoner, why not kill them? They’re enemy, they’re officers, and they’re undefended. Your regiment is facing the worst kind of dishonour when you get back to your lines. Why not take the officers down as a consolation prize?

The Redcoats soon thunder past Leroy and Denny in pursuit. They’re way out of position at this stage. Less than 50 Redcoats running towards French lines? The left flank now undefended? Like I said for Troy, that’s prime counter attack territory. Get another column in and you can turn it around, maybe even get that Eagle back.

But no, the French have had enough. All the French that is.

Following the capture of the Eagle, we cut back to Wellesley, Hogan and Lawson congratulating themselves on their victory (4.40). “Talavera will be the talk of London Sir” exclaims Hogan.

Seriously? What about the rest of the battle? Talavera was more than what I can only describe as a light skirmish on the left flank.

In fact, what Sharpe’s Eagle depicts was just the beginning. Ruffin’s attack took place around 5am that morning. There was a further nine hours of combat before the battle came to an end. In fact, the critical portion of the battle happened in the centre, heavily involving the 48th Foot.

Sure, you could say that they’re just not showing or mentioning the rest of the battle. Kind of odd that the commanders didn’t move from that exact spot the whole time, or that Sharpe’s actions are the only thing they talk about. I understand that Sharpe’s part in the clash is the focus, but a lot more happened at this battle.

Coming to the more serious point, though it isn’t specifically related to the depiction of the battle. Talavera is presented as a momentous British victory that Sharpe can claim a lot of the credit for.

The reality is different. The French retreated in good order and while they lost more men, the British lost a higher percentage of their force. Fires on the field that night killed many of the wounded. Wellesley misunderestimated the remaining strength of the enemy and in a series of marches and manoeuvres in the followings days, got put into a position where he had no choice but to retreat back into Portugal, while numerous British wounded in the hands of the Spanish army were abandoned, irreparably harming Anglo-Spanish relations.

I think it is fair to say that while Talevera was a definite tactical victory, it was more of a strategic defeat. The lost men crippled Allied operations for a long time, and the French suffered just a minor setback.

My issue here is that the truth of Talavera gets brushed under the carpet. The soul dissent, a sort of watered down acknowledgment of the loss, comes from Leroy who bitterly asks Sharpe if the capture of the Eagle was worth the lives lost. But the point is lost: Sharpe retorts, basically, that Leroy is the last person who should complain considering his fortune was made from slavery. Leroy isn’t the character who should be arguing the value of human life (6.30 on).

So, why? Like I mentioned at the start, mostly financial. There is no way that the creators could have re-created Talevera to a legitimate extent. The money simply wasn’t there to hire a full regiments worth of actors, more realistic squibs, fight choreographers etc.

This way, at least, we are able to see a basic example of classic British line tactics in comparison with the classic French column attack. The idea of volleys followed by a charge is also shown.

It is important to note that much of what occurred on the left flank that morning did happen along these lines, but the small-scale way it is presented here would necessitate a totally different kind of fight.

This battle depiction is really a way to re-enforce one of the central ideas of not just this book/adaptation but the Sharpe series in general: the ability to stand. As far as Sharpe is concerned, if you are able to hold your ground and keep firing volleys, you will stop the French. This little skirmish is the verification of this idea. But, as mentioned, it bears little reality to how the British operated. A small number, sometimes just a singular volley, followed by a charge. Standing fast and firing away is too risky, for reasons that Sharpe actually explains earlier (it’s difficult to get soldiers to stay where they are).

There is a definite pro-British slant here. The inexperienced Redcoats put the spineless French to flight, and the later British disasters are brushed under the carpet.

I still like Sharpe though. It’s good high adventure type stuff. And, in other books and adaptations, they do show accurate Napoleonic tactics, like how and when to form a square, how to fortify a position, how to fake your death so you can secretly investigate charges of improper conduct levied against you as part of an insidious French plot with the Catholic Church to get the Spanish back on their side…well, you know what I mean.

Sharpe’s Eagle. It’s glorious but it isn’t war.

Note: My sources for most of the above were this article, David Gates’ The Spanish Ulcer and Charles Esdaile’s The Penisular War, all excellent reads. Also thanks to my friend Eugene for clearing up some issues about regiment size during the period.

This entry was posted in History, It Is Not War, TV/Movies, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to It Is Not War #2: Sharpe’s Eagle

  1. Aido says:

    Another example of a battle where no emphasise is put on how much time the blasted things actually take! Seriously, I think that sort of thing does need a bit more focus…

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