Review

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

by Ben MacIntyre



Ben Macintyre's latest book proves to be more than just a haunting
history of World War One. He falls short of simply detailing the
"obscene war of mud, lice, and noise, of human excreta everywhere
and sudden death in verminous holes and stagnant ditches." Instead,
THE ENGLISHMAN'S DAUGHTER is an adventure and love story, the tale
of British soldiers caught behind enemy lines and the French
country folk who risked their lives to help them.

During a war too ghastly to comprehend --- a single battle could
leave 50 thousand men dead for just one mile of territory --- the
fugitive soldiers experienced a relatively safe haven from the
degradations of the trench in the town of Villeret. The soldiers
were given civilian clothes and told to blend in with the daily
farming life of the village, while each family in town shared the
burden of extra mouths to feed during near-starvation
conditions.

The soldiers --- adored by most villagers --- were welcomed to the
table in nearly all the homes. It's no surprise that local beauty,
Claire Dessenne, fell in love with the natural leader of the band
of fugitives. Dashing Robert Digby, fluent in French, tall and fair
in a region of squat peasants, was an exotic and educated presence
in the isolated Picardy region. The moment of the lovers' meeting
had such an impact on their lives and the fate of the town that the
event passed into local lore through oral history and inherited
memory. Octogenarian villagers --- mere tots when the Great War
passed their way --- still refer to Digby's years in Villeret in
the present tense, as if the blonde, blue-eyed gentleman walked the
town's cobblestone streets just yesterday.

I won't be giving away anything to reveal that the fugitives'
existence in town was ultimately revealed and four of the soldiers
were summarily executed by the occupying German forces. Many of the
townsfolk who helped the British soldiers were deported to work
camps for the duration of the war. Rightly or wrongly, Macintyre
himself reveals their barbarous fate in the prologue. This may be
done as a sort of kindness to the reader, who nevertheless becomes
deeply attached to Digby, the romantic protagonist at the heart of
the book's action.

Digby and Claire Dessenne's illegitimate child, Hélène,
was born in the midst of warfare as the front lines grew
dangerously close to Villeret. Interviewed in the 1990s by
Macintyre, Hélène was only six months old at the time of
her father's execution. This point in the book is where the story
suddenly bears the dramatic earmarks of an RKO movie from the '40s.
A besotted Digby presented Claire with a letter for his mother back
in England. He dropped his characteristic English reserve in the
last-minute missive and begged his mother to accept and embrace his
lover and daughter after his death. Sadly, this letter went ignored
for decades. It was discovered after the old woman's death as
Thomas Digby, the soldier's brother, sorted through her private
effects.

Thomas made a hasty return to the battlefields of France where he,
too, had served during the bloody conflict, and a joyful reunion
took place between Hélène and the closest relative of her
long lost father. Some of the narrative's most moving scenes occur
as Thomas marches down to city hall in the newly rebuilt Villeret
to claim Hélène as his own daughter, finally bestowing
his family name upon her.

Macintyre possesses a novelist's talent for cinematic detail and
pacing that makes THE ENGLISHMAN'S DAUGHTER a compelling
page-turner. Here is a real-life tale whose plot rivals such love
and war fiction classics as THE ENGLISH PATIENT or A FAREWELL TO
ARMS. The epilogue contains the most satisfying taste of
Macintyre's flair for reportage, a journalistic style of prose he
honed over the years as the Paris correspondent for The Times of
London
. Even though he unearthed abundant details about the
80-year-old love story, one aspect continued to haunt him. Who gave
the soldiers away to the Germans? What town informant deprived a
woman of her lover, a child of her father, and made countless
families suffer unnecessary grief? In the final chapter, Macintyre
demonstrates his gift for resolving the book's many themes and
questions. The reader will be glad they undertook the
adventure.

Reviewed by Andrea Hoag on January 21, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: February 4, 2003
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Delta
  • ISBN-10: 0385336799
  • ISBN-13: 9780385336796