'The Englishman's Daughter': WWI, writ small

January 13, 2002|By Robert Ruby | By Robert Ruby,Sun Staff

The Englishman's Daughter, by Ben Macintyre. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 254 pages. $24.

Some catastrophes are so horrifying large, so far beyond what we can comfortably bear, they can't be truly felt except through quiet dramas that occur at the periphery. In The Englishman's Daughter, Ben Macintyre makes real some of the terrors of World War I by uncovering the small, moving story of four British soldiers who spent much of the war in a French village behind German lines.

None of the four was in any conventional sense heroic. In the first British engagement in the war, in August 1914, Private Robert Digby of the Royal Hampshire Regiment was wounded in his left forearm. In the chaos of the army's unexpected retreat, he found himself on his own. Hiding in forests and farmhouses, he was eventually given shelter in the village of Villeret, in northeastern France. Six other British soldiers hid there with him.

Fluent in French, gifted with good looks, Digby was their natural leader. They preferred the relative safety of their hiding places -- a woodshed, an attic, a cubby-hole behind a baker's wood-burning oven -- to attempting to cross German lines and rejoin their units. Their battle was to remain in Villeret without endangering the villagers who hid them. From the first pages, the reader knows they will lose their fight.

"Three of the British soldiers managed to escape from Villeret, and returned to England. Four did not," an elderly woman tells Macintyre when he visited the area in 1997. "We were betrayed. The Germans captured them. They shot them against that wall, and we buried them beside the church. That was in 1916. I was six months old." She was the daughter Digby fathered there.

Macintyre, the author of two quirky biographies, even-handedly tells the intersecting dramas of the four British soldiers, the people of Villeret and the German troops who bivouacked there. Like the Brits, the Germans were homesick, terrified, lovelorn and human.

This first 20th century German occupation of France has been mostly forgotten. Local authorities were required to arrest English, French or Belgian soldiers. "Mayors who conceal the presence of such soldiers will be shot," the local German commandant warned. "Inhabitants who hide them will be hanged." So Digby and his compatriots were dangerous to everyone.

The British soldiers wore clothes provided by women whose husbands and sons were at the front, learned the local patois and worked in the fields under the eyes of the German occupiers. Villagers were prohibited from lighting fires in their fields (for fear they might be signals to the Allies), hanging laundry on clotheslines (for the same reason) or traveling to another village without a pass.

People accommodated themselves to authority, and that is one of the lessons of this sad story. The four men were indeed betrayed. Macintyre takes the reader on a long, oddly unsatisfying search for the person who reported them. He adds melodrama where none is needed. The facts he exhumes from the local archives are more powerful than grand battlefield scenes grafted onto the tale.

Here are the facts: Private Digby of the Royal Hampshire Regiment, Private William Thorpe, Private Thomas Donohoe and Private David Martin were shot and killed.

Robert Ruby, foreign editor of The Sun, is author of Unknown Shore: The Lost History of England's Arctic Colony. A paperback edition will be published this spring.

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