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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815

By Elizabeth Sparrow

Sparrow, Elizabeth. Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1999. 459 pages, 19 illus. ISBN# 0851157645. £25 or US$45. Hardcover.

Secret Service: British Agents in France cover

Napoleon himself was reputed to have said that a spy in the right place was worth 40,000 men, although the famous spy Schulmeister was only ever rewarded with plenty of money and not the Legion d'Honneur he reputedly craved. On the other side of the coin, the French would regularly attribute their setbacks to "English Gold". Using a wide range of British archives and France's Bibliothèque Nationale, together with valuable secondary works, Elizabeth Sparrow tells the story of the beginnings of the British espionage service from the start of the Revolutionary Wars to the second Bourbon Restoration in 1815. The initial networks were largely the work of William Wickham. They were developed out of the Alien Office (which was formed to look for French agitators amongst the émigrés crossing the Channel) into a network to handle both information gathering and the supply of that English gold to both allies and French rebels.

That is only part of the story. There are many French characters too. The more unfamiliar are the men actually the espionage and message carrying. The more familiar, including Napoleon himself, as well as Bernadotte, Massena and Moreau, are consistently involved, hoping to profit from the unfolding situation. The first part of the book, which is probably more complex and involves many characters appearing in quick succession, covers the British involvement with the various factions, especially those comprising the moderate monarchists, who favoured any strongman who could restore order and get rid of the hated Jacobins. The Bourbons had done little to help themselves and contrary to popular belief, Britain was not necessarily seeking their restoration. Therefore efforts were turned towards any successful General - Dumouriez, Pichegru, Moreau and, finally, Bonaparte. Ever wondered how he got through the Egypt blockade?

The second part of the book covers the changed situation under Napoleon's rule. This is rather more straightforward both in terms of the text and British operations, now primarily aimed at helping her Allies by the channeling of money and operations in France to divert Napoleons attention. As the Peace of Amiens broke down, what remained of the networks were reactivated in a bid to utilise internal dissent ultimately to bring about Napoleon's fall. French control of Switzerland was the key stumbling block and the British weren't concerned about it for its strategic position as much as it being Britain's primary conduit for information and support for the émigrés until 1799. Again, many famous personalities, many of whom knew about how far to go, appear, and brooding over it all was the cunning, but shadowy personality of Joseph Fouche, living an apparently charmed life. He managed to keep just enough information hidden about his involvement with Britain to prevent Napoleon from acting decisively against him.

The success of the British network is stunning - they were often in control of the Paris police, various characters were spirited out of danger or even jail. Vital information, both military and political, made its way into Allied hands as "English Gold" did its work. Surprisingly, even the famous Savary, Napoleon's second Chief of Police, was often a few steps behind. There were disasters too, especially in 1804, when a plot to assassinate Napoleon was foiled and many agents were caught. In fact all the elements of a good spy story are here, including double-crosses, invisible ink, assassination conspiracies, false identities, spies dressed as monks, plus the unfortunate souls who found themselves sacrificed to save operations or senior individuals. A very good candidate for the real Scarlet Pimpernel emerges alongside the probable origin of the nickname.

Naturally, the author concentrates on the Anglo-French duel, but there are many interesting details related to events during the war which will need to be borne in mind in future assessments of those moments. Aside from the murder of Tsar Paul I, something that has remained an opaque subject until this book, Sparrow can only briefly look at the activities of the Continental Allies. There are several smoking guns left east of the Rhine which are worthy of further investigation, notably the Rastadt murders of 1799.

Few books in the last twenty years have added greatly to our knowledge of the period, but this is certainly one of them. It is not a James Bond novel - these people are involved in something far more complex. This book will change your whole view of the period and by reflecting the parallels with familiar modern tales, this rather shadowy subject becomes very clear. Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815 is essential reading and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Dave Hollins