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.
"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.
Innumerable soldiers were stranded behind enemy lines in World War I some injured, some lost, some sole survivors of decimated regiments. Macintyre (The Napoleon of Crime) has uncovered the story of a small band of English soldiers who, in 1914, were found and sheltered by the peasants of Villeret, a small French village near the Somme River. When the German occupiers became more intrusive in local life, billeting their troops in private homes and confiscating supplies, the French took a more collective approach to hiding the Brits sharing their food and housing among a network of families. One soldier was hidden in an armoire, another dressed as a girl; somehow, most did their best and eventually passed themselves off as locals. Private Robert Digby, the hero of this tale, blended in so successfully "It's almost like he was running for mayor," said one villager that he fell in love with the local belle, Claire Dessenne. At first, hiding the British was a unifying act of resistance, but by 1916, after years of hunger and occupation, solidarity broke. The four remaining British soldiers including Digby, now the father of young H l ne Dessenne were rounded up and executed. Who turned them in? Claire's spurned rival? A spy turned informer? While Macintyre is satisfyingly thorough in his attempt to solve this long-buried mystery, he is even better at recreating the texture of day-to-day life in rural, occupied France. As readers grope with understanding our present war, they may find this more remote one oddly instructive. Weapons may change, but it's the people some treacherous, some brave, but most of them in between who count.B&w photos not seen by PW.