Friday, October 6, 2017

Books I'm Reading: The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes

Mark Urban's The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes (Perennial, 2001) is a  fascinating story that sheds light not only on the career of George Scovell, later Sir George Scovell, but a great deal of light on the man he long served, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Despite the invaluable services Scovell performed for Wellington handling Spanish guerrillas and spies during the Peninsular campaign of the Napoleonic Wars and, most importantly, working as a code-breaker, Wellington appears to have been unable to overcome prejudices that made him favor upper-class associates over the common-born like Scovell, no matter how valuable the latter were to his successes (although his attitude was perhaps not unusual among the aristocracy).

Scovell was a linguist and had a talent for  ciphers. He was largely responsible for breaking France's "Great Paris Cipher," reserved for the most sensitive communications--a cipher the French never suspected had been compromised. At times, Wellington was reading messages between Napoleon's generals, between Napoleon and his generals, and between Napoleon and his brother Joseph, installed as the King of Spain (while Napoleon himself was busy failing to conquer Russia). Urban makes a strong case for Scovell's critical importance to Wellington's success in Portugal and Spain fighting the French and the book goes a long way toward reviving the memory of Scovell who doesn't seem to have deserved his treatment at the hands of Wellington--or his obscurity. Meticulously researched, well written, and important. Highly recommended.

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