Book Review:
The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes

By Mark Urban


There is a richness of biographical pickings for those interested in the Napoleonic Wars and a recent addition is both eye-opening and an enjoyable read.

The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes follows the career of George Scovell, a man who not only had to the battle class prejudice of his own commander, but also break the Great Cipher of France.

Scovell was an ambitious man who wanted to better his prospects by achieving high rank in the British army.

He was intelligent, a master of languages and, although 35 years old, was only a deputy-quartermaster's assistant. His purchase of a captaincy in the 4th Dragoons had hurt his finances and did not seem to be helping to achieve his goal of promotion.

His ability, energy and attention to detail, however, won him command of thew corps of Guides, which carried despatches for the army's headquarters, and from there his climb gained momentum.

Joining the staff, he added to his responsibilities - and pay - a number of official tasks, which included overall command of the Duke of Wellington's communications.

This then evolved into a vital, but seemingly thankless, task of cracking the French codes used by the commanders there to communicate with Paris.

Initially basic, the codes gave details of French units and how the bickering marshals were loath to help a colleague if it would not benefit themselves.

Scovell's language skill helped him with the easy ones - some 150 numbers - and then came the Great Cipher of 1400 numbers.

It was difficult and painstaking work, and often required logical guesswork to surmise the contents, but Scovell gradually deciphered the code to the level it could assist Wellington's operational plans.

Mark Urban has written a wonderful book that in a very readable way gets right into Wellington's headquarters and details a unique side of Napoleonic warfare.

The intelligence war, so disparagingly denied by Wellington in public, gave him a major advantage in deciding when to give, or avoid, battle.

Of particular interest to students of the period will be his fascinating descriptions of how Wellington behaved at crucial times before the attacks on Ciudad Rodriguez, Badajoz and Burgos, as well as Salamanca and Vitoria.

Despite his value to the army, Scovell never managed to achieve public recognition from the class-conscious Wellington, although he certainly had friends in high places.

A nicely produced 300-plus-page book, The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes has 15 lovely colour images of the major players of the Peninsular War, an example of the Great Cipher, and paintings of Scovell and his colleagues.

If there is one slight problem with the book - and my copy may have been an early review print - there are a number of major spelling mistakes that do jar a journalist's eye.

However, The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes can be heartily recommended for its content, writing and unique insight into the all-conquering British army that helped topple Napoleon Bonaparte.

- Richard Moore





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