The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codesby Mark Urban
History books report—and rightly so—that it was the strategic and intelligence-gathering brilliance of the Duke of Wellington (who began his military career as Arthur Wellesley) that culminated in Britain's defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815. Nearly two hundred years later, many of General Wellesley's subordinates are still remembered for
History books report—and rightly so—that it was the strategic and intelligence-gathering brilliance of the Duke of Wellington (who began his military career as Arthur Wellesley) that culminated in Britain's defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815. Nearly two hundred years later, many of General Wellesley's subordinates are still remembered for their crucial roles in these historic campaigns. But Lt. Col. George Scovell is not among them.
The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes is the story of a man of common birth—bound, according to the severe social strictures of eighteenth-century England, for the life of a tradesman—who would in time become his era's most brilliant code-breaker and an officer in Wellesley's army. In an age when officers were drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of the nobility, George Scovell—an engraver's apprentice—joined Wellesley in 1809. Scovell provides a fascinating lens through which to view a critical era in military history—his treacherous rise through the ranks, despite the scorn of his social betters and his presence alongside Wellesley in each of the major European campaigns, from the Iberian Peninsula through Waterloo.
But George Scovell was more than just a participant in those events. Already recognized as a gifted linguist, Scovell would prove a remarkably nimble cryptographer. Encoded military communiqués between Napoleon and his generals, intercepted by the British, were brought to Scovell for his skilled deciphering. As Napoleon's encryption techniques became more sophisticated, Wellesley came to rely ever more on Scovell's genius for this critical intelligence.
In Scovell's lifetime, his role in Britain's greatest military victory was grudgingly acknowledged; but his accomplishments would eventually be credited to others—including Wellington himself. Scovell's name—and his contributions—have been largely overlooked or ignored.
The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes tells the fascinating story of the early days of cryptology, re-creates the high drama of some of Europe's most remarkable military campaigns, and restores the mantle of hero to a man heretofore forgotten by history.
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All of Europe knew that Napoleon had perfected the mightiest armament since the legions of ancient Rome. They were steeped in science, they were daring and cunning too. And now that Corsican Ogre's mighty host was bearing down on them, weaving its way through the Galician hills. At any moment the French advance patrols would reach the outposts behind Corunna and they would have their moment of reckoning. If the ships did not come soon to take them away from this cursed spot, the British army would be smashed and its remnants swept into the dustbin of some hideous prison. Its officers had already begun speculating what the next few years might hold for them as prisoners of war.
Certainly the wind was just right, blowing across the cold gray Atlantic and into Scovell's face. A good wind to carry the fleet into Corunna Bay and set sail again for home. No doubt this was the best vantage point too. The Spanish called it the Tower of Hercules, a great lofty pillar built by the Romans during the time of Trajan, which still served the purpose that those ancient conquerers had intended: as a lighthouse alerting ships to the dangerous rocks off the isthmus that marked this northwestern corner of Spain.
As Scovell glanced through the telescope again, his patience was rewarded. Sails began to blossom on the horizon. First the topgallants, as just the peaks of the first few masts crested into view, then more and more spreads of taut canvas. Admiral Samuel Hood was bringing up a huge squadron: 112 vessels, far more than at Trafalgar four years before. Only this mission was very different, for just 12 belonged to the Royal Navy; the rest were merchantmen chartered cheaply and packed with lubbers under poor captains. Embarking an exhausted army in a crowded harbor, probably under enemy fire, there was much that could go wrong.
Scovell set off, anxious to get the news to headquarters. General Moore's regiments had begun arriving at Corunna four days earlier, after a terrible retreat through the snowcapped Galician mountains. They had been marched beyond the limits of human endurance. Many had dropped dead from exhaustion, thousands more had been left straggling behind. Many of those who fell back froze to death, while others were slaughtered by French cavalry patrols whose energetic pursuit did not allow for prisoners. Those who had cheated a grisly fate had been arriving in small groups for the previous couple of days. Scovell passed many of these wretched soldiers. He had despaired at their condition as they limped toward the sea, some leaving bloody smudges in the snow as they tramped across it, barefoot. They had marched out of Portugal the cream of the British army, mainly first battalions of its finest regiments. Now their scarlet uniforms were stained and patched, bodies crawling with lice, bellies empty and eyes sunk in their sallow faces. Scovell noted in his journal, "Never did so sudden an alteration take place in men, they were now a mere rabble, marching in groups of 20 or 30 each, looking quite broken hearted, and worn out, many without shoes or stockings."
Moore's soldiers had become euphoric at the sight of the sea. It promised deliverance. Their sense of anticipation had soared as they hobbled into the hills just above the port. A few miles before they could see the brine, they had noticed a warming of the temperature and lush vegetation, an abundance of trees bearing lemons, oranges and pomegranates. After the barren wastes they had marched through in Lugo and Astariz, Corunna had seemed like the Garden of Eden. But the relentless threat of the approaching French and the uncertainty about the fleet quickly reminded them of the reality of their situation and the possibility of a fight. As word spread of Hood's imminent arrival, all kinds of rumors coursed through the narrow streets of Corunna.
As Scovell continued by horseback toward the port's hinterland, groups of infantry were being rallied to their different colors. They had to occupy the shoulders of the Corunna peninsula, and in particular the shoulder that commanded the harbor, in order to stop the French from shelling the embarkation. He also saw hundreds of hussars standing next to their mounts, deep in thought. Nobody was quite sure how long their enemy would allow them to perform the delicate operation of lifting off the army, and since there were orders to get the heavy guns and cavalry embarked first, it was clear that not many horses would be loaded onto the transport vessels.
The cavalry knew the army would not surrender thousands of highly trained mounts to Napoleon. In some armies, when capture was inevitable, the horses were hobbled, the tendons on the backs of their legs sliced so the poor animals could barely walk, let alone gallop to the charge. This, however, was not the way that the British cavalry intended to conduct its affairs.
Somehow a rumor began to run through the ranks that the horses were to be killed...
Meet the Author
As a journalist and former army officer, Mark Urban has the perspective of an eyewitness to the most crucial political events and military campaigns of our time. He lives in London and is a prominent BBC Newsnight correspondent.
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The story of the Iberian campain and look at Wellington was fasinating. It is well written and a look at how unprofessional the English military was at that time and the resistance of the upper class to accept change. It is nice to discover the achievment of George Scovell.
Many details not found often in early 19th century military history. Excellent book for anyone interested in cryptography.