Cover image for The man who broke Napoleon's codes
The man who broke Napoleon's codes
Urban, Mark, 1961-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, 2001.
Physical Description:
xix, 348 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, map, plans ; 25 cm
General Note:
"First published in Great Britain in 2001 by Faber & Faber Ltd."--T.p. verso.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DC232 .U73 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Colorful period detail, a fast-paced narrative in the tradition of Longitude, the thrill of clashing armies, challenging puzzles, and the personal struggle of a long-forgotten hero make The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes a gripping--and brain-teasing--reading adventure. photo insert. 7 maps.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

After the decisive Battle of Salamanca in 1812, Arthur Wellesley infamously described his soldiers in the Peninsular War as the «scum of the earth.» According to this original history, the duke of Wellington was just as charitable. He refused to acknowledge that the code-cracking efforts of one of his staff officers was critical to the victory. That officer was George Scovill, whose name Urban discovered in a history of the war but about whom nothing further had apparently been published. Fortunately, Scovill kept a journal of his years on Wellington's staff, from which, along with the records of Scovill's work on breaking French ciphers, Urban has built this winning narrative of military history. Urban's pacing is fast as he shapes Scovill's personality and ambition and vividly paints the battle scenes. In his report on Salamanca, Wellington mentioned Scovill's success, which gave him «a pronounced advantage» against the split-up French forces. However, he never again acknowledged how much his victory, and subsequent fame, relied on Scovill's intelligence. A fine work of vindication. Gilbert Taylor.

Publisher's Weekly Review

Alan Turing wasn't the only Brit with a genius for code cracking. The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes introduces readers to George Scovell, an engraver's apprentice who stumbled into a job as the Duke of Wellington's decoder and managed to unravel Bonaparte's legendary Great Paris Cipher, which contained 1,400 coded elements. Mark Urban, a BBC correspondent, chronicles Wellington's campaigns against the French from the battle of Corunna in 1809 to the 1815 victory at Waterloo, showing how Scovell's decoding of enemy communiqus was pivotal to Napoleon's defeat. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In an extremely useful addition to the literature concerning the British army's campaigns in Spain and Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars, Urban rescues from obscurity the life and career of Maj. Gen. Sir George Scovell. One of Lord Wellington's staff officers, Scovell, an engraver's apprentice prior to purchasing an army commission, got involved with the attempt to break the French army's enciphered dispatches. Far more intelligent than the average high-born officer, Scovell was also a linguistic genius who was able to break the simpler codes. As the French switched to a more complicated code, the stage was set for the race against time to break the code and enable Wellington to gain the victory in the Iberian Peninsula. Urban, a well-known BBC correspondent and also a former British army officer, has combined the fast-paced narrative of a spy novel with colorful period detail describing the inner workings of an army staff at war. Recommended for all libraries. David Lee Poremba, Detroit P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
The Charactersp. xiii
Part I From Corunna to Talavera, the Campaigns of 1809
Chapter 1 Retreat to Corunna, January 1809p. 3
Chapter 2 The Battle of Corunna, January 1809p. 13
Chapter 3 Interlude in England, January to March 1809p. 23
Chapter 4 Northern Portugal, May 1809p. 35
Chapter 5 From Oporto to Abrantes, June to July 1809p. 57
Chapter 6 From Talavera to the End Campaign, July to October 1809p. 71
Part II The Campaign of 1811, and Evolution of French Codes
Chapter 7 The Battle of Fuentes de Onoro, May 1811--The Army of Portugal Cipherp. 89
Chapter 8 The Blockade of Ciudad Rodrigo, June to November 1811--The Great Cipherp. 109
Part III The Campaign of January to November 1812
Chapter 9 The Attack on Ciudad Rodrigo, January 1812p. 131
Chapter 10 The Storm of Badajoz, March 1812p. 153
Chapter 11 From Lisbon to Fuente Guinaldo, April to June 1812p. 169
Chapter 12 The Salamanca Campaign Opens, May 1812p. 183
Chapter 13 The Great Cipher Under Attack, June and July 1812p. 197
Chapter 14 Triumph Over the Great Cipher, July 1812p. 213
Chapter 15 The Battle of Salamanca, 22 July 1812p. 227
Chapter 16 The March to Burgos, Summer and Early Fall 1812p. 243
Part IV Winter Quarters, the Vitoria Campaign and Afterward
Chapter 17 Frenada, December 1812 to March 1813p. 261
Chapter 18 The Vitoria Campaign, April to July 1813p. 277
Chapter 19 Waterloo, 18 June 1815p. 299
Chapter 20 Scovell's Later Life, 1819 to 1861p. 303
Notes on Sourcesp. 313
Indexp. 339