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A Foreign Field [Paperback]

Ben Macintyre
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Amazon Review

In A Foreign Field Ben MacIntyre has found another story from history's margins In two previous books, Forgotten Fatherland and The Napoleon of Crime, he focused on characters from the footnotes of history, creating compelling narratives from the stories of Nietzsche's sister and of a Victorian master criminal, brought it centre stage and constructed a very powerful drama of love, war and death around it. Robert Digby was a well-educated, middle-class private in the British Expeditionary Force at the beginning of World War I. In the very first month of the war, as the British, French and German armies surged back and forth across tracts of northern France, he became isolated behind enemy lines. When the fluid front lines of the war's first phase rapidly hardened into the murderous stalemate of the trenches, Digby and other British soldiers were permanently trapped in German-occupied territory. Seven, including Digby, took refuge in the small village of Villeret and were given shelter and assistance by the villagers. Under the noses of the German occupiers, they lived in Villeret for 18 months, masquerading as villagers. Relationships between the French peasants and the British soldiers grew strong. Digby fell in love with Claire Dessenne, the 19-year-old daughter of one of his protectors. In November 1915 Claire gave birth to Digby's daughter. Six months later someone in the village betrayed the men to the Germans. Digby and three others were captured, tried as spies and executed by firing squad. Digby's daughter, now in her 80s, still lives in northern France. Using her memories and those of other villagers, archive material and a handful of surviving letters by Digby (including one written to Claire only hours before his execution), Macintyre has produced a real-life story of the First World War as poignant and moving as Sebastian Faulks's novel Birdsong. --Nick Rennison --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


'A simple and touching tale of self-sacrificing courage and love in war ! turns into a page-turning mystery and a spy story worthy of Deighton or le Carre. I loved it' The Times 'I loved "A Foreign Field", the true story of an English soldier stranded behind enemy lines ! at once a great romance, a war story, a social history and a whodunit' Sunday Telegraph 'At the simplest level this is a love story. Stirring, ambitious and profound, this is storytelling at its very best' Sunday Times 'The true story of seven British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, with brilliant research, [Macintyre has] built a powerful picture of what life was like for the Picardy villagers who protected them. I was fascinated' Evening Standard

From the Back Cover

In August 1914 four young British soldiers find themselves trapped behind enemy lines at the height of the fighting on the Western front; unable to get back to their units, they shelter in the tiny French village of Villeret. Living in daily fear of capture and execution, they are fed, clothed and protected by the villagers including the local matriarch, Madame Dessenne, the baker and his wife.

The self-styled leader of the band of fugitives, Private Robert Digby, falls in love with the twenty-year-old-daughter of one of his protectors and in November 1915, with war waging a few miles away, she gives birth to a baby girl. The child is just six months old when someone betrays the men to the Germans. They are captured, tried as spies and summarily executed.

Using the testimonies of the daughter who survives to this day, the villagers, and most movingly the soldiers' last letters, Ben Macintyre reconstructs an extraordinarily story of love and duplicity set against the compelling backdrop of German occupied Picardy. After decades of village rumour he asks the question: Who betrayed Private Digby and his men?

About the Author

Ben MacIntyre is the author of Forgotten Fatherland, (Macmillan) and The Napoleon of Crime (Harper Collins – a ‘Waterstones Recommends’ last summer). He is Washington correspondent on The Times.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 12: Remember Me

At three o'clock on the afternoon of 27 May 1916, the hunchbacked carpenter Ernest Lambert waited by the moat beneath the crumbling ramparts of Le Câtelet's medieval fortress. Serpebois had delivered the coffins, and Lambert had planted the execution posts in the chalky soil, a yard from the wall. ‘It was a beautiful afternoon,’ the carpenter later recalled. He surveyed the newly-made coffins, ‘not much more than pine boxes,’ and felt a wave of disgust. ‘I took care to hide them in the bushes, so the Englishmen would not have to see them when they arrived.’
The final hours in the cell the men spent ‘praying, singing songs and writing to their families’. As the guard assembled outside the prison, Thorpe, Donohoe and Martin solemnly shook hands with Robert Digby, and were marched outside. Dressed in khaki once more, they had their hands tied and they were loaded onto a low cart. Defiant now, after the terror of the previous evening, they ‘left the cells singing Scottish tunes, hymns and parodies of German songs’, but then fell silent as the cart creaked over the cobbles, ‘surrounded by German military police and followed by a squad of twenty-four infantrymen’. Henriette Legé, eight years old, stood at the window of her father's study and watched the grisly procession pass: ‘The street was deserted. I remember it was quite quiet, then the horses’ hooves, and then still again.’ Her father studied the faces of the condemned men: ‘Their expressions were resolute, and they nodded their heads to us as they passed, in salutation.’
Lambert watched the troop approach in the haze of the late afternoon sun. ‘The Englishmen arrived, their heads high and their expressions proud. They faced the firing squad bravely.’ Before they were bound to the posts, the three men shook hands. David Martin was lashed to the middle post, with Thorpe at his left shoulder and Donohoe to his right. None wore blindfolds. Somewhat strangely, they chose this moment to offer a chorus of thanks to one of their earliest protectors: ‘At the foot of the execution posts, they blessed Madame Magniez of Hargival.’ Then the firing squad of twelve men stepped forward.
According to the carpenter, Thorpe died as he had lived, more for fatherhood than soldiering, but courageously: when the executioners opened fire, the other two men were killed instantly, but ‘one of the Englishmen, the smallest and oldest (Willie, the father of the family), was only wounded. So, in silence, without any other supplication, he lifted up three fingers of one hand, spread apart, to signify that he had three young children. The commander of the firing squad walked up to him, and finished him off with a revolver bullet in the ear.’
Down in the town, every inhabitant was listening intently through the crepuscular stillness, from behind shutters and door. Léon Legé recorded: ‘Many heard the report of the rifles which put an end to the worldly sufferings of these poor martyrs of war. They died bravely; one of them cried out a few words in his own language: ”Long Live England! Down with Germany!.”’
The coffins were loaded onto Serpebois's wagon and ‘a quarter of an hour after the execution the funeral cortège returned and deposited the bodies at the cemetery’. The German troops dispersed. Pastor Cheminé read from the Bible as Ernest Lambert bent his arched back under a darkening sky and buried three soldiers in Le Câtelet's tiny graveyard, beside the Escaut River that flowed down towards Hargival.
The following day was Sunday, and the Abbé Morelle, clad in black vestments of mourning, made his way slowly to the church. The grave of the three soldiers was ‘covered in an immense pile of flowers’, and ‘the church was packed’. Major Evers could stop them from watching an execution, but he had not yet forbidden the people to worship, and every able-bodied person was there: Cabaret the teacher, Legé the notary, Godé the mayor, Lambert the carpenter and Serpebois the mechanic. The entire community, including many not seen in church for years, turned out to hear ‘the mass for the dead, read by the curé for the three Englishmen, in an atmosphere of unspeakable emotion’.
Alice Delabranche, the daughter of the pharmacist, recorded the outpouring of sorrow and anger in her diary:
"Their grave was submerged in flowers, and some bouquets were tied with the tricolore ribbon. The pile of wildflowers and wreaths grew so large that even the German officers came to stare at it, becoming such an object of curiosity that, on the 29th, the Kommandant summoned the acting mayor to get him to ban this profusion of flowers and to ensure that no such demonstration was made in the future. A sentry was placed at the entrance to the graveyard, and nobody was allowed to come in."

Every flower, Evers surely knew, was a small blooming of defiance, a gesture of support for the one remaining English soldier who yet languished in Le Câtelet prison and whose death was set for the next evening. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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