Margaret Bennett, Author

Regency Romance eBooks

Spying During the Regency Era

          No gentleman would admit to being a spy during the Regency era, for spying was considered an underhanded and dishonest occupation.  Yet, without the intelligence that the Duke of Wellington’s spies gathered, the Peninsular War would most likely have had a different outcome.


          










          Probably the one man most responsible for the success of Wellington’s network of intelligence officers was Lt. George Scovell.  He was a prentice engraver and gifted linguist who wanted to be a cavalry commander but was unable to afford it.  He did manage to get a commission in the army, however, and became a quartermaster.  During the Peninsular War, he was assigned to shift through reports from Spanish guerrillas and given a book on the art of deciphering. 

         The French began using ciphers during the reign of Louis XIV and were
making them more complicated.  Scovell cracked the code that provided
Wellington information that was pivotal in leading his forces to victory at
Salamanca, Vitoria,  and other battles.  In 1815, Scovell was made a Knight
Grand Cross (GCB) for his war efforts.

         Over time, the British developed a system of military communications
and intelligence gathering by recruiting professors, poets, and members of the
nobility.  Wellington’s own “Exploring Officers” were under the command of
the Quartermaster General.  They operated on their own, using one or two
local guides to help them gather tactical intelligence.  They rode behind enemy
lines locating their positions, observing and noting enemy movements, and sketching maps of uncharted land.  Their job was dangerous, requiring physical fitness and good horsemanship, for they had to be ready to escape at a moment’s notice.  

                             Lieutenant-Colonel Colquhoun Grant was one of Wellington’s
                     intelligence officers.  Grant did not consider himself a spy, however, because

                     to do so would mar his status as an officer and a gentleman.  In fact, he often
                     wore his uniform behind enemy lines. 

                             At the age of 15, Grant became an infamy soldier, and in 1808 he
                     followed Wellington to Spain and Portugal for the Peninsular War. 
                     Wellington knew his forces were outnumbered by the French and had Grant
                     develop an intelligence network of officers and local spies, such as small
                     land owners, professors and clergymen who worked with guerrilla bands.
 The information they gathered allowed Wellington to make sudden strikes that delivered unexpected blows to French troops.

          Mercenary guerrilla bands were also instrumental in intercepting French messengers.  They mercilessly killed the French dispatch riders and stole everything
of value, including horses, clothes, and weapons.  Most of the dispatches were written
in code and hidden in secret compartment in the saddles, which the guerrillas would sell to the British for cash.

          Wellington well understood how important the role of intelligence played in his defeating the French.  For example, after the Battle of Talavera in 1809, he took
18,000 troops to attach a detachment of French soldiers which he thought was only 10,000 strong.  Fortunately, he received a warning in time that the “detachment” really consisted of three army corps, numbering over 50,000 men, thus avoiding a defeat that could have had disastrous ramifications and effected the outcome of  the war.



















Sources:
“Codes and Ciphers, General George Scovall.”  The National Archives. 18 Feb. 2017
      .

Gates, D. The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2009.
Hudson, Chuck.  “Spying for the Crown – Part 4: Civilian Spies for Wellington. "The Historic Interpreter.” 25
      Aug. 2015.   18 Feb. 2017       part-4-civilian-spies-for-wellington/>.
Moorhouse, Geoffrey.  “The Upstart and the Toff.” The Guardian.  14 Sept. 2001. 18 Feb. 2017   
      .
“Secrets and Spies, Lieutenant-Colonel Coluhoun Grant.”   The National Archives.  18 Feb. 2017
      .

Duke of Wellington at Waterloo by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Sir George Scovell
Lieutenant-Colonel
Colquhoun Grant
Guerillas attach a
  French convey.
Battle of Salamanca, etched by J. Clarke, coloured by M. Dubourg.