9780571205134 / 0571205135

The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of George Scovell


Publisher:Faber and Faber



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About the book:

Mark Urban's The Man who Broke Napoleon's Codes is, strictly speaking, something of a misnomer as the book is actually as much a detailed and engaging history of Wellington's campaign in the Peninsular War between 1809 and 1813, as the story of George Scovell, the junior officer who was entrusted with handling all communications. The book is firmly rooted in the modern historical genre of the "small, previously un-regarded, footnote that made a difference", but where other authors have fleshed out the lives of their characters by imputing thoughts and imagining events, Urban has restricted himself to relying purely on documented evidence. This has the benefit of historical rigour, but it does sometimes mean that Scovell is a slightly shadowy character at times, someone whom the reader has to work hard to get to know. The portrait that emerges here is of an army riven by class warfare, in which the rich and the aristocratic bought commissions and dictated orders, while the lowborn and the un-moneyed made up the also-rans. Scovell fell firmly into the latter category. Beginning the Peninsular campaign as a lowly deputy assistant quarter-master general, through hard work and an intelligence superior to many of his seniors, he soon drew himself to Wellington's attention and was appointed head of communications. As the campaign progressed, Napoleon became aware that many of his messages were being intercepted, giving the British vital intelligence, so over time he devised a series of ever more complicated ciphers to escape detection. Urban is at his best during this particular narrative: unlike the story of the breaking of Enigma during World War Two which is still really only intelligible to post-graduate mathematicians despite the best efforts of popular historians to render it accessible, the Napoleonic ciphers do lend themselves to explanation, and it is to the author's credit that he makes the process so compelling. What's more, his conclusion that it was the information obtained from the broken ciphers, rather than astute command, that was critical to the campaign's success, and that Wellington's suppression of the truth was based in class, professional jealousy and self-aggrandisement is powerfully convincing. Plus ca change, as Napoleon might have said. --John Crace

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