Up from the ranks: Meet the real life Richard Sharpe

The British army of the Napoleonic wars isn’t remembered as being much of a meritocracy. Officers bought and sold commissions – coming up through the ranks was a rarity – unless you were John Shipp who managed it twice.

John Shipp leading the forlorn hope at Bharatpur
John Shipp leading the forlorn hope at Bharatpur

I’m sure you’ve heard of Richard Sharpe, Bernard Cornwall’s lovable and deadly, yet sadly fictitious Rifleman who shot, bludgeoned and shagged his way through the Napoleonic wars. He was a ranker who won a commission for saving Sir Arthur Wellesley’s life. But have you ever heard of John Shipp? Well, if you haven’t then you should read this article because it will blow your mind.

Shipp was a Sussex lad, born in the village of Saxmundham on 16th March 1785. At an early age his head was turned by a Royal artillery recruiting party that visited his village. From that moment he became army barmy, his heart set on joining up. At the age of ten his dream came true and he signed up as a drummer boy with the 22nd Regiment. They were soon dispatched to South Africa and his first taste of action was against a surprising foe – baboons:

“These rascals who are mostly abominable thieves used to annoy us exceedingly. Our barracks were under the hills, and when we went to parade we were invariably obliged to leave armed men for the protection of our property; and even in spite of this, they have frequently stolen our blankets and great-coats, or anything else they could lay their paws on. A poor woman, a soldiers wife, had washed her blanket and hung it out to dry, when some of these miscreants stole it and ran off into the woods which are high and woody. This drew upon them the indignation of the regiment and we formed a strong party armed with sticks and stones, to attack them, with a view of recovering the property…I was on the advance with about twenty men and I made a detour to cut them off from the caverns to which they always flew for shelter. They (the baboons) observed my movement and immediately detached about 50 to guard the entrance, while the others kept their post and we could distinctly see them collecting large stones and other missiles. One old grey headed one, who we’d seen before and nicknamed Father Murphy was seen distributing his orders and planning their attack…A scream from Father Murphy signalled the start of the encounter a host of baboons under his command rolled down enormous stones upon us, so that we were obliged to give up the contest, or some of us must inevitably have been killed. They actually followed us to our doors shouting their victory cry.” – Memoirs of John Shipp P.42-43.

Soon afterwards he met and fell for a foxy Boer girl called Sabina and he deserted to join her and her family. The Provost-marshal was having none of it though and he was arrested at gun point outside Cape Town soon afterwards. He was sentenced to 999 lashes which would surely have killed him – but luckily the C.O was a decent chap and let him off with a reprimand.

The regiment was then sent to India and his career began in earnest. He was now 18 and was quickly promoted from Drummer boy to Corporal, he was also taught to read and write by a friendly Captain.

In 1803 the 2nd Anglo-Maratha war kicked off and Shipp, now a Sergeant was at the forefront during the storming of the fortified town of Deig:

“Fortunately for us the whole of the enemies great guns were elevated too much, owing to which the shots passed over heads…Within fifty or sixty paces from the breach I received a matchlock ball in the head which dropped me to the ground, the blood flowing profusely…Our opponents fought hard to resist our entrance, throwing immense stones, pieces of trees, bundles of straw set on fire, stink pots etc, but resistance was in vain: we were determined to conquer.”

He obviously developed a taste for assaulting heavily defended walls as he now volunteered to lead the attack on Bhurtport (now Bharatpur).

“I went to my post at the head of the column, with my little band of heroes, twelve volunteers from the different corps of the army. Reader, you may believe me when I assure you, that at this critical juncture everything else was forgotten in the enthusiasm of the moment, except the contemplation of the honourable post confided to me. ‘What!’ thought I, ‘I, a youth, at the head of an Indian army!’ I began to think it presumption, when so many more experienced soldiers filled the ranks behind. I thought that every eye was upon me, and I did not regret the pitchy darkness of the night, which hid my blushing countenance. . .” Memoirs P.88

But the breach in the wall wasn’t what the men of the Forlorn hope had expected:

“We had at that moment reached the top of the breach, not more than three a-breast, when we found that the enemy had completely repaired that, by driving in large pieces of wood, stakes, stones, bushes, and pointed bamboos, through the crevices of which was a mass of spears jabbing diagonally, which seemed to move by mechanism. Such was the footing we had, that it was utterly impossible to approach these formidable weapons; meantime, small spears or darts were hurled at us ; and stones, lumps of wood, stink-pots, and bundles of lighted straw, thrown upon us. In the midst of this tumult, I got one of my legs through a hole, so that I could see into the interior of the fort. The people were like a swarm of bees. In a moment I felt something seize my foot ; I pulled with all my might, and at last succeeded in disengaging my leg, but leaving my boot behind me. Our establishing ourselves on this breach in sufficient force to dislodge this mass of spearmen,was physically impossible. Our poor fellows were mowed down like corn-fields, without the slightest hope of success.” Memoirs, P.89

The storming of Bharatpur, courtesy wikipedia
The storming of Bharatpur, courtesy wikipedia

For most men leading one Forlorn hope in their military career would have been exceptional…Despite the bloody failure of the first attack Shipp volunteered again. The second assault was equally as disastrous, but unperturbed Shipp volunteered for a third time. On 21st February 1805 he prepared to lead the final assault on the walls:

“I had made up my mind that I could not, in all human probability, escape a third time ; but He alone who created life can destroy it. In the evening I left my tent, to seek in solitude that consolation for my troubled bosom which the drunken and tumultuous riot of a camp could but ill afford…Scarcely had I gone beyond the discordant sound of revelry, and begun to muse upon the subjects that were ever uppermost in my mind, viz. the possibility of my ever returning to my native village, or ever seeing my poor father… Two o’clock in the afternoon of the next day was ordered for the assault. I forgot my aches and wounds, and was at my old post. Lieutenant Templer, of his majesty’s 76th regiment (he was a little man, but he possessed the heart of a lion) accompanied me on this occasion, with a small union jack, to plant on the enemy’s bastion. He gave me his hand, and smilingly said, ‘Shipp, I am come to rob you of part of your glory; you are a regular monopolist of that commodity.“ He continued, ‘I will place Old England’s banner on their haughty bastion, or die in the attempt!’ He fell a victim to his zeal, having first planted his colour on the bastion. On the way down from the camp, we met his excellency the commander-in-chief, and His lordship addressed me and my forlorn hope
 – ‘Sergeant it is with sincere regret I again see you wounded, and again at the head of your little band of heroes. I will not check your praise worthy spirit. go into glory, my lads, and may Heaven prosper your zeal, and crown you with triumph’ His lordship addressed every corps that passed him; but when the remnant of the two companies of the 22nd regiment marched by, he was seen to turn from them, and the tear fell down his cheek; but, fearful it might be observed, he took off his hat and cheered them. This was not the tear of Judas, for his lordship often shed tears of sorrow for our great loss at this place. He was a true soldier’s friend, and valued their lives as much as he did his own.”

Lake’s son was also a soldier and was to die leading his men at the battle of Rolica in Portugal.

Shipp noted that his colleagues weren’t as enthusiastic as they had been for the previous assaults. All around them lay the dead from previous repulses many of the bodies ripped to pieces and rotting. Despite this they charged back into the breach, but the result was the same:

“Our ascent was found, for the fourth time, to be quite impossible : every man who showed himself was sure of death. The soldiers in the fort were in chain armour. I speak this from positive conviction, for I myself fired at one man three times in the bastion, who was not six yards from me, and he did not even bob his head. We were told afterwards, that every man defending the breach was in full armour, which was a coat, breast-plate, shoulder-plates, and armlets, with a helmet and chain face-guard; so that our shots could avail but little. I had not been on the breach more than five minutes, when I was struck with a large shot on my back, thrown down from the top of the bastion, which made me lose my footing, and I was rolling down sideways, when I was brought up by a bayonet of one of our grenadiers passing through the shoe, into the fleshy part of the foot, and under the great toe. My fall carried everything down that was under me. The man who assisted me in getting up, was at that moment shot dead : his name was Courtenay, of the 22nd light company. I regained my place time enough to see poor Lieutenant Templer, who had planted the colour on the top, cut to pieces, by one of the enemy rushing out, and cutting him almost in two, as he lay flat upon his face on the top of the breach. The man was immediately shot dead, and trotted to the bottom of the ditch. I had not been in my new place long, when a stink-pot, or other earthen pot, containing combustible matter, fell on my pouch, in which were about fifty rounds of ball cartridges. The whole exploded; my pouch I never saw more, and I was precipitated from the top to the bottom of the bastion. How I got there in safety, I know not; but, when I came to myself, I found I was lying under the breach, with my legs in the water. I was much hurt from the fall, my face was severely scorched, my clothes much burnt, and all the hair on the back of my head burnt off. I for a time could not tell where I was. I crawled to the opposite side of the bank, and seated myself by a soldier of the same company, who did not know me. I sat here, quite unable to move, for some little time, till a cannon- ball struck in the ditch, which knocked the mud all over me. This added greatly to the elegance of my appearance ; and in this state I contrived, somehow or other, to crawl out of the ditch. At this moment the retreat was sounded, after every mortal effort had been made in vain.” Memoirs, P.101-102

A map of the fortifications at Bharatpur
A map of the fortifications at Bharatpur

The British had now suffered over 3000 casualties trying to capture the place and it was decided to give up. In the General orders that followed, Shipp found himself commissioned as an Ensign in his majesty’s 65th regiment. Knowing he would struggle financially Lord Lake, the General in charge, gave him two camels and a horse as a present. He then organized another promotion for him, this time to full Lieutenant in the 76th Regiment. Shipp had suffered a myriad of wounds during the siege of Bharatpore, including a gaping wound across his forehead which caused excruciating headaches and dizziness. Reading between the lines of his autobiography it also seems that the battle scarred him mentally causing what we might now recognize as PTSD:

“Scarcely a night passed that I did not dream of hair breadth escapes in the imminent deadly breach. I was fighting my battles over again…The report of a gun would startle me dreadfully; but with excellent constitutional care and avoiding drink, I soon recovered.” Memoirs, P.107.

Shipp the returned to the UK and joined his new regiment in Wakefield. It was here he let himself down and fell into the trap of many officers who’d come up from the ranks… He lived beyond his means, got deeply into debt and was forced to see his commission. Now before you stop reading, assuming that it is the end of the story – think again. For a man like John Shipp this was just the beginning. After finding himself with no money and homeless in London (I think many of us will know that feeling) he decided to re-enlist. This time he opted for a cavalry regiment – the 24th Dragoons. While doing his basic training he was recognized by an officer who had served in India and he was quickly promoted to the rank of Sergeant and sent back to serve in the sub-continent.
Once back in India he soon rose to RSM and then, shockingly was given another commission – this time as an Ensign in the 87th regiment – the old fogs. Often officers up from the ranks could be given a hard time by their colleagues and also by the men they commanded but Shipp found his reception very warm indeed:

“I immediately sought the acting adjutant, from whom, after I had announced my name and delivered my credentials, I received every politeness and attention. He introduced me at once to the commanding officer. Lieutenant- Colonel Miller, C. B., who received me in the most cordial manner, congratulated me on my appointment, and expressed himself much pleased at my accession to the regiment. All the officers of the corps flocked round me, and greeted me in the most handsome and friendly manner, every one of them inviting me to breakfast. That invitation, however, I had previously received from the kind commander of the Prince’s Own Irish regiment. This liberal conduct was the more gratifying to my feelings, as I must confess I did not anticipate any such friendly reception. I was well aware of the existing prejudice, and the caution with which officers promoted from the ranks were usually received; but no such prejudice prevailed in this distinguished corps : on the contrary, had I been the son of a duke, my reception could not have been more flattering or friendly.” P.139.

The regiment was en route to war with the Gurkhas and no doubt Shipp’s reputation made him a highly prized commodity.

As the war began Shipp was impressed by the Gurkhas and quickly had a chance to prove his own bravery in single combat with an enemy commander called Khissna Rhannah Bahader during the fighting at Makwanpur:

“I never saw more steadiness or more bravery exhibited by any set of men in my life. Run they would not; and of death they seemed to have no fear, though their comrades were falling thick around them, for we were so near that every shot told. At last some of their men began to give way; and, as we were ascending rapidly, their commander, or one of their principal officers, attempted to rally them. Having succeeded in this attempt for the moment, the said officer had the impudence to attack and put his majesty’s liege subject, John Shipp, ensign on full pay, and in the full vigour of his life and manhood, in bodily fear, on the king’s high hill of Muckwanpore… He was a strong powerful man, protected by two shields, one tied round his waist, and hanging over his thighs as low as his knees, and the other on the left arm, much larger than the one round his waist. From this gentleman there was no escape ; and, fortunately for me, I had my old twenty-fourther (sword) with me, which I had two or three days before put in good shaving order. With this I always obliged to act on the defensive, till I could catch my formidable opponent off his guard. He cut, I guarded; he thrust, I parried; until he became aggravated, and set to work with that impetuosity and determination, pretty generally understood by the phrase “hammer and tongs;” in the course of which he nearly cut my poor twenty-fourther in pieces. At last I found he was winded; but I could see nothing of the fellow, except his black face peeping above one shield, and his feet under the other; so I thought I would give him a cut five across his lower extremities; but he would not stand still a moment ; he cut as many capers as a French dancing-master, till I was quite out of patience with his folly. I did not like to quit my man ; so I tried his other extremities ; but he would not stand still, all I could do. At length, I made a feint at his toes, to cut them ; down went his shield from his face, to save his legs; up went the edge of my sword smack under his chin ; in endeavouring to get away from which, he threw his head back, which nearly tumbled off, and down he fell ; and I assure you, reader, I was not sorry for it, for he was a most unsociable neighbour. I don’t know whether I had a right or not, but I took the liberty of taking his sword, gold crescent, turban-chain, and large shield. The latter I sported on my left arm during the action, and it was fortunate for me that I did, for I found that the shield was ball-proof, and I should have been severely wounded, had I been deprived of this trophy.” P.164-165.

After the Gurkha war he saw more action and was on the staff of the left division of the ‘grand army’ under the Marquis of Hastings in the Mahratta and Pindaree war (1817–18), and was promoted lieutenant on 5 July 1821.

But again things went wrong for brave Shipp. Unfortunately he was no Richard Sharpe when it came to politics and climbing the slippery pole to promotion. In a strange turn of events he says:

“I entered into an agreement with the late Lieutenant-Colonel, then Major, Browne, to run, in partnership with him, at the ensuing Cawnpore races. My father-in-law being then in a bad state of health, and just about to leave India, I obtained leave of absence for six months, and accompanied him to Calcutta. Here I was to purchase certain horses. for the races; and the circumstances connected with this unfortunate racing transaction led ultimately to a court- martial.” P.315.

The incident seems rather confusing and opaque, but according to Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to 1900:

“He was inveigled into a series of bets on horse races which proved highly disastrous. Shipp was imprudent enough to reflect in writing upon the behaviour of a superior officer in regard to these transactions, and was discharged from the service by a court-martial held at Fort William on 14–27 July 1823. He was, however, recommended to mercy, ‘in consideration of his past services and wounds, and the high character that he had borne as an officer and a gentleman.’ On selling out, on 3 November 1825, the East India Company granted him a pension of £50, upon which he settled near Ealing in Middlesex”

As he says himself:

“From the age of nine to forty-one, I had now been in the army—a period of thirty-two years… In the course of those services, I had received six matchlock- ball wounds: One through the forehead, just above my eyes, which has so impaired my sight, that I have been obliged to use glasses for some years past. Two on the top of my head, from which have, at different times, been extracted sixteen pieces of bone. These two wounds, at every change of the weather, cause a most excruciating headache. One in the fleshy part of the right arm. One through the forefinger of my left hand. Of this finger I have entirely lost the use, and I am still obliged to nurse it with great care, several pieces of bone having been extracted from it, and some splinters, as I fear, being still remaining. One in the fleshy part of the right leg. I had also received a flesh wound in my left shoulder, with several other slighter wounds not worth mentioning.”

His amazing military career was over but his fascinating life continued as he branched out into writing books and plays, served in the police and ran a workhouse in Liverpool. Eventually, at the age of 50, Shipp died in Liverpool leaving a widow and children. He’d had a remarkable life – joining the army at ten years old and then twice rising from the ranks to become an Officer. John Shipp, I salute your, Sir.

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