Buy this book at
To Past Reviews Index
Back to Last Page

The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes

Mark Urban

Average Review Rating Average Rating 8/10 (1 Review)
Book Details

Publisher : Faber & Faber

Published : 2001

Copyright : Mark Urban 2001

ISBN-10 : PB 0-571-20538-0
ISBN-13 : PB 978-0-571-20538-7

Publisher's Write-Up

Mark Urban vividly brings alive the battlefields of the Spanish as he reassesses the Napoleonic Wars in light of his groundbreaking study of Major George Scovell, the man Wellington entrusted with the deciphering of the 'Great Paris Cipher' - the French code of unrivalled complexity.

'Scovell's story is fascinating and Mark Urban, Newsnight's diplomatic editor, tells it brilliantly. The narrative follows Scovell from the British evacuation from Coruna in northern Spain in 1809 through to Waterloo six years later and, apart from being fun, the book actually breaks new ground.'


'From scrupulously researched first-hand sources, Mark Urban rescues Scovell from almost complete obscurity and puts him in his proper place as not only a brilliant decrypter but equally as a courageous soldier and staff officer. For good measure he provides a well-written background account of the Peninsular War.'

lain Finlayson, The Times

'Reveals the vital deciphering work undertaken by a century forerunner of the famous Enigma code-breakers of the Second World War.'

Sunday Times
Column Ends


Reader Reviews

Why not Submit a Review your own Review for this book?

Review by Chrissi (011002) Rating (8/10)

Review by Chrissi
Rating 8/10
This is another of my code type stories, and a real humdinger it is too. It is about a man called George Scovell, of whom you may never have heard but he was a hero of the Peninsular War, fighting in Wellington's army. It tells of his struggle to rise through the ranks in a time when men had to buy their commissions.

Scovell was one of those logical, organised officers of humble birth who had to struggle against those who were promoted because they were of good families. He seems to have been passed over also because he was a proponent of a more scientific method of soldiering, which Wellington disagreed with.

Part of Scovell's talents was a flair for languages and because he was an officer with a charge for the communications of the army in Portugal, he organised a method of quick transport for the dispatches between the armies in the field. As a result, when the army returned after a disastrous evacuation, he once again took on the responsibility for the army communications.

As an aside, the book tells of the development of the Great Paris Cypher, a complicated method by which the French armies were to communicate. There were different methods according to the levels of secrecy that the French wished to achieve. Scovell developed a fixation with the French codes and although he was not in a high enough position to make the best of the information, we see the ways that information such as this could be used.

This book is gripping, and it reads in places more like a Sharpe novel, with the research into the battles having been taken from letters and journals written both by him and other serving officers in Wellington's army. As I have a soft spot for Sharpe, I really enjoyed this book, and would heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in either codes or Wellington's armies.
Chrissi (1st October 2002)

Back to Top of Page
Column Ends