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

Mark Urban
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

8 July 2002

In 1812 two mighty armies manoeuvred across the Spanish plains. They were finely balanced, under skilful leaders. Each struggled to gain an advantage. Wellington knew that if he defeated the French, he could turn the tide of the war. Good intelligence was paramount, but the French were using a code of unrivalled complexity - the 'Great Paris Cipher'. It was an unprecedented challenge, and Wellington looked to one man to break the code: Major George Scovell. Using a network of Spanish guerrillas, Scovell amassed a stack of coded French messages, and set to work decrypting them.

As a man of low birth, Scovell - even with his genius for languages, and bravery on a dozen battlefields - struggled for advancement amongst Wellington's inner circle of wealthier, better connected officers. Mark Urban draws on a wealth of original sources, including many cyphers and code-tables, to restore Scovell to his rightful place in history as the man who was the brains behind the intelligence battle against Napoleon's army and a forerunner of the great code-breakers of the 20th Century.

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The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of George Scovell + Rifles: Six Years with Wellington's Legendary Sharpshooters + Generals: Ten British Commanders who Shaped the World
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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; New Ed edition (8 July 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571205380
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571205387
  • Product Dimensions: 19.4 x 12.8 x 3.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 488,467 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


...Mark Urban rescues Scovell from almost complete obscurity and puts him in his proper place -- The Times, August 29, 2001

...he has uncovered an answer to that most perplexing riddle: What book shall we give Dad for Christmas? -- Daily Telegraph, 1 September, 2001

He has a riveting story to tell. -- Daily Mail, 14 September 2001

Mark Urban certainly establishes the importance of a talented individual, whose usefulness enabled him to overcome a modest background. -- Times Literary Supplement, 14 September 2001

Meticulously researched and superbly written, this is an excellent and exciting look at a hero who no longer remains unsung -- Waterstones Books Quarterly, September 2001

Scovell's story is fascinating and Mark Urban... tells it brilliantly... and apart from being fun, the book actually breaks new ground. -- Observer, 16 September 2001

Urban has produced an excellent corrective to the myth that the Peninsular campaign was won by Wellington's generalship alone. -- Sunday Telegraph, 16 September 2001 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Story Telling 19 May 2002
Mark Urban has added another great book to the many titles competing to be placed in a Napoleonic library. This book, 'The Man Who Broken Napoleon's Codes' covers a little known and written of subject, the story of George Scovell. This man had as much to do with the British victories in Spain as did Wellington although you would not know it if you read any previous accounts of the Peninsular War.
George Scovell helped break the French Imperial codes and provided much useful intelligence to Wellington in his campaigns against the French armies. But since Scovell was of low birth he struggled for advancement. He showed his bravery on a number of battlefields but was almost always forgotten when it came to promotion, being passed over by younger men of more distinguished birth.
I must admit that I was a bit dubious when I started reading this book as I usually find accounts on code breaking and intelligence quite dull and boring however this book reads like a novel. Full of information with a narrative that races along, it was a great story and full of action. The book covers all the major campaigns and battles in the Peninsular and was a joy to read. I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone who loves reading about the Napoleonic period.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good account of Napoleonic ciphers 21 Dec 2002
By Tryp
This is a well written book nicely blending a brief account of the peninsular campaign and the work of George Scovell in breaking the codes used by the French. The importance of intelligence in all wars is brought to the fore and there are some nice character studies of the main players on both sides. It encouraged me to read some more detailed history of the campaign.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Start here. 9 Jan 2003
By gronow
Most of the previous reviewers have hit the nail on the head about this book. Not too much boring minutiae about code-breaking, you can find this elsewhere, probably as much detail of George Scovell's life as is available for a book this size and a slightly more 'warty' picture of the Duke than we usually get.
But best of all if you want to learn about the war in the Peninsula this is the place to start.
(And it's a very good read.)
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rollicking good read 11 Jan 2002
I approached this book with some trepidation. Was this another attempt to jump onto the "code breakers" bandwagon. Was it really a turgid historical novel dressed up as a thriller.
I was very pleasantly surprised.
It really is about code breaking (and the central character was a remarkable man).
It really is a historical novel that keeps the readers interest
It really is a thriller
It really reads well - hope you are as pleasantly surprised
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoroughly enjoyable read 14 Sep 2002
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I'm not an expert on the subject, but have probably read well over eighty to a hundred books on the Napoleonic Wars, and I have been on two tours of the Peninsular War battlefields..(with the excellent Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours). So, you could say that I have a good general knowledge of this theme.
I am getting to the point where it is hard to find a new book which tackles the theme from a fresh angle, and so it was a tremendous pleasure to find this little volume. It brings a totally fresh and fascinating angle to Wellington's Peninsular Campaign.
I suspect there are some small inaccuracies, (I found 2), but I forgot to stop and write them down, since I was enjoying the book so much!!
All in all, it was a great read and I hope you buy it--for your own sake, and to encourage this author who has obviously put in a lot of hard work. May he have great success from it, and may you enjoy it as much as I did.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars THE REIGN IN SPAIN (AND PORTUGAL) 9 Jan 2002
This is a solid, workmanlike effort about a little-known man (George Scovell) and a little-discussed aspect (codes and codebreaking) of the Peninsular War. There are enough maps and enough detailed descriptions of the various battles to satisfy fans of straight military history and enough biographical information and anecdotes to satisfy the general reader. If you are not mathematically inclined you need not be concerned as the information about how the codes came to be deciphered is pretty basic.
Most interesting to me, more so than the battles and the codebreaking, were the human interest aspects of the book. The Duke of Wellington comes across as a snob who wanted to be surrounded by aristocratic subordinates and as a person who had nothing but disdain for the common soldier. On the other hand, although he didn't want to socialize with "the lower orders" he could and would recognize and promote people of talent. However, it is certainly not to his credit that later on in life he seemed to have developed "selective amnesia" regarding George Scovell's codebreaking contributions- probably because he felt it would take away from his own mystique.
It was fascinating to read about the contribution made by the Spanish guerillas. If they had not intercepted so many French military dispatches and delivered them to the British, Scovell could not have had the success he had. Without the intelligence that Scovell provided things would have been much harder for Wellington.
Another interesting aspect of the book was to read about all the bickering and backstabbing going on between Napoleon's brother, who was King of Spain, and Marshal Soult and Marshal Marmont.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Try it if you like a good read
This is another look at the Napoleonic war. Mr Urban knows his stuff and writes a cracking read. The code bits are a bit heavy going but the story is good. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Portlander
It is a far better behind the scenes account of the strategy and tactics of the Peninsular War than an account of deciphering or code breaking. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Scriptus
5.0 out of 5 stars The Peninsula Wars
When you travel in Spain you will see some remnants of these campaigns in the physical form of buildings and you will learn about the origin of the professional British army. Read more
Published 13 months ago by kenneth mcintosh
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative and refreshing to see the "mythical" Wellington being...
Well researched.

With rare frankness discloses some of the atrocities committed by the British forces against the local population and their own people. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Siul Waterman
5.0 out of 5 stars Another great read from Mark Urban
We often read how Nobel prizes have been won off the work of others. Mark urban shows that Wellington's fame owes much to a certain George Scovell whose contribution to the... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Alan Urdaibay
4.0 out of 5 stars Cyberwar before Computers
A great introduction to the historical development of codes and codebreaking in this period, and the people who were using and breaking the codes. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Sean Mcmullen
4.0 out of 5 stars Mark Urban still writes well
I have enjoyed several of Urbans books so got this on the strength of his reputation. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to others interested in cyphers and in the... Read more
Published on 21 May 2012 by Graham
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating read: military hisory, codes and biography
Mark Urban has chosen an obscure topic, the code-breaker George Scovell, and tells his story with insight and learning whilst ensuring that the narrative remains exciting... Read more
Published on 12 Mar 2012 by Doc Barbara
4.0 out of 5 stars A Worthy Addition
Napoleonic times are much written about but this is a worthwhile addition. Bernard Cornwell's fun books take up most of the limelight and this could not be more different. Read more
Published on 21 Nov 2011 by oldschoolstoryhunter.calm
5.0 out of 5 stars Beatifully written and gripping
When I bought this book, I was interested in the code breaking angle as well as its impact on military operations. Read more
Published on 12 Jun 2011 by P. Bradley
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