Sir Arthur Wellesley takes the army into Spain. In camp, Sharpe and Harper watch the arrival of a new regiment - the South Essex. At its head is Col. Sir Henry Simmerson, accompanied by Simmerson's nephew Lt. Gibbons, Lt. Berry, Maj. Lennox (a veteran of the Indian Campaign), Capt. Leroy (a loyalist American) and Countess Josefina who is under the 'protection' of Lt. Gibbons. The South Essex is a battalion run by incompetents and filled with soldiers that have never been in battle.
Wellesley is unimpressed by Simmerson and his regiment, but, as Simmerson is a political animal, he arranges a 'small victory' for him - blowing the bridge at Valdelacasa. Wellesley orders Sgt Richard Sharpe to see that the mission is a success in exchange for a promotion to captain. Simmerson is infuriated to learn that Sharpe is not a gentleman and was raised from the ranks by Wellesley. In revenge, he orders Sharpe to train his men to fire three rounds a minute by nightfall, or they will be flogged as punishment for failure. Sharpe and Harper succeed infuriating Simmerson even more.
The following day, Simmerson orders Capt. Lennox to lead the South Essex across the bridge in an attempt to chase away a small French patrol. But the French cavalry appears as the new soldiers cross the bridge. They panic and are cut to pieces by the cavalry. Sharpe and the Chosen Men run to help the stricken unit. In his panic, Simmerson orders the bridge to be blown, leaving Sharpe and his men stranded. The French make off with the Colours, watched by Sharpe and the dying Lennox.
Wellesley breaks up what is left of the South Essex and gives command of the Light Company to the newly promoted Captain Sharpe. Simmerson is outraged and threatens to use his influence in London to have Sharpe stripped of his rank. The only thing Sharpe can do to retain his rank is perform an act of outstanding valour. Sharpe vows to save the honour of the regiment by capturing a French Imperial standard: an eagle.