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Author: : Sue Law
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Disclaimer: This short story is a not-for-profit work of fan fiction, a homage to the work of author Bernard Cornwell. The character of Richard Sharpe is the copyrighted property of Mr Bernard Cornwell and the story is based on the character as developed in Mr Cornwell's series of novels.
Time- Three months after Sharpe sees 'Lass' on her way- the ending of 'Sharpe's Sword'
It is early summer 1807. The previous October, 3 companies of 2/95 (Major Gardner) had departed for South America. The news so far is good. Now the rest of the battalion are preparing for an expedition to Europe. England has found out about a secret clause in the treaty of Tilsit giving Napoleon control of the Danish Navy. The Admiralty and Horse guards plan a pre-emptive strike to prevent it. In the meantime 2nd Lieutenant Richard Sharpe is still the second battalion's quartermaster, the best their Colonel has ever had. Disappointed at missing the South American expedition, this time he is confident he will go.
Technically 2nd Lieutenant Sharpe was a quartermaster and therefore a non-combatant. So were Sergeant Miller and Chosen Man Simms. In fact, despite their posting, all three were fighting men through and through. Every day, on Sharpe's desk beside the piles of papers which had to be filled in, checked, signed, or otherwise processed, lay his rifle, his name engraved on the patch-box lid. Since officers didn't carry longarms this was an oddity. But the 95th Rifles were an oddity in themselves and welcomed oddity, provided it came with brains. Encouraged by their officer's oddity, Miller and Simms had taken the opportunity to dust off their weapons, and the 2/95ths stores were now under the protection of three Baker rifles, though none of the men got much opportunity to fire them.
Army regulations said that QM staff didn't drill or train. Sharpe thought that was stupid, especially since the five companies of the 2/95th which had not gone on the South American expedition were under orders to sail and join the expeditionary force to Denmark and all three men were going as QM staff. In Sharpe's experience commissary and ordnance stores were a prime target for an enemy, and since the 95th were guaranteed to be at the front of the force and the wagons were at the back, it made sense that the QM staff be able to defend them. When Sharpe had put this point to them last year, before the expedition to South America had sailed, Lieutenant-Colonel Wade and Major Travers agreed. But despite Wade's approval, Sharpe and his staff were still not drilling.
Wade was one of the biggest oddities in an odd regiment. A crack shot, he thought nothing of asking one of the men to hold up a target card at 200 yards so he could demonstrate the accuracy of the Baker rifle. He was also prepared to hold a card himself for the top shots of the battalion. Sharpe had an secret ambition to be one of those top shots, but to do that he had to do arms practice. Amongst Wade's other oddities was a belief that making men use their brains in daily life made it more likely they would use them in the heat of battle, so he had a habit of turning every day matters into problems for his men (and especially junior officers) to solve. Sharpe wanted to do rifle practice, so Sharpe had to think of way to do it within army regulations. So far no way around the regulations had occurred to him and he had to wonder whether it was his inability to solve this problem which had led to another, more junior, lieutenant being selected to go with the three companies to South America.
It was June, and summer had arrived with a vengeance. Inside the Storeroom the air was hot and still, and as the three men worked the perspiration ran down their necks and bodies, saturating the coarse linen shirts the men had stripped down to. Sharpe wiped the back of his neck, and stifled a curse. The previous day the three of them had inspected and marked the wagons which would transport the supplies for four companies down to Dover for embarkation. The last of his Indian tan had long since gone, and the day in the sun after long hours in office and store had left all three men red and sore. Another reason, thought Sharpe, for them to get out more. With his Indian experience, he knew better than any other in the regiment that sunburn was hell on campaign. There had to be a way to get the three of them out onto the range, but the heat, the sweat, and the sunburn had turned his brain to mush, and he was struggling to keep his mind on the job in hand.
He had spent the morning in the office, working out lists. If all the spare boots went in one wagon, they would end up in one wagon at the end of the voyage. And when Private Atkins wanted a new pair, that wagon would be the one right at the tail end of the column. So Sharpe had worked out quantities for each item and Miller and Simms had taken the lists down to the store room to start checking that there was enough to meet requirements in store. While they did that, Sharpe sat and worked out how to divide the stores among the wagons (given that this would determine how they would be loaded in the ship, and unloaded at the other end). The ordnance had to go separately, at least for now, since the ship's captain would want it in the ship's magazine for safety, but when they got to Denmark some at least would need to be put in a ready supplies wagon. That finished, he was down with Miller and Simms checking the last of the items on the commissary list.
"Armoury now, sir," said Miller in his Kentish accent.
"Let's get to it," nodded Sharpe, the Cockney accent of his childhood tinged with a hint of Yorkshire. "Sooner we get it finished, sooner we can have a rest." The three men put their jackets and shakoes back on, tidied their accoutrements and picked up their rifles. Sharpe hooked on the cheap sabre he'd bought at a post battle auction after Assaye. Working in shirtsleeves was reasonable in the hot storeroom, but the armoury and magazine were on the other side of the parade ground, and even in the 95th, no soldier would be seen on the parade ground in undress. In the store room a certain camaraderie existed between the three men. Outside, in the sun, Sharpe was once again alone, the two NCOs falling in behind him. Even after three years, Sharpe still found these sudden moments of isolation hard.
At the armoury door, the guard saluted, Sharpe returned the salute and ran down the steps. In the armourer's office they put down their weapons, and donned felt bootees over their boots. Sharpe put his lists before the armourer, and enquired as to whether the items were available, or would they have to be ordered. The answers were positive, and the armourer led the way down and unlocked the door to the magazine. Muttering about having other work to do, he left them, locking the door and promising to return as soon as he heard a knock.
The armoury, partly underground, was cooler than the store, but darker. No naked flame was allowed near the battalion's store of black powder and cartridges, so the only light came from a couple of grilles near ceiling level and the solitary safelight behind its glass. As soon as they entered, Miller moved across and checked the safelight candle, his footsteps muffled by the felt slippers which would prevent his feet striking a spark against the stone floor. He nodded to Sharpe: the candle was fairly new and would last for the duration of their work. Sharpe pulled the lists out of his pouch and the four men went to work. The easiest items were the crates of spare rifles and parts. They were heavy, but riflemen looked after their weapons, so a minimum of spares were carried. Loose powder and ball were carried in larger quantities, with patches to provide the tight fit needed for special shots. The largest item by far was the crates and crates of pre-packed cartridges, a measured quantity of powder and a ball in a cartridge of oiled paper. Each crate was lined with multiple layers of oilskin to ensure the cartridges remained dry during storage and transport.
As Quartermaster, Sharpe was one of the few people authorised to break the seals on the crates. Being well aware of the tricks played with army stores, and the suffering they caused soldiers in the field, Sharpe was conscientious in breaking the seal, unlocking and checking each crate. After each check, he chalked the date on the crate and relocked it. They were nearly at the last crate when Miller asked permission to speak, Sharpe nodded.
"Well we've checked the crates and we've checked they's full, but there ain't no way we can check the quality of the powder in 'em." Sharpe paused, struck by a sudden idea. He looked round at Miller and Simms.
"Mebbe we can. Mebbe we should, at that," he said.
Later that afternoon Sharpe marched into Colonel Wade's office and drew himself up to attention. "Quartermaster's reports, sir," he said, placing the sheaf of papers he'd prepared that day on the Colonel's desk. "Bulk supplies and distribution sir."
"T'ank-you, Mr Sharpe," replied Wade with his slight Irish brogue, placing the papers to one side, "I have every confidence that all will be ordered in the smoothest possible fashion." Sharpe remained standing in front of the Colonel's desk. "Somet'ing else Mr Sharpe?" Sharpe could have sworn there was a twinkle in the depths of the Colonel's eye.
"Yes, sir." Sharpe paused, trying to get the wording right. "I wish to ensure that the cartridges for the Danish expedition are all in prime condition sir."
"And just how do you propose to do that?" The twinkle had deepened, and there was a hint of a smile on the Colonel's lips.
"Test fire a couple o' dozen cartridges from each case, sir. I'll need a written order."
"I wondered how long it would take you to work that one out, Mr Sharpe," replied Wade, reaching for a blank sheet of paper and scribbling a few lines. "Enjoy yourself," he smiled broadly as he handed the order over.
Historical Note: Lt-Col Hamlet Wade was real. He was transferred from 1/95 to become 2/95's founding commander and remained in that post until 1814 (when ill health forced his retirement from active service). He was Irish, he was eccentric, he was cheerful, and the story about he and his sergeant holding targets for each other at 200 yards is TRUE. Harry Smith tells of a meeting with him, during a night march in the Pyrenees. At the time Wade had mislaid his battalion, but was irrepressibly cheerful about it. Since it was partly Harry's fault, he helped the Colonel find them.