Reviews: Books of General Interest

The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes

By Marc Urban

Urban, Mark. The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. 348 pages. ISBN: 006018891X. $26. Hardcover.

The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes

During the Peninsular War, the French invaders realized that their couriers were being captured on a regular basis and that there was little they could do about it.  To ensure that the message did get through to its destination, multiple copies were sent via several routes.  The French also knew that some of these messages would make their way into the hands of the British and that unless they took steps to encode their correspondence, the enemy would be able to read it.  In 1811, the French began to use a variety of codes to protect their messages.  Some were fairly simple, such as the Army of Portugal Cipher, while another, the Great Paris Cipher, was extremely complex. The French commanders assumed that even if the message was captured, the British would not be able to decode it.  They could not have made a grosser error, for they did not reckon with George Scovell – an obscure British staff officer.

Until now, little is known about George Scovell and his contributions to the Allied war effort.  Scovell was an officer with small prospects for promotion at the start of the Peninsular War.  He had no family connections and little money to purchase his next step in rank.  He transferred to the Royal Staff Corps and had a variety of jobs on Wellington’s staff – including military communications.  Almost by chance, he was given the opportunity to try and decipher some captured enemy communications. Scovell, it turns out, was a natural cryptologist, whose gift for breaking codes was based a combination of his linguistic skills, perseverance, and a knack for puzzles. Time and again, Scovell would provide Wellington with timely intelligence on the enemy, which would allow him to exploit a particular weakness.  Scovell’s deciphering of key messages on the enemy’s strength and dispositions, right before the battle of Salamanca, was critical to Wellington’s decision to fight and destroy the French Army of Portugal.  This battle is considered by many to be Wellington’s masterpiece.

The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes is a well written, fast moving story.  For those interested in spycraft and intelligence, the book is worth its weight in gold!  Scovell kept detailed journals of his life in Wellington’s army and in these journals he provided clues on how he broke the codes. Often Mr. Urban begins a passage with how a French message was intercepted and made its way into the hands of George Scovell.  From there, Mr. Urban shows the coded message and then takes the reader step-by-step through Scovell’s methodology for breaking them.  Although the book focuses on George Scovell, it is not a complete biography of his life. Instead it covers those years that he worked with the codes.  The book tells his story in chronological order, taking the reader through the numerous campaigns, battles and sieges.  The catch of course is Mr. Urban tells the story from the point of view of how the breaking of these codes influenced these events. 

One aspect of life on Wellington’s staff that Mr. Urban touches on briefly would make a modern counter-intelligence officer cringe.  Breaking a code is only half the problem.  The other half is ensuring that the enemy does not find out that his mail is being read.  This means that restrictions must be placed on who can see the information obtained from the broken code.  The more people who know the code has been broken, the more likely it will be that the enemy will also find out. Furthermore, anyone who has knowledge of the code must be protected from being captured.  Yet, these basic security precautions were often violated. At one point, Wellington shared an intercepted letter from King Joseph to Napoleon, with a Spanish politician.  Scovell also committed serious security breaches, including wandering around the front lines at the battle of  Salamanca with the decoded French cipher in his pocket and in 1813, commanding a cavalry unit attached to the Light Division, which was in the vanguard of the Anglo-Allied Army! His loss probably would have ended all British success at decoding the French ciphers.

In addition to writing of the code breaking and its affect on the outcome of the Peninsular War, Mr. Urban brings to life the caste system that permeated Wellington’s headquarters during the Peninsular War.  He provides convincing evidence that although Wellington surrounded himself with many gifted individuals, talent alone was not enough.  He was more comfortable with officers from the upper classes of society than from the lower classes. He took active interest in advancing the careers of the chosen ones of the social elite, yet often ignored the many talented officers with great merit, but had no political or social connections.  The author uses Wellington’s relationship with Scovell to expound this theory.  Wellington recognized the value of Scovell’s work, but because he was not from the upper classes, he made little effort to ensure that Scovell received the promotions he rightfully deserved.

Mr. Urban does an excellent job in bringing to light this important but obscure aspect of the Peninsular War. He writes in a lively, narrative style, drawing extensively on Scovell’s and other contemporary journals.  He provides necessary background information to keep the reader abreast of the military and political situation in the Peninsula, but does not inundate him with so much trivia that it distracts him from the real purpose of the book -- to show how the codes were broken and the importance of it on the outcome of the war.  The story moves quickly and often reads like a good spy novel, which will appeal to the casual reader.  Yet, there is so much new information on the code breaking and the inner workings of Wellington’s staff, it will hold the interest of those who specialize in the British Army of the era.

Unfortunately, there are a few minor flaws with this otherwise fine piece of scholarship.  Mr. Urban provides numerous quotations from journals and memoirs, but only gives the scantiest of citations on where he obtained them.  Furthermore there was no bibliography. This is particularly frustrating for those of us who are always looking for new primary sources.  Lastly, those who hoping to find a copy of the Great Paris Cipher or the Army of Portugal’s cipher in this book, will be sorely disappointed.  These oversights are an irritation, but do not outweigh the immense amount of new information Mr. Urban brings to light. I strongly recommend this book.


Reviewed by Robert Burnham
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2002


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