…of May 1812.
(Those of you who know how I love the minutiae of history won’t be a bit surprised by this.)
The image used on the dust jacket–not the portrait–but the other image, is an actual page from the notebook of George Scovell–the man who did crack Napoleon’s Grand Chiffre.
When the British joined the landwar in Europe to fight alongside the Portuguese and Spanish against the French on the Iberian peninsula, there was suddenly a need for a much more secure code in which to send French messages and to keep their information safe from all those wily Spanish guerillas, and their allies. And so by the summer of 1811, a grand chiffre–a great code–was devised.
It was a simple code really, but virtually unbreakable in that numbers were assigned to different words, often randomly and without logical order, and these numerical substitutions were then separated by full stops to create whole strings of numbers. Some numbers were assigned to nothing–they’re called nulls–so that there would be, as it were, spare numbers in amongst the message.
The original chiffre consisted of some 1750 assigned numbers. But by 1812, that had expanded to include many terms specific to the Iberian campaign. So, for example, 1202 stood for Valladolid, while 1201 stood for Malaga, and 1330 was gunpowder.
Oh, and to make things just that little bit trickier, some numbers were assigned to parts of words. For example 311 was ont or ront–common French verb endings, as you’ll see if you look closely at the cover image.
Once they’d got their hands on it, by virtue of those ubiquitous Spanish guerillas, the British intelligence men beavered away at cracking it–both in Spain, where they had stacks of examples to work from, and in London, where they had not so many. Which is where the novel, May 1812, opens.
As I say, it was George Scovell, a member of Wellington’s Staff Cavalry Corps, who cracked it–mostly working away at it in winter quarters.
And it is a page from his notebook–yes, written in 1812-13–on the cover. And yes, his work was vital for saving British soldiers’ lives and outwitting the French armies and their generals.
Which is just so cool, isn’t it?