This is a chapter of Sharpe's career that I've always been rather curious about. I'm not sure if Bernard Cornwell's ever going to fill the gap in but until he does, here's my attempt to cover what Sharpe was doing in the early days of the Peninsular War. I've done my best to be historically accurate but there may well be a few errors creeping in. Apologies in advance, hope you enjoy.
Richard Sharpe was in Portugal. It was a country he had never visited before and that he had never had any interest in but it was where the army had sent him and so it was where he was. Britain was at war with France and France was invading Portugal, Britain's oldest ally. So Britain had sent its army to stop them.
The place where Sharpe stood was called Mondego Bay. It was the landing place for the 14,000 British troops. Unloading all the men and equipment from the boats that had carried them there was expected to take a week. And they were not the only British troops on their way to Portugal. The 14,000 men led by Sir Arthur Wellesley would soon be joined by other men and other generals and one of those generals would take command of the British force. That disappointed Sharpe. He had fought with Wellesley in India, Wellesley had made him an officer, and he would rather follow the general than some old man who had never had a sniff of a battle.
Sharpe was an officer. He had been an officer for five years and, although he was called a lieutenant, he was still one of the lowest ranking officers in the army. For the past two months, he had been the quartermaster of the second battalion of the 95th Rifles. He had been transferred from the first battalion because of the intervention of William Lawford, an officer at Horse Guards who had been Sharpe's company officer when he was a private soldier in India. He had been transferred because the second battalion was the one being sent to Portugal, to war. And in war, men died, officers as well as privates, and when they died other officers were promoted to take their place. It was the only way to be promoted unless a man was rich and Sharpe was not. And Sharpe wanted to be promoted. He wanted to be more than a second lieutenant and quartermaster. He wanted to lead men as other officers did, officers younger and less experienced but with more money than Sharpe.
The voice belonged to Major Warren Dunnett. He was one of the two majors who served immediately under Sharpe's battalion commander, Colonel Hamlet Wade, the other being Major Robert Travers. And he was one of three officers who had transferred from the first battalion, the others being Sharpe and Captain John Murray, the commander of the light company who had brought his men with him. If there had been one officer that Sharpe would have happily left behind, it would have been Dunnett. Dunnett had looked down on Sharpe when Dunnett was a captain and he would no doubt look down on him even more now he had been raised to major.
"Sir,"Sharpe answered sullenly.
"What is your position in this battalion, Mister Sharpe?"
"I'm the quartermaster, sir."
"Then get to your duties, Mister Sharpe. The supplies we brought with us won't last. You need to replenish them."
Sharpe glanced at the dirt track that led to Figueira, the nearest city. Replenishing supplies meant going there, trading with the Portugese. It was standing orders that all food had to be paid for, especially since these people were Britain's allies. "Cooper!"Sharpe bellowed.
A young rifleman came rushing forward. Cooper was Sharpe's assistant, a newly enlisted soldier. He had an older brother in Captain Murray's company. "Yes, sir?"
"We're going to get supplies,"Sharpe said curtly, making it clear he wasn't after a long conversation on the subject. "Get the mule. We'll need it to carry the stuff back with us."
Sharpe started off in the direction of the road. But then another voice interrupted him. "Sharpe!"
Sharpe turned to the new speaker. David Machin was one of the battalion's lieutenants. He was ten years younger than Sharpe with no battlefield experience, yet the army said he was Sharpe's superior. "Yes, sir?"
Machin laughed at the formality. "I'm not going to put you on a charge, lieutenant. I just wondered if I could walk with you as far as the city. I want to do some reconnoitring. Given that we're in hostile territory, I thought we could probably do with travelling together."
Sharpe nodded. He noticed that Cooper had fallen into step behind the two officers, obviously not wanting to intrude on his superiors' conversation, and found it ironic that he might instill such apprehension in anyone. "I thought the Portugese were our allies,"he commented.
"They are, Sharpe, they are,"Machin agreed. "But they're being invaded by the French and the French are not our allies."
Sharpe gave a shrug that Machin could take to indicate agreement. "Have you ever fought the French?" he asked, although he knew Machin had not.
"Alas, no,"Machin confirmed. "You?"
"I was in the attack on Boxtel, when I was a private soldier." Sharpe gave a slight smile as he recalled an incident not in his official record. "And I was at Trafalgar."
Machin looked amused at the claim. "Trafalgar, Sharpe? I think you must be getting confused. That was a naval engagement. I suppose you must be looking forward to seeing them again."
"I don't suppose I'll be seeing much of them. Quartermasters don't get to do much fighting."
"Well, I am, Sharpe. I'm looking forward to seeing them a great deal."