"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, 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.
Source: The First Meeting by Lucien Jonas
A small French village where life seem to be unchanged throughout the ages is the dramatic background for much of the story behind The Englishman's Daughter and the protagonists actual people.
Ben Macintyre has done a singular job of recounting what is believed to have happened in this little place in Picardie during WW 1.
Separated from their regiment during the 'Grande Debacle', a fair amount of British Expeditionary Force soldiers were stranded behind enemies lines. Some were taken prisoner, others found themselves at the mercy of whomever would lend them a hand. In this case, the villagers of Villeret united despite ancient family feuds, much jealousies and petty gossips to protect these brave men at all cost. It became a source of pride to hide them from the Huns.
With their country now occupied by the Germans and thousands of refugees on the road, most Frenchmen in the region found themselves deprived of the most elementary of supplies with troops billeted in their homes and officers in nearby chateaux. Meanwhile the German army pursued, looted and massacred. Priests were shot, hostages bayoneted, homes and towns destroyed including across the border, the precious Louvain library in Belgium, where more than two hundred thousands books were torched!
Nothing went unchecked by the Germans, requisitions - sometimes absurd ones - were constant, penalties for resisting, death and yet as Macintyre conveys, some British soldiers were actually hiding under the very nose of the enemy, sometimes just above their head or inside a large wardrobe!
As life settles for all of them, villagers warm up to invaders whom as individuals are seen as more courteous and human than as a whole. At the same time, now disgruntled villagers sees the hiding soldiers as just more mouths to feed and times are desperate, supplies extremely limited.
A couple of years go by, liaisons happen as it often does in times of war and when one of the village girls gives birth to a little girl, the British soldiers are quickly seen as an added burden to the villagers' already precarious lives.
The rest is history: whatever the reason, an unknown party denounced the soldiers to the Germans. Following their arrests, they were sentenced to death and summarily shot.
The whole story might have well been forgotten by many if not for the author being invited to the very same village where a plaque commemorating the execution site was then unveiled. Amongst the ceremony's attendants was an elderly woman who told him one of the soldiers was in fact her father.
What follows is what makes this novel a remarkable record of the lives of a handful of soldiers fighting for God and Country until they were separated from their ranks.
You quickly get the impression Macintyre has done an impressive job to recreate the stressful atmosphere of a small village where life seemed unchanged, and which faced with yet another invasion found their own way to survive another day.
Impressive notes, selected bibliographies and many photos are included in the book!
If you are looking for the guilty party, I can only say you will have to decide for yourself once you are acquainted with all the facts as provided by the author.
In the end, it matters little in my opinion who did what...In times of war, right and wrong are never clearly defined. The story however needed to be told and Macintyre honoured these events by commemorating a small part of history.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed...
Meet the Author:
BEN MACINTYRE is writer-at-large and associate editor of the Times of London. He is the author of Agent Zigzag, The Man Who Would Be King, The Englishman's Daughter, The Napoleon of Crime, and Forgotten Fatherland.
He lives in London with his wife, the novelist Kate Muir, and their three children.
Note: This was a library loan and all opinions are mine only!