Ben MacIntyre
The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War I

"Here was the most savoury of ironies: the all-powerful, all-feted Kaiser, displaying his military muscle and lifting a superior gloved hand to the awed Frenchmen and -women lining the roads of the land he now occupied, while, in the hay a few yards away, an enemy soldier made love to a beautiful French girl." (p. 100)
Wow! This book was hard to put down. It captures so many important and exciting themes and is so well written that it should be on virtually everyone's 'to read' list. The writing is so fluid and easy to read and the feeling of being there is so intense that you forget you are reading a book and, instead, feel like you are watching a film. Going along with what Terry H. Mathews says on amazon.com, it is surprising this isn't being made into a film yet. I suppose that is a wish that would eventually disappoint though as filmmakers would have a difficult time not letting down those of us who have read the book. The story is so captivating, the hell and meaninglessness that is war is described so well, and the detective work at the end (for a little icing on the cake) make The Englishman's Daughter as entertaining as it is informative (to those of us needing a World War I history lesson).

The book is well summarized below, by the publisher, so an additional summary will not be provided here. Rather, I just have a couple of comments or impressions to share in addition to those above.

Although any history that is more than 80 years old, with most of the written documentation of the time being destroyed (in two wars), is bound to have its limitations MacIntyre does an excellent job of not forming rigid conclusions and then attempting to skew the facts to bolster a sensational account or otherwise untenable view of the events (as is so often the case with unclear histories). He presents the evidence against all the potential betrayers which is not only more honest and fair to history but is also more interesting for the reader.

The subplots, including those of spies and Patrick Fowler, the soldier who spent the war inside an armoire, were fascinating. The reader is lead through a series of emotions and will find it hard not to laugh at Francois Theillier and cry at other times. Overall, this is a fantastic read that I highly recommend.

from the publisher:

"At two o'clock on the morning of November 14, 1915, exactly nine months after the Kaiser had passed through Villeret, came a new sound, not heard since the war began, of a baby girl born to the smell of gunpowder, a small victory for life in the midst of numberless death."
In the first terrifying days of World War I, a handful of British soldiers found themselves trapped behind enemy lines on the Western Front. Unable to rejoin their units, which were retreating under the German onslaught, they were forced to hide in the French countryside. The Englishman's Daughter is the extraordinary true story of these men, their rescuers, and the bittersweet love affair that sprang up between an enchanting French villager and a fugitive English soldier. This romance flourished under the very eyes of German occupiers, resulted in the birth of a child, and eventually tore a community apart.

Villeret, a tiny village just a few miles from the Somme, was under constant German occupation for most of the war, yet its inhabitants made the courageous decision to feed, clothe, and protect the British soldiers, and to absorb them into daily life until the fugitives could pass for Picard peasants. As the men grew closer to their new "families," twenty-year-old Claire Dessenne, the most beautiful woman in Villeret, fell in love with the dashing, self-styled leader of the group, Private Robert Digby. A few months before the Battle of the Somme, Claire gave birth to their daughter, Hélène, and the courage and conviction of the villagers that had up to then remained steadfast in the face of immense odds began to unravel -- as jealousies surfaced and tongues started to wag. When the child was just six months old, someone in the village betrayed Digby and his men to the German occupiers. They were tried as spies and executed, and eight decades later the rumors still abound: who betrayed the Englishmen?

In this heartbreaking story of love and duplicity, passion and betrayal, Ben Macintyre traces the affair of Claire Dessenne and Robert Digby through the testimonies of Hélène Dessenne herself and of the villagers and the soldiers' last letters. A harrowing account of how life was lived behind enemy lines during the Great War, The Englishman's Daughter offers a compelling solution to a gripping mystery that reverberates to this day.

Ben Macintyre is the author of Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche and The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief. A senior writer and columnist for The Times of London, he was the newspaper's correspondent in New York, Paris, and Washington. He now lives in London.

"A poignant love story set against the backdrop of war, tragedy, treachery . . . [that] turns into a page-turning mystery and a spy story worthy of Deighton or le Carré." --Lyn MacDonald, The Times (London)

"Ben Macintyre approaches history the way a fine novelist approaches the world. He sees things that have always been there, ripe with resonance, but have always been overlooked in their fullness. Then he articulates them brilliantly, and suddenly we see the world more clearly and intensely. The Englishman's Daughter, though based on literal history, is as true as art." --Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

The following is an excerpt from the book The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War I by Ben Macintyre.

Prologue
Rain spilled from an ashen sky as the famously glutinous mud of Picardy caked on my shoe-soles like mortar, and damp seeped into my socks. In a patch of cow-trodden pasture beside the little town of Le Câtelet, we stared out from beneath a canopy of umbrellas at a pitted chalk rampart, the ivy-strangled remnant of a vast medieval castle, to which a small plaque had been nailed: "Ici ont été fusillés quatre soldats Britanniques" (Four British soldiers were executed by firing squad on this spot). The band from the local mental institution played "God Save the Queen," excruciatingly, and then someone clicked on a boom-box and out crackled a reedy tape-recording of French schoolchildren reciting Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth."
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
An honour guard of three old men, dressed in ragged replica First World War uniforms -- one English, one Scottish, one French -- clutched their toy rifles and looked stern, as the rain dripped off their moustaches. A pair of passing cattle stopped on their way to milking and stared at us.

The day before, I had received a call from the local schoolmaster at the Times office in Paris: "It would mean a great deal to the village to have a representative of your newspaper present when we unveil the plaque," he said. I had hesitated, fumbling for the polite French excuse, but the voice was pressing. "You must come, you will find it interesting."

Reluctantly I had set off from Paris, driving up the Autoroute du Nord past signposts -- Amiens, Albert, Arras -- recalling the Great War, the war to end all wars, and the very worst war, until the one that came after. Following the teacher's precise directions, I had turned off towards Saint-Quentin, across the line of the Western Front, over the River Somme, through land that had once been no-man's, and headed east along a bullet-straight Roman road into the battlefields of the war's grand finale. No place on earth has been so indelibly brutalised by conflict. The war is still gouged into the landscape, its path traced by the ugly brick houses and uniform churches thrown together with cheap cement and Chinese labour in 1919. It is written in the shape of unexploded shells unearthed with every fresh ploughing and tossed onto the roadside, and in the cemeteries, battalions of dead marching across the fields of northern France in perfect regimental order.

Early for my rendezvous, I stopped beside the British graveyard at Vadancourt and wandered among the neat Commonwealth War Graves headstones with their stock, understated laments for the multitudinous dead: some known, some unknown, and the briskly facile "Known unto God" one of the many official formulations for engraved grief worked up by Rudyard Kipling. The cemetery is a small one, just a few hundred headstones, a fraction of the 720,000 British soldiers slain, who in turn made up barely one-tenth of the carnage of that barbaric war, fought by highly civilised nations for no pressing ideological reason.

The schoolteacher, solemn of manner and strongly redolent of lunchtime garlic, was waiting for me by the Croix d'Or restaurant in Le Câtelet, where a group of about thirty people huddled under the eaves, like damp pigeons. I was introduced as "Monsieur, le rédacteur du Times," an exaggeration of my position that made me suspect he had forgotten my name. My general greeting to the assembled was met with unsmiling curiosity, and again I wondered why I had come to a ceremony for four entirely obscure soldiers, a droplet in the wave of war-blood, Known unto Nobody.

The band, drawn up in the field behind the restaurant, now broke into a hearty, rhythm-defying rendition of something French and appropriately martial. The three amateur soldiers came to attention, of sorts, as two cars pulled up. Out of the first emerged the mayor of Le Câtelet, the préfet of the region, and his wife; from the second an elderly white-haired woman was extracted, placed in a wheelchair, and trundled across the field to the rampart wall.

After a round of formal French handshaking, the ceremony began. The previous year I had reported on the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, a huge, poppy-packed performance with big bands and bigwigs to celebrate the very few, very old survivors. The Le Câtelet ceremony felt somehow more apt: ill-fitting uniforms on civilians, children reciting English words they did not understand, a handful of people remembering to remember, in the pouring rain. I began to feel moved, in spite of myself. The préfet launched into a lofty speech about valour, honour, and death. "See the holes in the wall?" the teacher whispered, with a gust of garlic, in my ear. "Those are from the execution." As the oration rumbled on, I surveyed the assembled crowd, few under seventy and some plainly as old as the event we were here to remember. Lined peasant faces listened hard to the official version of what the war had meant.

Suddenly I had the sensation of being watched myself. The old woman in the wheelchair, placed alongside the préfet, had also stopped listening and was staring at me. Disconcerted, I forced a smile, and tried to feign absorption in the speech, but when I sneaked a sideways glance, I found her eyes were still fixed on me. Finally, the préfet wound down, and the village priest offered a hasty orison, again in English: "Our Father who art in Heaven . . ." The rain stopped, the band struck up, and the military trio shouldered plastic and marched briskly off down the street towards the town hall, where a vin d'honneur was on offer.

As the crowd drifted away, I looked around for the old woman, and then realised she was beside me, looking up. Before I could volunteer my name, she spoke, in a high, faint voice and a thick Picardy accent that I could barely understand. "You are the Englishman," she said. It was not a question. The eyes that had caught my attention through the drizzle were now exploring my face. They were the most intensely blue eyes I have ever seen. Unnerved again, I offered a banal observation about the improvement in the weather, but she barely allowed me to finish before piping up once more.

"Our village, Villeret" -- she gestured vaguely to the west with a mottled white hand -- "was over there, near the front line, on the German side. When the British were retreating, in quatorze, some soldiers were left behind and could not get back to their army across the trenches. They came to us for protection. We bandaged their wounds, we fed them, and we hid them from the Germans. We concealed them in our village."

Her voice was rhythmical, as if reciting a story rehearsed by heart and scored in memory. "There were seven of them, brave British soldiers, and my family and the other villagers, we kept them safe. Then, one day, the Germans came to their hiding place." The voice trailed away, and for the first time I became aware that another person was listening: I turned to find an elderly man standing behind my shoulder, an expression of undisguised alarm on his face. She pressed on, her eyes now turned to the plaque.

"Three of the British soldiers managed to escape from Villeret, and returned to England. Four did not. We were betrayed. The Germans captured them. They shot them against that wall, and we buried them beside the church." She turned back to me and smiled gravely. "That was in 1916. I was six months old."

She continued, as if the events she spoke of were the moments of yesterday, the tragedy as fresh as the rain. "Those seven British soldiers were our soldiers." She paused again, and then murmured, the faintest whisper: "One of them was my father."