In the first days of World War I four soldiers, left behind as the British army retreated through northern France under the first German onslaught, found themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Western Front, in a tiny village called Villeret. Just a few miles from the Somme, the village would be permanently inundated with German troops for the next four years, yet the villagers conspired to feed, clothe and protect the fugitives under the very noses of the invaders, absorbing the Englishmen into their homes and lives until they could pass for Picardy peasants.
The leader of the band, Robert Digby, was a striking young man who fell in love with Claire Dessenne, the prettiest maid in the village. In November 1915, with the guns clearly audible from the battlefront, Claire gave birth to Digby's child, the jealous whispering began, and the conspiracy that had protected the soldiers for half the war started to unravel.
Never before told, The Englishman's Daughter is a harrowing tale of love, duplicity and their tragic consequences, which haunt the people of Villeret eight decades after the Great War
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
January 12, 2002
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Excerpt from The Englishman's Daughter by Ben Macintyre
On a balmy evening at the end of August in the year 1914, four young soldiers of the British army--two Englishmen and a pair of Irishmen--crouched in terror under a hedgerow near the Somme River in northern France, painfully adjusting to the realisation that they were profoundly and hopelessly lost, adrift in a briefly tranquil no-man's-land somewhere between their retreating comrades and the rapidly advancing German army, the largest concentration of armed men the world had ever seen.
Privates Digby, Thorpe, Donohoe, and Martin were small human shards from a mighty explosion that had been primed for years, expected by many, desired by some, and detonated just six weeks earlier when a young Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip pulled a revolver in a Sarajevo back street and mortally wounded Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary. Europe was now ablaze, and the first battles of a long and brutal war had been fought. The lamps were going out all over Europe, but in the small town of Villeret, deep in the Picardy countryside, the lamps were just being lit, watched, from under a hedge, by four pairs of hungry British eyes.
The four Tommies, of whom the oldest was only thirty-six, had barely a clue of their whereabouts, but knew well enough that theywere not supposed to be there. According to official military theory, they should have been at least one hundred miles north, in Belgium, winning a swift and decisive victory against the Hun. But, then, the war was not going according to plan: neither the Schlief fen Plan, dreamed up by a dead German aristocrat, to encircle France rapidly from the north; nor France's Plan XVII, which called for the gallant French soldiery to attack the enemy with such �lan 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.
Barely a fortnight earlier, the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF (this was a war that appreciated a clipped acronym), had begun crossing the Channel in troopships, to be met with beer and flowers in the August sun. Some of the soldiers were surprised, even a little disappointed, to discover they were not going to fight the French again. They swapped cap badges for kisses and then happily headed east and north towards Belgium to teach the Kaiser a lesson: thirty thousand jingling horses and eighty thousand men clad splendidly in khaki and self-confidence. The poet Rupert Brooke thanked God,
Who has matched us with His hour, And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping, With hand made sure, clear eye and sharpened power ...
To the east, the first of the two hundred thousand Frenchmen whose �lan would be extinguished forever in this single summer month were already rotting into the soil of Alsace and Lorraine. And down through Belgium hurtled the German behemoth, sweeping aside the impregnable fortifications of Liege and Namur and moving on across the great industrial plains to where the unsuspecting British army was busily arranging itself into neat battalions. "The evening was still and wonderfully peaceful" recalled one British officer, scouting in advance of the main body of troops. "A dog was barking at some sheep. A girl was singing as she walked down thelane." He watched the darkness settle gently over theland. "Then, without a moment's warning, with a suddenness that made us start and strain our eyes to see what our minds could not realise, we saw the whole horizon burst into flames. To the north, outlined against the sky, countless fires were burning ... A chill of horror came over us."
At Mons, above the Belgian border, on August 23, the British stiff upper lip was busted by a roundhouse punch that seemed to come from nowhere, as wave upon wave of field grey came crashing down from the north, three-quarters of a million German men. At first the outnumbered British fought with calm efficiency, then determination, then desperation. For some, the fear was worse than the blood-letting. Retreating inside France, three days later they turned and fought again at Le Cateau, leaving more dead on the battlefield than Wellington had lost at Waterloo. The retreat resumed. Sure hands now trembling, clear eyes clouded, the depleted army scrambled south, a pell-mell withdrawal that would last two weeks and take them to the edge of Paris.
An old Frenchwoman stood on a cottage doorstep and watched the ragged British soldiery stumbling through her village. As the mounted officer passed, she spat a livid stream of sarcasm at him: "You make a mistake," she hissed. (The young captain would never forget the sting of it.) "The enemy is behind you. Are you not riding in the wrong direction?"
For two hundred miles the German army pursued, looting, burning, and wielding the weapons of summary massacre and collective retribution, for this was the policy of Schrecklichkeit, organised ghastliness, a determination to inflict such horrific repression on the civilian population that it would never dare to resist. Hostages were shot and bayonetted, priests executed, homes and towns destroyed, and at Louvain, in a signal act of desecration, the great library of more than two hundred thousand books was put to the torch. Some German soldiers were appalled at their own might. Ernst Rosenhainer, an educated and sensitive young infantry officer, was torn between exultation and repulsion as he watched civilians fleeing from their homes: "It was heart-rending to hear a woman beg a high-ranking officer, 'Monsieur, prot�gez-nous!'" he wrote.
The local people watched in disbelief as refugees, Belgian and then French, streamed through the villages of the Somme and the Aisne, a "broken torrent of dusty misery," dragging overladen donkey and dog carts, carrying their children and, along with them, lurid tales of German brutality. Behind followed the BEF: horse-drawn ambulances with mangled wounded and the long lines of exhausted and hungry soldiers, "an unthought-of confusion of men, guns, horses, and wagons. All dead-beat, many wounded, all foot sore." At their backs, plumes of smoke marked the steady German advance in a spectacular frenzy of arson. An English officer turned around from a small incline to see "the whole valley and plain burning for miles."
"We must allow the enemy no rest," declared a German battalion commander, and so the British rear-guard fought as it fled. Nerves frayed, bellies empty, minds warping from lack of sleep, some retreating soldiers dozed on the march while others began to see ghosts and castles along the way. Flight forged its own legends. The "Angels of Mons" were said to have been seen hovering over the retreat, the shimmering spectres of English bowmen killed at Agincourt in 1415, now resurrected to protect their fleeing countrymen.
The Times correspondent wrote: "Amongst all the straggling units that I have seen, flotsam and jetsam in the fiercest fight in history, I saw fear in no man's face. It was a retreating and broken army, but it was not an army of hunted men ... Our losses are very great. I have seen the broken bits of many regiments." The lines stretched and snapped, authority dimmed, the stragglers multiplied, and the treasured distinctions of regiment and division blurred as units fragmented, re-formed, or broke away. Whatever the British reading public might be told, many soldiers were terrified. When the horses were allowed to rest, their legs folded. Unable to march farther, some men threw away their equipment and lay down to die or await the enemy. Officers who would have shot any man who acted thus a day or two earlier, did not now look back. "That pained look in the troubled eyes of those who fell by the way will not easily be forgotten by those who saw it.That look imposed by circumstances on spent men seemed to demand all forgiveness from officers and comrades alike, as it conveyed a helpless and dumb farewell to arms." The neat martial simplicities of the army that had disembarked on the coast of France became hazy in retreat. Most men marched unquestioningly on. Some deserted. Some looted. Some hid. Others died of exhaustion. An officer of the Royal Fusiliers recalled a private from Hackney, "a most extraordinarily ugly little man in my company who could not march one bit ... On the second day of the Retreat he collapsed at the side of the road and died in my arms. I have no record of his name, but as a feat of endurance and courage I cannot name his equal."
A general noted sternly that a "good many cases of unnecessary straggling and looting have taken place," and summary courts-martial were held. Some could not resist the lure of an empty home, as a hiding place or source of plunder, and hunger saw soldiers pulling chocolate from the pockets of dead men or chewing raw roots scrabbled out of a field. In Saint-Quentin, two senior British officers looked on their beaten men and agreed with the petrified city mayor that surrender would be preferable to a losing fight and the probable death of countless civilians in the crossfire. It was a most humane decision, for which both officers were cashiered and disgraced.
Later, the retreat would be rendered into history as a courageous action that had held up the Germans for long enough to scupper Field Marshal Schlieffen's plan, ensuring that the advance would finally be stopped on the line of the River Marne. But to those who took part in it, the retreat was a grim shambles, just a few shades short of a rout, "a perfect d�b�cle." The BEF had been severely wounded. (Most of the rest of the body would be hacked up at Ypres, a few months later.) Of the eighty thousand British men who had come to France to fight a short war, twenty thousand were killed, wounded, captured, or found to be missing on the long retreat from Mons.
In the wake of the limping army, like the detritus from some huge and bloody travelling fair, lay packs, greatcoats, limbs, canteens,makeshift graves, dead horses, and living men. In woods, ditches, homes, and haylofts, alone and in small bands, surviving shreds of the khaki army felt the battle roll over them, and then heard it rumble south. The advancing German troops were thorough in flushing out the enemy remnants: Walter Bloem, novelist, drama critic, and a captain in the Brandenburg Grenadiers, recalled how advancing German hussars, rightly suspecting that British soldiers were hiding among the newly cut corn, "did not trouble to ransack every stook, but simply found that by galloping in threes or fours through a field shouting, and with lowered lances spiking a stook here and there, anyone hiding in them anywhere in the field surrendered."
The war correspondents of the Daily Mail and The Times observed the drooping tail of the retreat: "We saw no organised bodies of troops, but we met and talked to many fugitives in twos and threes, who had lost their units in disorderly retreat and for the most part had no idea where they were."
Some of the more resourceful residue contrived to fight, wriggle, or wrench their way out. A band of Irishmen made it to Boulogne, and at one point stragglers headed west in such numbers that German intelligence was briefly confused into believing that the British army was making for the coastal ports. Bernard Montgomery and a small group of lost men from various regiments marched for three days between the marauding advance guard of German cavalry and the main infantry body. Montgomery finally outflanked the advance, linked up with the rest of the army, and went on to become Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein.
The Expeditionary Force was a regular army, an army of professionals very different from Kitchener's volunteer force that would come later. Here were recruits from the industrial slums of the north, illiterate farm boys, some "scallywags and minor adventurers," men who were escaping trouble, and a few who were looking for it, but, unlike the conscript armies of Europe, they were well trained: some had fought in the Boer War, and most were "adepts in musketry, night operations and habits of concealment,matters about which the other belligerents had scarcely troubled." For many who found themselves lost in what was now enemy territory, concealment was the first instinct. When the army finally caught its breath, about-faced, and fought its way north again, sceptical commanders were not always easily persuaded that the men who emerged from barns and bushes were genuine stragglers rather than deserters. "It was the coward's chance," thought one war correspondent. "Was it any wonder that some of these young men who had laughed on the way to Waterloo station, and held their heads high in the admiring gaze of London crowds, sure of their own heroism, slunk now into the backyards of French farmhouses, hid behind hedges when men in khaki passed, and told wild, incoherent tales when cornered at last by some cold-eyed officer in some town of France to which they had blundered?"
Those who never reappeared were duly recorded in the regimental files. A few months later, once the full-blown trench war of stasis was under way, their families received a letter, no different from the hundreds of thousands to follow, communicating the news, with official sadness, that a husband, son, or brother was missing. And that, as far as the British army was concerned, was that.
Yet there were some who were neither dead nor captive; war had threshed through the fields of northern France, crushing homes and lives, military and civilian, and blowing human chaff into every corner of the landscape.
At dawn on August 26, 1914, Robert Digby and the other men of the Hampshire Regiment trained their rifles across the clover and beet fields north of the small town of Haucourt, and waited for the Germans. The battle of Le Cateau began, for Private No. 9368, as a distant rolling thunder, and as the day brightened the sound of shelling grew steadily louder. In the darkness of the night before battle, an officer had read aloud passages from Sir Walter Scott's poem Marmion, a thumping epic with all the appropriate, granite-hewn sentiments.
Where shall the traitor rest, He, the deceiver, Who could win maiden's breast, Ruin, and leave her? In the lost battle, Borne down by the flying, Where mingles war's rattle With groans of the dying.
And when the mountain sound I heard Which bids us be for storm prepar'd The distant rustling of his wings, As up his force the tempest brings.
At nine in the morning, the attack finally began, and the officers of the Hampshire Regiment had "the pleasure of seeing Germans coming forward in large masses." Under cover, a handful of Germans crept up to the Hampshires' position and shouted "Retreat!" in English. It was all still a public-school game. British snipers tried to pick off the machine-gun crews and officers, distinguishable by their swords. Heavy fire was exchanged, and then, inexplicably, the guns on both sides fell quiet. "The stillness was remarkable; even the birds were silent, as if overawed." Just as suddenly, the battle resumed with deafening violence. Grey troops rushed across the clover, and it was "as if every gun and rifle in the German army had opened fire." Too late, the order was given for the Hampshires to withdraw. Seizing rifle and pack, Digby joined the throng fleeing down the narrow lanes. As dusk gathered, the chaos spread. "We marvellously escaped annihilation," Private Frank Pattenden wrote in his diary. "It was nearly wholesale rout and slaughter." Lurching south, the regiment began to dissolve, mixing with other fragments of the disintegrating rump of the British army. At nightfall, a small contingent of three hundred Hampshires briefly held on in the village of Ligny, but then fell back once more, leaving behind dozens of injured men in a temporary dressing station. The walking woundedmade their way into the woods, and the remainder waited in the darkness.
The Hampshires tramped on through the night across fields. Two hours' sleep was snatched beneath a hedgerow. In the morning they stumbled into the village of Villers-Outr�aux, where a German battery awaited them, having leapfrogged the retreating British in the dark. It opened up when the men were a hundred yards away. A force of fifty men under Colonel Jackson was left to provide cover, and fought dismounted German cavalry and cyclists with rifle and bayonet, as the main body of troops again scrambled away. Jackson was shot in the legs and carried into the home of the local cur�, where he was captured a few hours later. Private Pattenden, trudging south on bleeding feet, noted the gaps in the ranks and the many missing men: "I am too full for words or speech and feel paralysed as this affair is now turning into a horrible slaughter ... My God it is heart breaking ... We have no good officers left, our NCOs are useless as women, our nerves are all shattered and we don't know what the end will be. Death is on every side."
The tall figure of Private Robert Digby was last seen by his comrades clutching a bloodied arm in the temporary dressing station in Ligny. A German bullet had passed through his left forearm, narrowly missing the bone, the sort of debilitating but survivable "Blighty wound," serious enough to warrant a passage home to the land they called Blighty, that men would later long for in the trenches.
When Digby re-emerged from the surgeon's tent, his arm hastily bandaged and held in a rough sling, he was no longer part of a moving mass of men, but alone. I "lost my army," he would later observe ruefully. He had also lost his Lee Enfield rifle, his bayonet, 120 rounds of ammunition, his peaked cap, his knapsack, and his bearings.
Captain Williams, the surgeon of the Hampshire Regiment, was still tending the wounded when the Germans stormed into Ligny. But by then Digby had taken solitary flight. A final, brief, and unemotional entry in British military records concludeshis official contribution to World War I: "Private Robert Digby, Wounded: 26th August, 1914."
The previous day, William Thorpe, a tubby and genital soldier of the King's Own Lancaster Regiment, had been sitting down to breakfast in the corn stubble above Haucourt when his war started. Thorpe and the other men were tired, having marched for three days to meet the advancing German forces, but their spirits were high. "The weather was perfect," noted one of Willie's officers, and even the spectacle of Belgian refugees fleeing south, as "dense as the crowd from a race meeting but absolutely silent," had not much dampened the mood as the King's Own marched from the railhead. The soldiers whooped at a reconnaissance plane flying overhead, which came under ragged fire from somewhere in the rear, although Captain Higgins declared the aircraft to be British.
Lieutenant Colonel Dykes had led the column of 26 officers and 974 other ranks past a tiny church north of Haucourt, down a gentle slope to a little stream, and then up a steep hill to a plateau, on the extreme right of the British line, before he gave the order to rest. "A full 7 to 10 minutes was spent admonishing the troops when it was found that some had piled their weapons out of alignment." The time might have been better spent looking at the horizon. An hour earlier, the troops had been "greatly reassured," although amazed, by the spectacle of a French cavalry unit, clad in their remarkable plumes, breastplates, and helmets: handsome and conspicuous imperial anachronisms. Since the French advance guard was supposed to be out ahead of the British troops, an officer declared that the enemy "could not possibly worry us for at least three hours." This was, therefore, an excellent moment to eat breakfast. As they waited for the mess cart to arrive, the officers observed another group of uniformed horsemen some five hundred yards away, which paused to watch the relaxing troops before trotting away. One of the younger officers quietly suggested that the cavalrymen might not be French, and was sharply told "not to talk nonsense." The men were lounging and talking in groups in the quietcornfield; the sun was growing warm when the mess cart finally rumbled up. Atop the wagon perched the regimental mascot, a small white fox terrier clad in a patriotic Union Jack coat, which had been adopted before leaving Southampton. "New life came to the men," who leapt to their feet, mess tins at the ready.
At that moment the German Maxim guns opened fire. Colonel Dykes was killed in the first burst, shot daintily through the eye, his groom making "a valiant attempt to hold his horse until it also was killed." "Some tried to reach the valley behind," but the older and cannier soldiers lay flat on their faces and hugged the earth, as the bullets flicked the tops of the cut cornstalks. "Of those who got up, most were hit." After two minutes of uninterrupted firing, the German gunners paused to reload and the survivors scrambled for cover below the crest of the hill. For the next five hours, what remained of the unit was pounded with shells. Through field glasses, the future Field Marshal Montgomery observed the "terrible sight" and then followed orders to try to help the trapped Lancasters. "There was no reconnaissance, no plan, no covering fire. We rushed up the hill." With predictable results. This was "terrible work as we had to advance through a hail of bullets from rifles and machine-guns and through a perfect storm of shrapnel fire. Our men ... were knocked down like ninepins."
Many of the wounded were too badly injured to be moved, and by late afternoon, when the order came to fall back, the King's Own Lancasters had been ripped to shreds, dispersed like leaves in a hurricane. The Haucourt church was packed with bleeding and dying men, while dazed pockets of survivors, separated in the panic, wandered in search of their commanding officers and orders. A day that had started in perfect calm ended in utter confusion, as the remains of the King's Own joined the great retreat. "There was nothing to do for it but to leave the wounded and hope that any stragglers would rejoin," one officer said. When the battalion was finally able to draw breath, the losses seemed barely believable: 14 officers and 431 other ranks killed, wounded, or missing, along with the mess cart, commanding officer, two machine guns, and the fox terrier. (The distraught driver of the mess wagon was found to be carryingthe dead dog under his shirt the next day, and was sharply ordered to bury it.) In three hours of battle, the King's Own Lancaster Regiment had lost half its strength and much of its morale. It had also lost Private William Thorpe.
David Martin, Thomas Donohoe, and the rest of the Royal Irish Fusiliers had arrived in France in typically jovial fashion, "singing and cheering and chanting the regiment's motto, Faugh-a-Ballagh, 'Clear the Way.'" The local French civilians found the Irishmen intriguingly odd, and the curiosity was mutual. During a reconnoitre to the east, one officer from the Irish regiment was taken prisoner by an overenthusiastic French commander who evidently suspected that he had come across a German spy posing as an Allied soldier. He also seems to have had some peculiar notions about the distinguishing anatomical features of a British officer, for he told his astonished captive: "Although I am sure you are what you say you are, still these are unusual times and perhaps you would not mind undressing, and giving me some proof that you are English." The officer huffily refused to demonstrate his nationality thus, and unfortunately we will never know what the Frenchman hoped to find that would have convinced him.
Like the King's Own Lancaster and the Hampshire Regiment, the Irish Fusiliers were positioned close to Haucourt, just south of the village, and by mid-morning on August 27, the regiment was locked in a ferocious artillery duel. "Outnumbered and outranged," the Irish troops fell back shortly before nightfall, and by the early hours of the next day, the battalion, one of the last regiments to quit the position, was in headlong retreat, but still displaying a jollity that astonished the regimental interpreter: "I do not understand you Irish," he said. "We Frenchmen are glad when we go forward but sad when we come back; you Irish are always the same, you always laugh and all you want is bully beef."
The laughter swiftly subsided as the withdrawal turned into a continuous forced march, often under attack from the rear. The day grew hot and humid, but there was no pause. Slogging alonggrimly, "as if in a trance," the men stripped off their packs and threw them by the roadside. As the twenty-fourth hour of nonstop marching approached, some were left "with only the remains of boots." Others collapsed, "physically unable to march further without rest," but there was no time to wait for them to recover, nor the means to move them. The brigade commander pressed on, noting, "To our rear the lurid glare of burning farms and haystacks shed a fitful light on the scene." On the evening of August 28, the exhausted Irish troops crossed the Somme River, just before the bridge was blown up, and rejoined the British rear-guard. When the muster roll was called, 136 men and officers were found to be missing, including Privates Thomas Donohoe and David Martin.