- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

In "The Englishman's Daughter," British journalist Ben Macintyre recounts the true story of seven British soldiers who, at the start of World War I, were trapped behind enemy lines. Separated from their regiments, the men were taken in and given shelter by the villagers of German-occupied Villeret, a small town in northern France strained by the shifting front line of the war's first phase. And there they remained for the next 18 months.
When one of the men, the dashing Robert Digby, fell in love with Claire Dessenne, the 19-year-old daughter of one of the town patriarchs, and fathered a child, village conflicts over what to do with the outsiders were aroused. The villagers to a person had put themselves at great risk to hide and feed the men but there were limits to their generosity and war rations made extra mouths to feed that much more onerous.
As the Germans bore down, looking for spies, the men hoped that all the effort they had put into blending in with their French protectors in dress, language, and work would provide them cover. But this was not so. One of the villagers spilled the beans to the authorities. Three of the men got away. Four of them were tried as spies and executed.
This is a wrenching but thoroughly captivating book. In his war story, love story and mystery (who in the village betrayed the soldiers?) Mr. Macintyre takes time to unite the strands into a compelling whole. The tempo, tension and rich imagery reminds one of the novels of Michael Ondaatje. But through the force of its research and reconstruction of actual events, its attention to the bounty and coarseness of French rural life along with a powerful portrait of an ill-fated hero grappling with his identity, the book also recalls historian Natalie Zemon Davis' troubling, soulful and perplexing "The Return of Martin Guerre."
Reading these pages, one asks over and over again: Who are the heroes? The villains? How do we invent ourselves to navigate life's trials? What ties us to a country, a property, possession? What are the costs of domination? Of collaboration? Who can control the heart?
Because this is a book defined by the time frame, the troop movements and the massive casualties of World War I, it is the prosecution of that war which leads the narrative and urges these questions. There is, surprisingly, some comfort to be taken from reading about this war and these circumstances in light of the current war our own nation is fighting. Men in uniform, clear-cut battle lines, a curious sense of innocence on all sides, and rules of engagement yes rules form the backdrop to a story that with any tilt in time or trenches might have been different. But it had a beginning and an end.
The book opens with a description of the chaotic early days of a war that "was not going according to plan: neither the Schlieffen Plan, dreamed up by a dead German aristocrat, to encircle France rapidly from the north; nor France's Plan XVII, which called for gallant French soldiery to attack the enemy with such elan that the Germans would immediately lose heart; nor the British plan to defend Belgian neutrality, support the French, reinforce the might of the British Empire, and then go home."
At first, it is the Germans who seem to be winning, making audacious, successful advances into France and looting, burning, bayoneting civilians and destroying towns along the way. The best the Allies were able to muster seems to have been an onslaught directed by the French commander Arthur-Daniel Bastien and his 9th Regiment of Dragoons. With "helmets on, plumes blowing in the breeze," Bastien's troops broke through eight successive lines of German infantry, pausing before each charge. But the great cavalry charge came to naught. "In less than an hour, the 1st Squadron of the 9th Dragoons had been all but wiped out."
Bastien himself fared better, taking shelter in a small wood. There, he encountered three disoriented British soldiers: David Martin and Thomas Donohoe of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and Willie Thorpe of the Kings Own Lancaster Regiment. He shared rabbit with the stragglers but soon they, along with Robert Digby, and others took up residence in a hunting lodge owned by Jeanne Magniez, she being a prominent member of the local gentry. Her lodge (the Pecherie), her horses (particularly the thoroughbred Flirt) and her verdant land were a symbol of the abundant resources that region enjoyed before war took its toll.
There followed the British soldiers' masquerade as Frenchmen, and the men went about the deception with skill and with the cooperation of just about everyone in the village. There was reason to hope they could live these lives among their new "families" until war's end. For Private Digby, the handsome chicken farmer who became the leader of the group, the experience was transforming:
"The Parisian accent he had picked up in the bars of Montparnasse was now overlaid with the guttural twang of Picardy. He learned the slang terms for the local crops, the best method for snaring a rabbit in the Trocme wood, and with the help of Marie Coulette's gnarled fingers, the way to thread a Villeret loom."
Life went on. The villagers endured war's depredations and the wacky, arbitrary often cruel orders of the German Etappen-Kommandant governor, Major Karl Evers, who was obsessed by "bureaucratic minutiae." Posters were pasted outside every public office under his control with the following orders: "'All eggs are for German officers'… . and then added by way of clarification, 'Civilians are forbidden to eat eggs.'" Taxes called "war contributions" were levied, trees were cut down to line trenches, (including those that formed the lush arbors around Jeanne Magniez's land) and in an eerie foreboding of what would come in the next war, Evers stated that he was going to have all the mentally ill people in Villeret shot.
Nevertheless, "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."
That little girl would grow up to be the 80-year-old Helene Cornaille who introduced herself to Mr. Macintyre on one of his visits to interview children of the local residents who sheltered the British soldiers. Her account, along with the vivid descriptions provided by others in oral histories and letters, completes the picture and suggests a solution to the mystery at the center of these events.
Mr. Macintyre, whose previous works include "Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elizabeth Nietzsche" and "The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief," has a flair for portraying the nearly neglected figures who made their way in the shadows of limelight. Through this fine book, with the help of striking photographs and the haunting World War I poetry of Rupert Brook and Alan Seeger quoted throughout, these brave men and those who loved them are remembered.


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