Sergeants tied halberds together to form makeshift whipping posts

Saturday, March 21st, 2020

I recently started listening to the audiobook version of Sharpe’s Tiger, the first novel of the series that inspired the show starring Sean Bean (Boromir), and it’s so comically grim and cynical that I sought out its TV tropes page — which hardly emphasizes what stood out so much to me. 

This first story takes place in India, at the siege of Seringapatam, in 1799, and I was surprised to learn that British sergeants carried halberds regularly until 1792:

Fading as a battlefield weapon, the halberd stayed in military usage as a symbol of a sergeant’s rank. Gervase Markham wrote in 1625 that in England “halberds doe properly belong to the serjeants of companies.” For two centuries, halberds were closely associated with sergeants in European armies. Havildars, the equivalents of sergeants in the Indian companies of the army of the British East India Company, also carried them. Expressions such as “to get a halberd” meant receiving promotion to sergeant. By the late 17th century, if an English sergeant was demoted his dishonor was intensified by the confiscation of his halberd in front of the assembled company or garrison.

Sergeants straightened their formations, set distances between the ranks, or prodded men into line with the halberd. François-Apolline de Guibert wrote of the Prussian Army in 1778, “The sergeants’ halberds are sixteen feet long …. The divisions are closed at the right and left by sergeants; who, when there is occasion, hook their halberds together, and by this means enclose their platoons, so that the soldier cannot make his escape, but is obliged to fight.”

Because they could serve as measuring rods, halberds were useful for surveying the layout of a new camp. In a more macabre function, halberds were used to drag the dead from the ranks during a battle.

British Sergeant with Halberd

Some armies allowed sergeants to strike soldiers with the staffs of their halberds. For more formal punishment, sergeants tied halberds together to form makeshift whipping posts. Often, three were placed together as a tripod, while the prisoner was lashed to the staff of a fourth halberd tied horizontally across two of the other ones. In the British Army in the 18th century, to be “brought to the halberds” meant to get a flogging.

Sergeants of British grenadier and light infantry companies carried fusils instead of halberds. But, in battalion companies, sergeants carried halberds until 1792. In that year, sergeants took up pikes or spontoons.


  1. Neovictorian says:

    I really enjoyed this series. If I recall correctly, Sharpe’s Tiger is a “prequel” after a number of other books but it’s the first in the chronological order of his life.

  2. Kirk says:

    Bernard Cornwell has had a lot of financial successes, over the years, but I’ve found a lot of his work to be full of revisionist history shot through with wishful thinking.

    The Sharpe series is particularly bad–You’re constantly tripping over modern sensibilities being expressed by denizens of the late 18th Century, and it’s not at all in keeping with what you read in the original sources. There’s also a lot of “left-out” stuff which stems from what I suspect is a general lack of personal knowledge of what marching in the ranks would have been like for men like Sharpe and his men.

    Overall, it’s a decent series, has some good historical bits in it, but when considered as something compared to say, Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series, it’s not anywhere near as thoroughly well-done. The equivalent to that which describes Napoleonic ground warfare has yet to be written, and the Sharpe series ain’t it. As an introduction to the era, it’s not bad. As a definitive work? Not there. None of Cornwell’s stuff is, sadly–He’s a popular writer, and like everything else he does, it’s suffered the same Michenerization that Tom Clancy has–He’s churning out product, not literature.

    Which ain’t bad, altogether, but it’s something I can only take in limited doses. The really irritating thing is, you buy a new book, and what you feel like after a few chapters is that “…this is something I’ve already read, of his… All they did was file off the serial numbers, and change the names…”.

    I think I read the entire series, back when, but… It grew stale, long before he left the UK for the US, and started writing other series. Now, most of the stuff he churns out is the same set of stock characters with the same set of issues to work through, just in a different era. And, they all have modern sensibilities, ethics, and morals. None of his characters seem to be “of their era”.

    And, just once… I’d like to pick up a historical novel where the characters rang true for where, when, and who they really were representing. I’m about damn tired of reading crap where the protagonist Viking raider is anti-slavery and who really, really loves his fellow man. Be honest about it, writers–If you’re writing about the Teutonic Knights, get the characters right, don’t try to make them sympathetic Abraham Lincoln’s of their time and place. It doesn’t work.

  3. Waking Drake says:

    Not a novel, but I found a great memoir recently by a British soldier who served in India. He worked down the mines as a youth, then went through training and was sent to India. Lots of fascinating details, although more about things like their card games, prostitutes, and haggling for carpets than about the weapons they used.

    It’s in the public domain and has been released by the excellent folk at Faded Page, one of my favorite websites:

  4. N.N. says:

    Mr Kirk, you should try Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell saga, I hear.

  5. Graham says:

    Allan Mallinson’s Hervey novels, also a long series, might be worth trying.

    I’ve only read one, which was in médias res of the series, but enjoyed it.

    Tales of a cavalry officer in the same era.

    Don’t recall how PC it was. With Sharpe, I only recall his attitude toward black slavery when he met a Loyalist officer from Virginia.

  6. Kirk says:

    I’ve run into some of Mallinson’s work, didn’t know he did fiction–Him having been a serving soldier, albeit of the commissioned sort, I suspect his fiction would be a bit better informed on things.

    Cornwell, I’m afraid, has managed to turn much of his work into derivative commodity-item dreck, literary flotsam and jetsam.

    You want another good historical read, look to anything by George MacDonald Fraser, whose Flashman novels are well worth the read–If only for the fact that the man dares write an absolute anti-hero as a protagonist, and manages to make it work! His other stuff is excellent. The McAuslan books are excellent little gems of work, carrying on from his “Quartered Safe Out Here” autobiographical work.

    I’m also fond of Nevil Shute. There’s a little gem of his, “Trustee from the Tool Room”, that really deserves a much wider reading than it has.

  7. Graham says:

    I hadn’t realized that the Hervey series, exclusive of flashbacks, actually starts at Waterloo and proceeds with the character’s career in various European and colonial adventures after that.

    So in the historical period shading between that of Sharpe and of Flashman.

    They managed to get blurbs in praise from O’Brien, at least. And I do remember the one I read [probably Words of Command] being quite dense with technical and administrative/regimental matters, as well as things like when and how militia, yeomanry, or regular cavalry could be called out to suppress riot, and when and how a soldier could injure or kill a subject lawfully without it being murder. A whole segment of the book was devoted to the handling of such an incident.

    Can’t speak to the rest of it.

    I still have Fraser on my to read list for someday. Shute I was aware of only for “On the Beach”.

  8. Ray Hall says:

    Waking Drake, thanks for the recommendation.

  9. Paul from Canada says:

    I like Cornwell’s stuff. His re-imagining of the Arthurian legends in a more authentic setting (i.e. Celtic Britain at the time of the Saxon invasion), is pretty good.

    I generally find the historical details (of the actual battles) to be good, but I agree with Kirk, it has become formulaic, and repetitive. Some of the side characters are very good, like William Frederickson. I still have them all and read them occasionally, finding them entertaining and educational, but knowing their limitations. Same goes for his most recent work, (which spawned a not very good TV series).

    I second the recommendation of the Hervey series, and doubly so anything by George MacDonald-Fraser. He also wrote a non-fiction history of the Anglo-Scottish Borders, which was very good. He also did a short novel based on that history called The Candlemass Road, which I think is one of his best works.

    If you like Flashman, I recommend as a sort of anti-Flashman, John Biggins’ books. The Emperor’s Coloured Coat, Tomorrow The World, The Two Headed Eagle, A Sailor of Austria. It is about the adventures of Otto Prohaska, an Austro-Hungarian naval officer, from his cadet service to the end of WWI and a bit beyond.

    Like Flashman, he is writing his memoirs, or rather dictating them, as he nears the end of his life in a nursing home in Wales. Also like Flashman, he has a knack of getting involved in many of the signature events of his time and place, with a fascinating look into the culture and politics of the dying empire. Unlike Flashman, he is a (mostly) honourable, genuine hero.

    Biggins got the idea when he found a photo album of WWI photos in a junk shop, made by a submariner in the Austro-Hungarian navy. The character is somewhat based on an enhanced Georg Von Trapp, who is mentioned several times in the book.

    If you want something older and more historical, his other work, The Surgeon’s Apprentice is definitely worth the read.

    From the blurb….

    “A novel detailing the early years of the Flemish surgeon, explorer, astrologer, natural philosopher and proto-scientist Frans Michielszoon van Raveyck (1610-95). Born in mysterious circumstances in a small town in Flanders on Christmas Day 1610, the hero later becomes stepson to the town’s surgeon and is apprenticed to him following the family’s flight to England in 1622 to escape a charge of witchcraft. Forced to flee once more in 1625, to the Netherlands, following an unsuccessful operation for bladder stone on a local outlaw, Frans and his stepfather enter service aboard a Dutch warship and are involved in the disastrous Anglo-Dutch expedition to Cadiz in October 1625. Taken prisoner by the Spaniards, Frans escapes conscription into the Spanish Army only by entering service aboard a Dunkirk privateer ship, which takes him back to Flanders at the end of 1625.”

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