If you are a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe books, or have seen Sean Bean’s excellent portrayal of the hero in the series, you are familiar with the battles among the French, British, Spanish and Portuguese in the Iberian peninsula during the Napoleonic era.
And if like me, you were engrossed in the characters and action of the stories, (and/or Sean Bean), you probably lost track of the British strategy and tactics in the fog of fictional warfare.
The war of course, was not fictional. From the loss of General Moore at Corunna to the Vitoria campaign, real men fought and died.
Outnumbered by the French, British commander Wellington used all the tools at his command, especially military intelligence collected by Spanish and Portuguese partisans and his own British officers.
I’ve been reading author Mark Urban’s book, The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes, which is much more than the story of the title character, George Scovell. Urban takes the reader along with Wellington and his staff as they plan and carry out their battles in Portugal and Spain.
Here are a few highlights from the book.
1. There were devastating losses.
In January 1809, French forces under General Soult chased the British to the port of Corunna where the British fleet would take them to safety. The beginning of the war had not gone well, and the British forces needed to regroup and prepare to fight again. The desperate evacuation did not allow for the loading of cavalry mounts. In Urban’s words:
Somehow a rumor began to run through the ranks that the horses were to be killed forthwith–whether they were standing in the cobbled streets of the town or in the fields behind it. None of the cavalry generals would ever own up to having given such a command, but almost immediately an immense slaughter began.
When the French finally attacked, the fighting was brutal, the British casualties high, including the death of the commanding General John Moore.
2. Spanish Partisans aided the British.
Spanish guerrilla leader, Don Julian Sanchez and his men were instrumental in capturing documents from French couriers. Sanchez had served as a noncommissioned officer in the Spanish army. He and his men were merciless and ferocious fighters.
3. French Rivalries aided the British.
The French position was complicated by long supply lines, by rivalries among the generals commanding the Armies of the north, the south, and the central areas of Spain, and the unhappiness of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, the King of Spain, and by Napoleon’s autocratic insistence on control. The back and forth communication with France was a godsend to the British. The captured communications provided a great deal of insight into the mindset of the French enemy.
4. Wellington had well-placed spies.
Wellington’s spy in Salamanca, site of a battle on July 22, 1812, was an Irish priest, Father Patrick Curtis. Father Curtis was the professor of astronomy and natural history at the university there.
5. The French Codes increased in complexity.
The French communicated in a variety of ciphers, from no cipher at all, to a small and easily breakable petit chiffre, to a cipher of approximately 150 characters devised by Marshal Marmont. Eventually, King Joseph acquired a Grand Chiffre of 1200 code numbers.
This cipher provided codes for letters, syllables, words, and phrases, so that a word could be coded several different ways. The man who broke this code was George Scovell, then a major with the Quarter Master General corps.
I haven’t reached that part of this fascinating story yet.
In my recent release, Bella’s Band, the hero is a veteran of these wars, as is the hero in my next manuscript, still under construction. If you’re researching this period in history I highly recommend Urban’s very readable book.
Image Sources: Sharpe poster, Wikipedia; all other images, Wikimedia