Spying for the Crown: Part 3 – Military Intelligence During the Peninsula Campaign




“A great part of the information obtained in war is contradictory, a still greater part is false and by far the greatest part is of doubtful character.” – Carl von Clausewitz  (Clausewitz, 1908)

“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know from what you do.” – Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington  (The Quarterly Review, 1877)


Exploring Officers

When Napoleon named his brother Joseph as the ruler of Spain he created the impossible alliance; a  British, Spanish  and Portuguese coalition that turned into a catastrophe for the French.  For five years, the war in the Iberian Peninsula sapped the strength, resources and morale of the French soldiers and their officers.  The average French conscript saw a posting to Spain as a one-way ticket to hell.  Aside from the British regulars under Wellington’s command, Spanish irregulars, known as ‘guerrillas’ fought what they called Guerra a Cuchillo – ‘war to the knife’, a war of brutality, assassination, torture, and revenge.  (Crowdy, 2006)

When Wellington landed on the peninsula with 30,000 regulars, he found himself outnumbered and, by all accounts, without even a proper map.  He also knew almost nothing about the French forces except that they were more numerous than his forces and were largely undefeated.  He was also unsure about his allies, the Portuguese and Spanish, and had no idea what level of support to expect from them.  Wellington quickly realized that what he needed was accurate intelligence.  With no specialized operational intelligence service, Wellington became his own chief of intelligence.

Those Wellington employed for secret service work were people he personally trusted, an assorted bunch of British officers, Spanish irregulars, and clergymen.  Wellington needed to maneuver his army and, to be effective, these movements required accurate maps.  Unfortunately, Wellington had none.  A group of men, known as ‘exploring officers,’ undertook the task of mapping the countryside of Spain and Portugal and, as the campaign progressed, became responsible for gathering military intelligence as well.  These men, excellent equestrians, linguists, reporters and artists, operated alone, or with local guides, often behind the French lines.  In order to avoid execution as spies if captured, they generally wore their British uniforms.  However, it was still dangerous work and many of the exploring officers were captured or killed.  Let us look at two of these unlikely spies who survived the experience.

Portrait of Colonel Sir Andrew Leith-Hay, (c) The National Trust for Scotland, Leith Hall Garden & Estate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Colonel Sir Andrew Leith-Hay, (c) The National Trust for Scotland, Leith Hall Garden & Estate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

One of the first ‘exploring officers’ to serve Wellington’s Army was a 23 year-old officer named Andrew Leith-Hay.  Before the beginning of the campaign, the British knew so little about Spain that they dispatched officers to the northern provinces to report on the state of the country and to confer with the Spanish commanders about organizing resistance to the occupying French.  One of these officers was Major-General Sir James Leith.  Major-General Leith received orders to advance to Santander to consult with officials there.  Andrew Leith-Hay, the General’s nephew, arrived in Spain as the General’s Aide-de-Camp.  They met with the bishop, who was regent of the province, as well as the Conde de Villa Neuva, who was the general-in-chief of the province.  General Leith was shocked to learn that these leaders had no real idea of the location and movements of the enemy and could not even say with certainty if there was a Spanish force between the French army and Santander!

Andrew Leith-Hay was ordered to reconnoiter the route toward the interior of the country, despite his protests that he had only been in country for 3 days, and he did not speak the language.  In Reinosa, he found Spanish General Ballesteros and learned of the location of the French headquarters at Vitoria and that the French had shown no inclination to move toward Santander.  Andrew immediately hired post horses and galloped back to his uncle to report this intelligence.  Thus ended Andrew’s first assignment.

Andrew continued receiving reconnaissance assignments and soon another for Andrew’s ‘exploring’ assignments had him leaving Madrid on the morning of 10 November for Santander, a direct distance of about 280 miles, to deliver dispatches to General Leith and gather intelligence on disposition of the French forces in northern Spain.  The French army was rapidly expanding their control of areas in Spain, and so Andrew spent the next 2 weeks winding across the length and breadth of northern Spain and dodging French forces.  When he finally caught up with General Leith, in Leon on the evening of 25 November, he had traveled by horseback over 900 miles through mountainous, enemy-held territory in 15 days!  Andrew continued to serve in an intelligence gathering capacity throughout the Peninsular Campaign and actively with the Army until 1814.

Another of Wellington’s ‘exploring officers’ was Colquhoun Grant, upon whom many claim the character of Major Michael Hogan in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series of novels is loosely based.  Although only 29 year-old, he had served in the army for 14 years, during which time he had traveled extensively in the Netherlands, the West Indies, and Madeira and had become well-known for his remarkable flair for foreign languages.  Captured at Ostend in 1798, he spent a year in as French prisoner, using the time to perfect his fluency in French and to gain an understanding of how their military system worked.  Grant used his time on Madeira, as part of the British garrison after the island’s surrender, to learn Spanish and become fluent in Portuguese.

Part of the defensive Lines of Torres Vedras initiated by Arthur Wellesley in the Peninsular Wars.   By F nando

Part of the defensive Lines of Torres Vedras initiated by Arthur Wellesley in the Peninsular Wars.
By F nando

Grant came to Wellington’s notice at Torres Vedras.  Wellington had 80,000 soldiers dug in but very little food for them.  The transports, bringing in supplies, had been delayed by storms and there was rising concern and anxiety throughout the British ranks.  Grant was a Highlander, and his ancestors had survived for many hundreds of years by “lifting” cattle.  Grant came up with a plan to slip through enemy lines and ride up into the mountains behind the enemy, where he knew cattle could be found.  There, supplied with hard currency by Wellington, he would buy cattle from the farmers and have them driven back through enemy line to the British army.  Wellington might well have thought this plan ridiculous had anyone other than Grant proposed it.  Its sheer audacity amazed him, yet the Iron Duke’s knack for assessing character told him that this was an exceptional man.

In the dark of night, Grant rode out from the lines at Torres Vedras with a sword and pistols in holsters, money bags, heavy with coin, strapped to his saddle.  A dark cloak covered the red coat and white pantaloons of his uniform.  Using only moonlight, he picked his way through gaps in the French outposts and, once past them, rode fast for the hills.  Grant set himself up in a village in the mountains and sent out word that he was buying corn and cattle and would pay in coin.  The farmers, used to the French troops stealing everything they could, quickly began bringing in cattle and grain to sell to the British officer.

Grant made a number of scouting trips back to the French lines to find the positions of the French outposts and map out routes through them.  He then had the herdsmen drive the cattle, in small numbers to escape detection, over those routes.  Upon nearing the British lines, they used passwords, previously arranged with the British sentries, so they would not open fire by mistake.  By these means, the cattle, driven mostly at night over tracks little known to the French, reached the British camp and the crisis was averted.

Perhaps a clue to Grant’s effectiveness lies in following description, penned by Wellington’s Surgeon General, Dr. James McGrigor.  “He was as fluent as any native was in the different dialects of at least three of the provinces in Spain.  He knew all of their customs, their songs and their music, and even their particular prejudices.  He was widely read in Spanish literature and joined in their local dances with such perfection of footwork that they might have been highland reels.  Sensing his interest in all that was Spanish, the local people loved him in return. Among his many friends were the peasant farmers, and the priests who, while welcoming him into their houses, were always forthcoming with news.”

Portrait of Lt. Col. Colquhoun Grant

Lt. Col. Colquhoun Grant

Another example of Grant’s exploits comes from when Marshall Marmont moved on Beira in 1812, and was feared to be planning a major attack against Ciudad Rodrigo, Grant entered the enemy’s camps, and succeeded in obtaining information on Marmont’s numbers and supplies, which proved that he had no such intention.  While watching the French movements on the bank of the Coa River immediately afterwards, some French dragoons surprised Grant, killed his guide, and took him, as a prisoner, to Salamanca.  His popularity among the French officers, and his intimacy with Patrick Curtis and other members of the Irish College at Salamanca, caused Marmont to worry that Grant was there to spy out the defenses of Salamanca.

After accepting Grant’s parole, Marmont sent him off to Bayonne, under an escort of three hundred men with secret orders to put him in irons on reaching French soil.  Grant learned of the orders, and feeling they violated his parole agreement, held himself thus absolved from that agreement. After reaching Bayonne, Grant made his escape and, introducing himself as an American officer, traveled unsuspected with the French General Souham to Paris.  Once in Paris, Grant made contact with an English secret agent, who provided Grant with an American passport, enough money to live in the style of the American officer whose identity he was assuming, and presumably a uniform that such an officer would wear.  Sir James McGrigor, in his autobiography, vouches for Grants actions as amazing as they may seem:

Grant moved freely about Paris, made it a point to be present at all reviews and, by entering into conversation with various individuals, whom he met out-of-doors and at Mr. McPherson’s table, got correct information of the reinforcements sent to all the armies, particularly that of Portugal….At Mr. McPherson’s he often met a gentleman with whom he contracted some degree of intimacy (friendship).  These two gentlemen, as acquaintances, became most acceptable to each other and Grant gained much very valuable information from him; and, as extraordinary as it may seem, he continued to convey that information to Lord Wellington which came to my knowledge in the following way:

I do not exactly recollect where the British army was at this time in Spain, but one day, when I was with Lord Wellington on business, a day on which the mail for England was being made up at headquarters, Lord Wellington, addressing me, said, “Your brother-in-law is certainly one of the most extraordinary men I ever met with; even now when in Paris he contrives to send me information of the greatest moment to our government.  I am now sending information of his to ministers of the utmost value about the French armies in every quarter; information which will surprise them, and which they cannot by any possibility get in any other way, and, what is more, which I am quite sure is perfectly correct.”  (McGrigor S. J., 1861)

Soon, Paris became too perilous for Grant.  As it became obvious that someone was leaking information on the movements of the French army to the British Commander-in-Chief, someone in the French security forces started putting two and two together regarding the identity of the spy operating somewhere in their midst. Grant obtained a new passport, that of a Mr. Jonathan Buck of Boston and headed down the Loire river for the coast, hoping to find passage on a ship bound for the United States, with the hope that the Royal Navy would stop it and he could seek safety there.  Eventually, with assistance from a fellow Scottish relation living along the coast, Grant made his way to a 74-gun Royal Naval vessel that was blockading the French coast and thence to England.  Once back in England, he arranged for the exchange of a French officer of equal rank, to release himself from his parole oath and then returned to Spain, arriving at Wellington’s headquarters within four months after his capture.  Upon his return, Grant was promoted to lieutenant colonel and commanding officer of the Corps of Guides and Head of Intelligence for the Peninsular Army. (Chichester, 1885-1900)

Reading the French Dispatches

One person crucial to Wellington’s Intelligence effort, but not an ‘exploring officer,’ was George Scovell.  Scovell was born to humble origins in London in 1774.  George excelled in school, particularly in languages – mastering Latin, Greek, and French.  His father had pushed him toward learning a trade and he apprenticed to an engraver.  The hysteria caused by the fear of a French invasion saved him from a life hunched over an engraver’s table when his intelligence and literacy singled him out for Commission as a cavalry officer in a home militia, the Warwickshire Fencibles. Another stroke of luck came his way when, as his militia unit was disestablished, he was offered the opportunity to convert, as a Lieutenant, to a Regular Army cavalry regiment, the 4th Dragoons, one of Britain’s best trained bodies of heavy cavalry.

Portrait of Sir George Scovell

Sir George Scovell

In 1811, Scovell, now serving on Wellington’s staff on the Iberian Peninsula, was assigned responsibility for the army’s communications. When assuming the assignment, he was given a hand-transcribed copy of an obscure text, The Art of Decyphering, by David Arnold Conradus.  Scovell’s heavily annotated copy was in a small notebook its leather cover worn smooth by the years spent in the officer’s coat is today in the UK National Archives.  This book, which provided basic code-breaking guidance for five European languages, went from general principles such as: “Nothing is to be left to conjecture, where the art shews the way of proceeding with certainty,” to specific tips: “The vowels are most easily learnt from short words, which are therefore the first to be considered by the decypherer.”  The book’s approach allowed the intelligent novice to attack simple codes with success.

While France’s armies were flooding across Europe, defeating all opposition, strong codes were not considered necessary in the field. The French army used simple or common ciphers of 30 or 50 characters or numbers for most purposes, with Napoleon himself occasionally using something a little more complex for contacts with senior subordinates.  In 1807, because of an incident during the Eylau campaign in Poland, it dawned on the French high command that scribbled orders intercepted by a determined enemy might mean the difference between victory and defeat.  In this incident, Cossacks had seized a key dispatch, forewarning Napoleon’s Russian opponent that he was marching into a trap. The popular insurgency in Portugal and Spain, during the Peninsula Campaign, quickly made the French messenger a natural target and increased the opportunities for their messages to fall into British hands.

Increasingly, the French sent two or three copies of each dispatch and used ingenious hiding places. The letters were written on tiny scraps of paper secreted in the seams of clothing, inside buttons or in saddles and riding crops.  Napoleon’s brother, King Joseph of Spain, tried to improve the chances of his messages getting through by hiding them on local collaborators who could play the part of itinerant merchants or priests. However, since the Spanish popular forces and their British allies commanded the loyalty of tens of thousands of patrolling guerrilleros, this too became a hazardous occupation, with the messengers often being tortured to learn where the messages were hidden before dying the sort of horrible deaths that have often been the reward for collaboration with the enemy.

When Scovell broke a new (French) Army of Portugal cipher in just a couple of days in November 1811, it established him as the pre-eminent code-breaker on Wellington’s staff.  Therefore, he was the natural choice to tackle a form of secret writing, of unrivaled complexity, that appeared in French dispatches early in 1812.  This code, dubbed the Great Paris Cipher, had 1,400 numbers that could represent words, and parts of words, in a variety of permutations. The code made things even tougher by inserting blank codes into the middle of words. This code, appearing just as Wellington was planning to launch a campaign that would ultimately result in the capture of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, destroy the main French bridge across the Tagus at Almaraz, decimate the French Army of Portugal at Salamanca, and liberate Madrid, was profoundly unsettling as it damaged the intelligence superiority held by the British.

By April, Scovell was working on several dispatches, including one long letter. These contained dense passages of the new cipher, which he attacked in several ways. Using the long messages to test frequency, it could be observed that certain numbers – 2, 13, 210, 413 – appeared a lot more often than others. Patient comparison eventually revealed 210, to stand for “et” (and), the most commonly used two-letter word in French.  Scovell had also learned that places where code and uncoded text met were vulnerable. A letter in the Great Cipher such as one from the French commander in northern Spain to King Joseph’s military adviser in Madrid provided a valuable opening, for it mixed code and text crassly: for example, “73. 516. 918 ne negliserai”. The use of “neglect” in the first-person future tense provided a clue that 918 stood for “je” (I).  (Urban M. , 2001)

By the time a letter from King Joseph to Marmont, dated July 9, reached British headquarters a few days later, Scovell had largely solved the puzzle.  The tiny dispatch, written on a sliver of paper, was most probably hidden in a riding crop.  Brought in by guerrillas, once decoded it revealed that the king was marching with reinforcements to join Marmont.  This gave Wellington the last, vital piece of an intelligence jigsaw.

He now knew exactly how many troops Marmont had, which neighboring French commanders had declined to help him, and how soon the king would arrive with his reinforcements. The British commander understood he had a window of opportunity to bring Marmont to a battle, and on July 22 (about two days before the decoded letter suggested French reinforcements would join his army and tip the scales), Wellington took that opportunity at Salamanca, gaining a crushing victory over Marmont.

By late summer 1812, Scovell had cracked the code so comprehensively that there were almost no remaining areas of uncertainty and Wellington was able to plan his 1813 campaign with an almost complete knowledge of the entire French scheme of operations. In the early summer of 1813, armed with excellent intelligence, Wellington drove the French armies across northern Spain and defeated them at Vitoria. Joseph’s kingdom collapsed after this blow and Napoleon recalled him to  France in disgrace. Until the end, he never suspected that the Great Cipher had been broken.

For his work, Scovell received two promotions in little over a year and, later, a knighthood.  Wellington, the first modern commander to understand that the decoding of secret enemy communications was of vital importance; later in life failed to acknowledge Scovell’s essential contributions to his victory.

© 2015
Chuck Hudson


In Part Four of this article will take a look at look at the civilians and partisans who helped to provide intelligence during the Peninsula Campaign. 


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