Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

The Englishman’s Daughter … A Foreign Field

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Continuing the exploration of civilians in or near the war zone, and their interactions with military personnel.

Author Ben Macintyre’s interest is piqued when he is invited to Le Câtelet, a small Picardy town near the Western Front, to report on the unveiling of a plaque to honour four British soldiers executed there in 1916. An elderly French woman from the nearby village of Villeret introduces herself as the daughter of one of the executed soldiers.

The story starts in the first days of WW1. Allied attacks against the initial German offensives were quickly turned around. The Allies in retreat, some soldiers were trapped behind enemy lines. Seven British soldiers found themselves in Villeret, a village under occupation. Several villagers rallied to conceal the soldiers. Eventually, the best strategy was to hide them in plain sight by integrating them into the village. In this way, they protected the soldiers for almost two years.

One of the soldiers, Robert Digby, fit in better than the others. Having lived in Paris for a brief stint, he already spoke French. He and Claire Dessenne, the most beautiful woman in Villeret, fell in love. In November 1915, she gave birth to their daughter. Six months later, he was executed by the German occupiers.

Claire and Robert’s relationship forms the core of the “true story of love and betrayal.” But that alone would not carry the length of a book. Interviewing people who lived through the events and their descendants, and combing through official and unofficial documents from the time, Macintyre pieces together a broader tale. A wealth of source material came from “the admirable and peculiarly French habit of bureaucratic history-hoarding, which prompted local officials to amass quantities of first-hand evidence from ordinary people, describing their experiences in the region behind the lines between 1914 and 1918.” (Note on Sources)  

Macintyre documents the horrors of war, and how the lives of the villagers under occupation and of the occupiers evolve in an area that saw some of the worst devastation of the time. He teases out the histories of the villagers and of the British soldiers.

The villagers tried to retain some semblance of a normal life. They had little news from outside. They could not know that the occupation would last so long. The occupiers’ demands were many and often arbitrary. Soon, every provision was diverted to the German war effort.

In early days, many villagers were defiantly willing to protect the lost foreigners. Others were fearful of the consequences. There was a daily risk in harbouring fugitive soldiers. Over time, some collaborated with the enemy. (Indeed, the hook could have been ‘The German’s Daughter.’) Some resented the relatively easy lives of the British soldiers, compared to the men of the village who were off fighting. Others remained … or claimed to remain … loyal throughout. “Just as the invisible barrier separating German from French began to crumble, so did the unspoken alliance that, in the first days of occupation, had united all French citizens against the German invader. … Every enemy invasion, every revolution provides an opportunity for old grievances to bubble to the surface …” (p 120)

The final chapter puzzles out several theories about the identities of betrayers. Why did the Villeret soldiers not try to escape when opportunities arose? Were they part of the spy network now known to have operated in the area? Were the soldiers traded for some favour to grasp at survival? Or is the common belief of the area true, that a spurned lover turned them in … cherchez la femme?

Full-length exposés by journalists are not my favourite genre of books. I find that material best suited to a feature story or series is often over-stretched and padded to fit the longer format. Lots of blah-blah-blah in place of in-depth analysis. Macintyre doesn’t fall into that trap. He frames interesting personal stories into the larger context of the war.

The Englishman’s Daughter, the title in North America, is published in the UK under the title A Foreign Field.

Thanks to Laurie for suggesting this book.

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Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at greatwar100reads.wordpress.com.

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