The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War One by Ben Macintyre
"I have a rendezvous with death, at some disputed barricade." Alan Seeger, 1916
In the first days of World War I four soldiers, left behind as the British army retreated through northern France under the first German onslaught, found themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Western Front, in a tiny village called Villeret. Just a few miles from the Somme, the village would be permanently inundated with German troops for the next four years, yet the villagers conspired to feed, clothe and protect the fugitives under the very noses of the invaders, absorbing the Englishmen into their homes and lives until they could pass for Picardy peasants.
The leader of the band, Robert Digby, was a striking young man who fell in love with Claire Dessenne, the prettiest maid in the village. In November 1915, with the guns clearly audible from the battlefront, Claire gave birth to Digby's child, the jealous whispering began, and the conspiracy that had protected the soldiers for half the war started to unravel.
Never before told, Ben Macintyre's The Englishman's Daughter is a harrowing tale of love, duplicity and their tragic consequences, which haunt the people of Villeret eight decades after the Great War.
Ben Macintyre is the author of Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche (FSG, 1992) and The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief (FSG, 1997). He lives in Washington, DC.
Ben Macintyre is the author of several books, including The Englishman's Daughter (FSG, 2002). A senior writer and columnist for The Times of London, he was the newspaper's correspondent in New York, Paris, and Washington D.C. He now lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
Rain spilled from an ashen sky as the famously glutinous mud of Picardy caked on my shoe-soles like mortar, and damp seeped into my socks. In a patch of cow-trodden pasture beside the little town of Le Câtelet, we stared out from beneath a canopy of umbrellas at a pitted chalk rampart, the ivy-strangled remnant of a vast medieval castle, to which a small plaque had been nailed: "Ici ont été fusilés quatre soldats Britanniques" (Four British soldiers were executed by firing squad on this spot). The band from the local mental institution played "God Save the Queen," excruciatingly, and then someone clicked on a boom-box and out crackled a reedy tape-recording of French schoolchildren reciting Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth."
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons.
An honour guard of three old men, dressed in ragged replica First World War uniforms one English, one Scottish, one French clutched their toy rifles and looked stern, as the rain dripped off their moustaches. A pair of passing cattle stopped on their way to milking and stared at us.
The day before, I had received a call from the local schoolmaster at the Times office in Paris: "It would mean a great deal to the village to have a representative of your newspaper present when we unveil the plaque," he said. I had hesitated, fumbling for the polite French excuse, but the voice was pressing. "You must come, you will find it interesting."
Reluctantly I had set off from Paris, driving up the Autoroute du Nord past signposts Amiens, Albert, Arras recalling the Great War, the war to end all wars, and the very worst war, until the one that came after. Following the teacher's precise directions, I had turned off towards Saint-Quentin, across the line of the Western Front, over the River Somme, through land that had once been no-man's, and headed east along a bullet-straight Roman road into the battlefields of the war's grand finale. No place on earth has been so indelibly brutalised by conflict. The war is still gouged into the landscape, its path traced by the ugly brick houses and uniform churches thrown together with cheap cement and Chinese labour in 1919. It is written in the shape of unexploded shells unearthed with every fresh ploughing and tossed onto the roadside, and in the cemeteries, battalions of dead marching across the fields of northern France in perfect regimental order.
Early for my rendezvous, I stopped beside the British graveyard at Vadancourt and wandered among the neat Commonwealth War Graves headstones with their stock, understated laments for the multitudinous dead: some known, some unknown, and the briskly facile "Known unto God" one of the many official formulations for engraved grief worked up by Rudyard Kipling. The cemetery is a small one, just a few hundred headstones, a fraction of the 720,000 British soldiers slain, who in turn made up barely one-tenth of the carnage of that barbaric war, fought by highly civilised nations for no pressing ideological reason.
The schoolteacher, solemn of manner and strongly redolent of lunchtime garlic, was waiting for me by the Croix d'Or restaurant in Le Câtelet, where a group of about thirty people huddled under the eaves, like damp pigeons. I was introduced as "Monsieur, le rédacteur du Times," an exaggeration of my position that made me suspect he had forgotten my name. My general greeting to the assembled was met with unsmiling curiosity, and again I wondered why I had come to a ceremony for four entirely obscure soldiers, a droplet in the wave of war-blood, Known unto Nobody.
The band, drawn up in the field behind the restaurant, now broke into a hearty, rhythm-defying rendition of something French and appropriately martial. The three amateur soldiers came to attention, of sorts, as two cars pulled up. Out of the first emerged the mayor of Le Câtelet, the préfet of the region, and his wife; from the second an elderly white-haired woman was extracted, placed in a wheelchair, and trundled across the field to the rampart wall.
After a round of formal French handshaking, the ceremony began. The previous year I had reported on the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, a huge, poppy-packed performance with big bands and bigwigs to celebrate the very few, very old survivors. The Le Câtelet ceremony felt somehow more apt: ill-fitting uniforms on civilians, children reciting English words they did not understand, a handful of people remembering to remember, in the pouring rain. I began to feel moved, in spite of myself. The préfet launched into a lofty speech about valour, honour, and death. "See the holes in the wall?" the teacher whispered, with a gust of garlic, in my ear. "Those are from the execution." As the oration rumbled on, I surveyed the assembled crowd, few under seventy and some plainly as old as the event we were here to remember. Lined peasant faces listened hard to the official version of what the war had meant.
Suddenly I had the sensation of being watched myself. The old woman in the wheelchair, placed alongside the préfet, had also stopped listening and was staring at me. Disconcerted, I forced a smile, and tried to feign absorption in the speech, but when I sneaked a sideways glance, I found her eyes were still fixed on me. Finally, the préfet wound down, and the village priest offered a hasty orison, again in English: "Our Father who art in Heaven . . ." The rain stopped, the band struck up, and the military trio shouldered plastic and marched briskly off down the street towards the town hall, where a vin d'honneur was on offer.
As the crowd drifted away, I looked around for the old woman, and then realised she was beside me, looking up. Before I could volunteer my name, she spoke, in a high, faint voice and a thick Picardy accent that I could barely understand. "You are the Englishman," she said. It was not a question. The eyes that had caught my attention through the drizzle were now exploring my face. They were the most intensely blue eyes I have ever seen. Unnerved again, I offered a banal observation about the improvement in the weather, but she barely allowed me to finish before piping up once more.
"Our village, Villeret" she gestured vaguely to the west with a mottled white hand "was over there, near the front line, on the German side. When the British were retreating, in quatorze, some soldiers were left behind and could not get back to their army across the trenches. They came to us for protection. We bandaged their wounds, we fed them, and we hid them from the Germans. We concealed them in our village."
Her voice was rhythmical, as if reciting a story rehearsed by heart and scored in memory. "There were seven of them, brave British soldiers, and my family and the other villagers, we kept them safe. Then, one day, the Germans came to their hiding place." The voice trailed away, and for the first time I became aware that another person was listening: I turned to find an elderly man standing behind my shoulder, an expression of undisguised alarm on his face. She pressed on, her eyes now turned to the plaque.
"Three of the British soldiers managed to escape from Villeret, and returned to England. Four did not. We were betrayed. The Germans captured them. They shot them against that wall, and we buried them beside the church." She turned back to me and smiled gravely. "That was in 1916. I was six months old."
She continued, as if the events she spoke of were the moments of yesterday, the tragedy as fresh as the rain. "Those seven British soldiers were our soldiers." She paused again, and then murmured, the faintest whisper: "One of them was my father."
The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War One 4.7 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
In a novel like Sebastian Faulks outstanding 'Birdsong' the personal horror and romance under the umbrella of war can be explored to maximum effect. The fact that Ben Macintyre's story is true makes it equally special. But in the end less satisfying because the focus of the book is far more than the story of the Englishman's Daughter. In England the book was published under the title 'A Foreign Field' which really is a better title, in that the book explores the whole story of the war and it's effect on the Village of Villeret, France. The story of Helene Digby's conception and the execution of her father Robert Digby the major emotional center of the book. What I found strange is that towards the end of the book Mr. Macintyre tries hard to finger who may have betrayed the Englishman, but I did not seem to care. I somehow thought it was understandable that the whole village did, and the fact that the Englishman, including Robert Digby could not have possibly survived the eventual total destruction of the village underscored the ultimate betrayal. The war itself.
More than 1 year ago
After reading, and thoroughly enjoying "Operation Mincemeat," I purchased several other books by Ben MacIntyre--one of them being "The Englishman's Daughter." The author untangles, and then braids the multiple threads of historical information, forensic genealogy and intermingled lives from so long ago--and some how, magnificently brings them back to life. MacIntyre thoughtfully and meticulously weaves one facinating story and inserts enough photos so the reader can look into the archived remnants of this place and time. His use of echoing past wartime poetry into this unique tale allows yet another generation to be in awe of so many stories needing to be re-told, and poets--again, needing to be re-heard. Could not put it down.
More than 1 year ago
In 1914, a small cadre of English military was stranded behind enemy lines. The French peasants of Villeret tried to hide the soldiers from the occupying German forces. However, the German army began using the homes of the villagers to quarter their troops and living off the local economy straining the food supply. The villagers refused to turn their English ¿guests¿ over to the Germans and collectively protected them over the next two years. One of the English, Private Robert Digby even fell in love with a local girl. However, by 1916 as sustenance became a problem and the withdrawal of the occupying army seemed like it would never happen, someone broke ranks and turned in Robert and his peers. The Germans executed the English soldiers. In high school and college World War I is a desert dry footnote starting with Ferdinand, consisting of Wilson, neutrality, and the Lusitania, and ending with the League of Nations. On the other hand, Ben Macintyre takes a relatively minuscule incident from that War and breaths life into it and for that matter any war. THE ENGLISHMAN¿S DAUGHTER focus on that French incident between 1914-1916, but furbishes the audience with the underlying generalization that in war in spite of technology people count. It is the true human drama that makes history hum and enables the audience to understand the past, connects it to the present, and projects it into the future. Mr. Macintyre has written a winner that should be required reading at the military academies and included in any world history class so that we can learn in a lively exciting environment. Harriet Klausner
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