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by Mark Urban

Pub Date: March 2nd, 2002
ISBN: 0-06-018891-X
Publisher: HarperCollins

A well-known BBC correspondent takes the career of Lt. Col. George Scovell, who cracked a complicated French cipher during the Peninsular Campaign of 1807–14, as an excuse to retell the rousing story of Wellington’s sanguinary preparation for the great test of Waterloo.

Urban, a former Army officer with a passion for the history of warfare, has added an important footnote to accounts of the Napoleonic Wars by giving Scovell, formerly an engraver’s apprentice, proper credit for his critical role in the British victories in Spain and Portugal. But the book’s title greatly misrepresents Urban’s focus. Yes, Scovell was accommodating enough to have left behind a journal and substantial notes, but these hardly suffice to fashion a biography. Instead, Scovell is a Zelig-like figure who appears at the verge of history’s grand photographs but is rarely front and center, a position invariably occupied either by Wellington (whom Urban clearly admires) or by his redoubtable adversaries in the field (including Napoleon himself in the short penultimate chapter on Waterloo). We begin in 1809 as the then–Capt. Scovell is serving lookout duty. His skills as a linguist and a fastidious organizer of men and matériel soon earn him promotions and the stern favor of Wellington, a man not noted for his warmth. We learn a little about Scovell’s wife, Mary (there is not much to learn), whom he does not see at all for one three-year period. Scovell organizes local guides and scouts (a daunting task) and begins to dabble with French ciphers, discovering in the process his own remarkable talent for code-breaking. Soon he is at work on the Great Paris Cipher, an extraordinarily difficult French code that occupies him for many months; indeed, it is not until near the end of the campaign that he understands it all. With partial foreknowledge of French intentions, Wellington has a decided advantage. Scovell’s post-Napoleonic career of 36 years consumes only a chapter.

Galloping history, despite the misleading title. (7 maps; 8 pp. b&w photographs, not seen)