The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War I Paperback – 1 Feb 2003
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--"The New York Times Book Review
""This poignant reconstruction...has all the tensions of a contemporary mystery."
--"The Philadelphia Inquirer
""Wrenching...thoroughly captivating...reminds one of the novels of Michael Ondaatje."
--"The Washington Times
--"The New York Times Book Review
" This poignant reconstruction...has all the tensions of a contemporary mystery.
--"The Philadelphia Inquirer
" Wrenching...thoroughly captivating...reminds one of the novels of Michael Ondaatje.
--"The Washington Times
From the Inside Flap
In the first terrifying days of World War I, four British soldiers found themselves trapped behind enemy lines on the western front. They were forced to hide in the tiny French village of Villeret, whose inhabitants made the courageous decision to shelter the fugitives until they could pass as Picard peasants.
The Englishman's Daughter is the never-before-told story of these extraordinary men, their protectors, and of the haunting love affair between Private Robert Digby and Claire Dessenne, the most beautiful woman in Villeret. Their passion would result in the birth of a child known as "The Englishman's Daughter," and in an act of unspeakable betrayal, a tragic legacy that would haunt the village for generations to come.
Through the testimonies of the villagers and the last letters of the soldiers, acclaimed journalist Ben Macintyre has pieced together a harrowing account of how life was lived behind enemy lines during the Great War, and offers a compelling solution to a gripping mystery that reverberates to this day.
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The main story of the book surrounds this love affair and the resulting child (still alive when the author wrote the book in 1999). After her birth, the child's father and his comrades were captured and four of them (including the father) were executed. This part of the book, and the subsequent reunion of the family in 1930, is told simply and rather elegantly by the author.
The interesting part of the story, to my mind, was the backdrop to the actual affair. I've always been fascinated by this sort of thing, and the author does a good job of recounting how the French civilians were treated during World War I if they were in territory occupied by the Germans. The Germans apparently looted quite thoroughly (the commander in the story issues a proclamation that eggs are for German officers exclusively!) and shot anyone who showed much defiance. There were French espionage rings operating behind German lines (one figures in the plot, murkily, in the background). There wasn't, however, the concerted effort to kill individual German soldiers and sabotage their operations that there was in the later war.
I enjoyed this book a great deal. I have MacIntyre's other books too, and I intend to read them when I get a chance.
In normal times, the village was rife with ancient family feuds, jealousies, gossip, and crime. The arrival of the British stragglers and the German troops created a kind of unity: protecting the British fugitives was a patriotic duty, they were considered trophies of resistance. At great risk to themselves, the villagers kept the British hidden (often in the same houses billeted with Germans)and fed. As months passed, the villagers' fears began to recede; relations between fugitives, their protectors, and the German invaders began to evolve. Individually, German troops were actually often human, courteous, helpful, and some even attractive. The British, on the other hand began to be seen as seven more mouths to feed in desperately hungry conditions. They were leading a soft life while others on both sides did the fighting, and the pregnancy of a village girl by one of the British soldiers produced a subtle but unstable reaction: old jealousies and animosities re-surfaced, whispering began, and the Germans began receiving anonymous denunciations.
As Paris correspondent for the London Times, Macintyre went out to report on a meager ceremony in the tiny French village of Villeret commemorating four British soldiers who were executed there by the Germans during World War I. The soldiers had been hidden by the villagers of Villeret for two years.
At the close of the ceremony, an elderly woman in a wheelchair seeks out Macintyre to tell him the story of how seven British soldiers had been protected by the village, three of whom eventually escaped, and four who were shot. "That was in 1916. I was six months old," she tells him. "Those seven British soldiers were our soldiers. One of them was my father."
From this astonishing disclosure, Macintyre weaves a satisfying tale of wartime horrors and humiliations, as the territory at the Western Front changed hands between German and Allied hands. In the confusion of battle, the seven British soldiers lost their regiments and became trapped behind enemy lines. They hid in the woods, which were impenetrable to German horses, until a villager discovered them and convinced her friends and neighbors to collude with her in first hiding them, and then remaking them into credible French peasants so they could live out in the open.
Although the title of the book makes a lot of the love story of one of the soldiers -- Robert Digby, the father of the elderly woman in the wheelchair -- and how it lead to the betrayal and execution of the soldiers, I found more value in the book as a study of war. Mr. Macintyre is skilled in placing you at the Front and immersing you in the exhaustion, terror and shock of retreating soldiers. He also brings clarity to the daily struggles of occupied villages. Homes, food, animals, livelihoods -- everything is demanded, taken, looted or destroyed. Civilians are shot for sport or for resisting. Refugees flee, with nowhere to go. One woman shoots her beloved horse rather than turn him over to the Germans.
Because I know nothing of the geography of France, and never took French as a language, people's names and place names became confusing very quickly. But the author provides a map and often reintroduces people with phrases that repeat their relationship to someone or their occupation in the village, which is helpful. Mr. Macintyre completed prodigious amounts of research, using both primary and secondary sources, and it's a pleasure to see that an event of so long ago can be recreated so completely -- even though the men's fate is so tragic and there ultimately remains the unsolved mystery of who betrayed them.
If you're looking for a detailed wartime love story, you're not really going to find it here. The author does a great job in his research but is limited by the fact that the eyewitnesses to (and subjects of) the love story have long since passed away. Since the English soldier (Robert Digby) was masquerading as a French peasant, he was in close proximity to his girlfriend (Claire Dessenne), so there wasn't a need for them to write letters to one another, and thus we don't really have too much in the way of firsthand accounts of their limited time together.
But this book is a great account of civilian life in Villeret (which was not far from the front). My knowledge of WWI was (and is) very limited, so I found the French interactions with the German occupiers to be very interesting and surprising. I was initially surprised by the lack of overt resistance to the wholesale invasion of the civilians' homes, and then surprised by the fact that the French came to tolerate, if not like, many of the German soldiers who had taken over their village.
I gave this book four stars for two reasons: First, it starts a little slowly. It takes awhile to get the lay of the land (literally -- you will definitely find the map at the beginning of the book helpful) and isn't all that riveting in the beginning. And second (spoiler alert), the lack of a definite conclusion was a little disappointing. This isn't the author's fault, and he does his best to determine, using 80-year-old evidence, to find out who the traitors are, but it's nonetheless a little unsatisfying. Still, this is overall an interesting and informative read.
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