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on 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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on 21 December 2002
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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on 14 September 2002
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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on 11 January 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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on 18 October 2001
Mark Urban is better known as a reporter for the BBC. He is not an expert historian, but his ability to form and communicate ideas is clear throughout this readable yet thoughtful book. He has clearly undertaken some detailed research, described in a substantial appendix to the main "story".
The book is written around the progress of the Peninsular war to give it narrative and direction, which also clearly relates Scovell's breakthroughs to the conflict around him. So, it is not simply about Scovell, but rather about his work and its impact. What little is known of his earlier and later life is reported at the start and end of the book respectively.
Had time allowed more research, five stars would have been needed, but even as it is, it deserves a hearty recommendation as a work which demonstrates that intelligent history can be highly readable.
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on 9 January 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. If the French could ever have worked together instead of everyone only looking out for themselves, which caused insufficient manpower to counterbalance Wellington's forces, the Peninsular War could have played out to a different conclusion.
This was a very enjoyable book, which should appeal to the general reader.
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on 9 January 2003
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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on 6 January 2002
Mark Urban is to be admired - for both researching the story of Scavell in a semingly meticulous manner and then for presenting it with clarity and excitement.
This book is a cracking good read and I certainly hope to see it reach an even wider audience (possibly on TV or the big screen).
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on 12 June 2011
When I bought this book, I was interested in the code breaking angle as well as its impact on military operations. Having bought it, I left it on the shelf thinking it was probably a little bit dry. When I did finally pick it up, I was instantly gripped. From the first page, Urban engages the reader with deeply compelling account of General Moores' the retreat from the Iberian peninsula. This sets the tone for the rest of the book where a fascinating mix of the operational details of military operations and the personal details of the players is blended. There are heart rending scenes such as the horses being abandoned on the beach and heart warming scenes such as Scovell and his wife taking in the local culture in Lison. Urban could have written a novel about these events but instead, wrote a highly informative historical work that is no less engaging than a novel.
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on 26 April 2007
I just happened across this book in my local library and was intrigued by the title. Before reading this my knowledge of Wellington was just the Battle of Waterloo. Sadly this era is not covered in History at schools and certainly not during my time at secondary school in the 70s.

"The Man who broke Napoleon's Codes" is such an accessible book, written more in the style of a story and obviously very well researched. Urban's book inspired me to go on and read further about Wellington, and I have also read his book about the 95th Rifles, which I also recommend. I have since found several books in second hand bookshops, including an excellent book about Wellington's Regiments. As an enthusiastic female reader, I recommend this as a good introduction to the Peninsular Wars...
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