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4.6 out of 5 stars42
4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 5 May 2004
I must admit that I much prefer first world war 'fiction' (as in 'Birdsong' or the 'Regeneration Trilogy') to factual events and when I bought this book I made the mistake in thinking that's what I was getting.However,I was very pleasantly surprised.
The story of the 'four Englishmen of Villeret' and their untimely betrayal(by whom?) makes gripping reading.I found myself concerned for the soldiers and villagers and the circumstances in which they found themselves and although I was aware of the fate that befell them, the ending was not ruined. This due to Ben MacIntyre's painstaking research and interviews with the descendents of all involved in 1916. He puts forward theories of the locals as well as his own, but ultimately the reader is left to make their own assumptions as to 'whodunnit?'
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on 23 November 2001
Having greatly enjoyed Mr Macintyre's previous book on a master thief called Adam Worth I naturally took note when I saw this book on display in my local bookshop. Having read the preface I was in two minds since it said the book was about the First World War and I am not by nature inclined to read books on military affairs although I have read and enjoyed several novels set in wartime settings. I so enjoyed the book on Adam Worth I took a chance and bought the book and am very glad I did. Mr Macintyre makes many interesting and challenging points about the beast of war and its impact upon people and I was forced to think about issues which otherwise I might have not thought of. This is novel writing of a very good calibre since it uses the novel to make the reader think. Happily the author also finds room amidst all the important theories for a superb whodunnit. This kept me guessing until the final page. I am not going to give away the game here and spoil it for others but I recommend this to all lovers of crime books as well as those persons fascinated by war itself.
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on 23 July 2009
I bought this book for the 2nd time and received it yesterday. Around midnight last night, it was finished. I'm not sure that more needs to be said to describe the compelling true story contained within its pages; it's a well written, well researched and touching account of the horrors of the Great War described through the lives of a handful of people (both french peasants and trapped british soldiers) and will capture the reader from page 1.

Whilst the facts behind the story can only be sketchy the author has painstaking researched his brief and fleshed out this little known cameo into a genuinely interesting and emotionally involving story. Little is actually known about many of the main protagonists, in itself a sobering reminder of just what destruction occurred between 1914 and 1918 and Mr MacIntyre deserves much credit for painting such a vivid picture with such little material.

To be critical I felt that perhaps more could have been said about the relationship between Robert Digby and Claire Dessenne but with so much doubt I guess the author deserves some credit for staying within the boundaries of what material he had and not flying off into romantic conjecture. Written as a novel or portrayed in film this could be quite some story however so it's maybe a shame that this wasn't considered when writing.

Can I also recommend that anyone with the means and time to visit the graves of the 4 soldiers do what I did some years ago and make the effort. An already goose bump enducing story is made even more so looking at the stones at the back of a small churchyard in rural france. The carnage of World War I is sometimes hard to take in when such huge casualty numbers and enormous graveyards are considered. The Menin Gate at Ypres alone has the names of over 50,000 men killed and never found inscribed on it. Perhaps this small and hard to find row, with the lives of those carved known more personally because of this book, brings the true horrors of the Great War into a sharper focus than anything.
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on 28 January 2002
A superbly well-researched book tracing the remarkable and moving story of a group of British soldiers caught in occupied France in the First World War.
This is a story of love, bravery, betrayal and tragedy elegantly told by a seasoned Times journalist. Of course, the tale itself is compelling, but the real value of this extraordinary book is the detailed picture it provides of how war changes people, destroys entire cultures, depriving communities of their past, their present and their futures.
A Foreign Field's focus on one village, one community gives the reader an opporunity to chart the wider human destructiveness of war.
MacIntyre's brings all the characters to life and tells the story with the skill of an accomplished novelist.
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on 7 August 2002
This is a truly accomplished book. Taking real-life events that took place during the confusion at the beginning of the first world war in 1914, the author tells the true story of a group of allied soldiers caught behind German lines when the allies retreated.
Centred around the town of Villeret in Picardy, characters (exceptionally well-researched) are brought to life as villains or heros. Sympathetically and at times humerously written, it portrays the confusion of war, and the fact that it will often bring out both the best and the worst in people.
This book will particularly appeal to those with an amateur interest in the history of the First World War, due to the painstaking research that went into the book. eg Reading about the last (brave and desparate) cavalry charge of any major war, with the proud French cavalry, charging German machine gun lines was heart-rending and evocative. It also is a great chance to understand and share in the hopes and fears of young British soldiers lost in a foreign field.
Fact mixed with fiction: a great mix when written so well.
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on 11 September 2010
The First World War will soon be a 100 years ago. And yet in this book MacIntyre throws you right into the mix to experience the real people, the real places, the real problems and ultimately the tragedy.

Just one look at the eyes of the Claire Dessenne in her photograph in the book, a young woman who became the love of one the soliders hiding out in a French village, is shattering when you have read what occurred.

I won't go into the events in any detail, that will be the joy and heartache of the read for you.

This is the second MacIntyre book I have read about real events. Agent Zizag was the first, and Josiah The Great is currently the third. And I have one issue. It was not enough to knock off a star, but it was close.

MacIntyre seems so excited by his source material he seems unable to keep the twists back in the pages where they need to be. Every so often he will say something like 'and he met two men, who would become great friends........until one of them turned against him.'

Right, okay, Ben, sort of building me up but spoiling the twist, mate. Then you realise. This is a newspaper reporter writing a full length novel and falling into the 'must make the paragraph gripping so they will read on' syndrome - it's the trick that newspaper journalists use to make you read the WHOLE article and not just the headline and first paragraph.

You get used to it, but I hope he loses it soon. Just the short examples I have read of his work show he has the nose for a good, gripping and touching story.

No need for the 'grippers'.......

Oh, last point......this MUST be filmed. Tremendous real life story. And top marks for the 'after the events' closure.
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on 23 April 2010
I came to this book, as a story about the First World War I'd never heard about. Ben MacIntyre's book gives a vivid account of the fate of four soldiers left behind enemy lines at the beginning of the conflict.
I have to say, I thought his writing style could have been better in this book. I have read some of his later work, and you can see that he has improved over time. This may also have to do with the research material he had available to work from. Little is written about this episode, and a lot of the information came from first or second hand accounts of people who lived at the time.
Having said all that, I really enjoyed the book, and the story. What was most fascinating was the detective work that comes at the end of the book. I won't reveal what it is about as that will give things away.
For anyone interested in the early 20th Century history, this is a great read. It has made me want to visit the places in the book to experience the landscape first hand.
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on 31 December 2001
This story is quite literally un-put-down-able -- an electrifying mystery, tragic love story, and anthem to the hideous waste of war. One wonders after reading this book why anyone would ever, after the Great War, feel compelled to take up arms again. A fine story by a first-rate raconteur.
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on 23 October 2002
This is not only a fascinating account of a real life love story with a tragic ending, but also an interesting insight into the lives of the inhabitants of Villeret and surrounding villages in northern France during the first world war. Well worth reading.
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on 4 December 2001
I can't say I agree with the reviewer who thinks MacIntyre is the next PG Wodehouse- the laughs are somewhat thin on the ground- but this is a beautifully told, extraordinarily evocative piece of work, and rather less pleased with itself than 'Birdsong', which it resembles.
The first world war never quite loses its appeal or sense of innocence lost, and the heartbreaking portrayals of men in hell- on both sides- and a way of life that hadn't changed in centuries being torn apart- for nothing- is a fascinating story in itself. Mix this with a love affair, a mystery and some wonderful photographs of lost times, and you would have to really work hard not to enjoy this book.
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