Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Tales of War and Conflict – A Foreign Field (Part I of II)

This true story dates from the First World War and happened in the French village of Villeret.  It was researched and told by writer and “The Times” journalist Ben Macintyre in his book A Foreign Field (Harper Collins 2001), published in the US as The Englishman’s Daughter.  Nine years later composer Eric Wetherell wrote an opera based on the book, with the libretto by his wife Elizabeth Major.  I came to this story via the opera, from which my narrative is taken, as the Wetherells are friends of mine.  I was privileged to be asked to take the pictures at rehearsals and at the final dress rehearsal, and have included some below, outlined in red.   The historical pictures come from the book, or the internet. 

The opera programme

The UK & US versions of the books
(for more details see end of Part II)


Part I of II – Lost and Found…

Villeret is a small village situated a few short miles from the river Somme in Picardy, Northern France.  As part of the Western Front, it was occupied by German forces throughout most of the First World War, and had to withstand direct bombardment on many occasions.  During the Battle of the Somme the constant sound of bombs exploding around it lasted four months.  Hundreds, sometimes thousands of wounded, starving and exhausted German soldiers would flood regularly through Villeret requiring food and rest, which its inhabitants were expected to provide. 

The village had been occupied by the German army since 1914, with Major Karl Evers seconded to the nearby village of Le Câtelet as Etappen-Kommandant of the surrounding villages.  His brief was to “ensure that the civilian population did not impede the German war effort, to flush out spies, to provide adequate billets in the scattered villages for the thousands of troops heading back and forth to the front, and to extract from the land and its people whatever could be of use, value or pleasure”.  (Ben Macintyre, A Foreign Field). 

A tough and brutal man, particularly when drunk, Major Evers enjoyed issuing daily edicts which restricted the lives of the inhabitants:  all livestock, milk and eggs had to be accounted for and were primarily for German military use; all homes were to be searched and items requisitioned as the soldiers saw fit.  This included furniture as well as contents of larders and cellars.  Heavy fines were imposed for minor or imagined misdemeanours, and any French citizen who was considered a spy or who was seen to be assisting or harbouring a spy was summarily shot.

It was into this uncertain world that British soldier Private Robert Digby of the Royal Hampshire Regiment stumbled one August evening in 1914.  He had been wounded in the arm and with the front line shifting constantly, separated from his regiment which had retreated south, and he had linked up with two other soldiers who were as lost as he was. 

The set

The three Dessenne women were in the kitchen of their little cottage of Rue d’en Bas in Villeret, discussing the war.  Marie Coulette was the feisty and garrulous grandmother...

...a matriarch and leader of the family even before the men folk had gone to war;

her daughter-in-law Eugénie, nervous and fearful,and the latter’s nineteen year-old daughter Claire Dessenne, the acknowledged beauty of the village with her grandmother’s spirited personality and view of life. 

Marie Coulette Dessenne                    Eugénie Dessenne (in later life)

Robert Digby and Claire Dessenne
The urgent knock at the door revealed the wounded Robert Digby, who asked the women if he could have some food for him and the two fellow soldiers who were hiding in the woods with him.  While Claire dressed his wound, Marie Coulette ordered the reluctant Eugénie to wrap up some food for him. 

Thanking them, Digby disappeared into the night, leaving them arguing about whether it had been the right thing to do.  Eugénie wanted no part in helping any soldiers, whether friend or foe, and the other two stoutly inveighed against her uncharitable attitude. 

Another knock on the door made them jump, but this time it was a neighbour, Charlotte Lelong. 

Her father was the village baker, and there was little love lost between the Lelongs and the Dessennes.  The Lelongs fancied themselves a cut above the Dessennes, and Marie treated their snobbery with open contempt.  However Charlotte had come to warn them that the bread supply was running low because of German requisitions. 

The Lelong family, with Charlotte back right.
The air of menace in the room was broken by the pounding on the door once again and the frightened Eugénie stifled a scream.   This time it was the three bedraggled stragglers who were ushered into the warm kitchen.  Digby apologised for this new intrusion, introducing them to his comrades David Martin and Tom O’Sullivan, and explained that having been on the run for several weeks, they were exhausted and asked if they could lodge in the barn for the night. 

To Eugénie’s manifest disapproval Marie Coulette welcomed them in.  Claire explained the situation to the surprised Charlotte, and her grandmother told her that the strangers must be cared for until they could rejoin their regiments.  Her father would need to provide the bread rations with which to feed them.  All must pull together, she declared.

For their part, the grateful men assured them that while they waited they would assist with any heavy work required in the fields and the house.  Marie pushed her reluctant daughter-in-law to go and fetch extra blankets, while she took Martin and O’Sullivan to the barn.

Left alone, Claire and Robert Digby soon found there was an obvious magnetism between them.  She saw a fair, handsome soldier who spoke passable French; beneath the exhaustion and the stress and despite the broken arm which was clearly causing him pain, there was an intelligent and gentle man who hated the war as much as she did.  He saw an extremely pretty girl with large, brown eyes and dark, wavy hair, a vivacious expression and a personality full of passion.  She told him of her hatred of the locally billeted German soldiers whose eyes seemed to follow the young women everywhere as they worked in the fields. 

Robert found himself telling her about his family in England, and his life before the war.  He had a brother, Thomas, who was also fighting somewhere in France, he knew not where.  Robert had lived in Paris for a wile, working in a café on the Seine – it was all so different now.  His sadness was palpable and she wanted to reach out to him to tell him the good times would return one day, but felt suddenly shy.

The Digby family
As the weeks went by with no prospect of the men returning to their regiments despite various attempts to find them, the villagers of Villeret got used to having them around, still believing that they would not be staying for long.  But the German army had settled in five miles south of Villeret and the first trenches had been dug.  Digby, Martin and O’Sullivan were on the wrong side of the front line, and surrounded by the enemy army.

Villeret before the war
Villeret is today set back from the main road that crosses the region, just as it was then.  To the villagers outsiders were foreigners, whether they came from Belgium or Le Câtelet several miles away.  Seasonal farming and working the looms kept them mostly self-sufficient and they kept to themselves, thus they were perceived locally as being antisocial and somewhat surly.  This was in part due to a local industry, a phosphate mine.  Its dust had left many miners with damaged lungs, which they were fond of washing down with blanche, a white liqueur similar to absinthe.  While it may have dulled the pain, it also destroyed the mind, and at that time there were at least forty men with brain damage resulting from their addiction to blanche, which must have done little to enhance its reputation.

To outsiders Villeret was rustic and frozen in time, and so must it have seemed to Robert Digby, for he fell in love with the village and its beautiful countryside before falling in love with its most enchanting inhabitant, Claire Dessenne. 

The British men settled into the life of the village.  With German soldiers swarming around and Major Evers and his men poking into every nook and cranny, it was never going to be possible for them to hide.  They chose instead to work in the fields and learn the local patois, even going so far as to speak to the German guards in the language, which they did not understand.    

While Robert Digby’s language skills were good, the efforts of the other two were frankly pitiful.  O’Sullivan was Irish by birth, and his high spirits often made him stand out, which was a cause of great worry to the others.  The Villeret people observed him on occasion chatting to the German guards and naturally feared that he could give them away.  They could only imagine what cruelties would be forthcoming from the Kommandant if he discovered that he had foreigners living under his nose.

The mayor Parfait Marié worried the most.  He worried about the harvest because so many of the able bodied men had joined up, he worried that the villagers would eventually starve because of the quantities of food being requisitioned by Major Evers and he worried about the number of enemy soldiers crowding into every home and taking the best of every space and crumb of food for themselves.  He was forced to trudge daily to the Kommandant’s office in Le Câtelet – as were all the mayors of the villages under his command – to listen to him demand more livestock and more food, impose more fines and rant about spies.  Most of all he worried that the presence of the British soldiers would be discovered and their village would be razed to the ground.

And amidst all the noise, the exhaustion, the misery and the death, life was shiny new and just beginning for Robert and Claire.  The young man had come into her life as a lost soul, and now they had found love together. 

People around them pretended they didn’t know why they disappeared into the hayloft or went for long walks in the twilight, but were careful to ensure that they were left alone.  It was as if with happiness being so scarce, the village was living through the young couple and was happy for them.

One evening Eugénie and Claire were preparing the evening meal and talking to Charlotte Lelong, who had dropped by obviously hoping to see the men when they returned from the fields.  There were relaxed when they arrived, and Tom O’Sullivan started to hum a jaunty tune and dance a jig, inviting Claire to join him. 

She quickly learned the steps...

... and in the merriment that followed Claire suggested Charlotte should try it for herself and ask Robert to dance with her.  If anyone had been observing her closely they would have noticed her eyes flashing with anger at this suggestion, for she had witnessed the growing closeness between Claire and Robert, and was trying to conceal the fact that she had fallen for him too.

A peremptory knock on the door brought the entertainment to an abrupt end however, for as Eugénie opened it there standing before her were Major Evers, Sergeant Scholl and a German private.  While Marie Coulette greeted them in surly manner, the British soldiers discreetly withdrew to a back room to play cards in dim light and ensure they made frequent appropriate exclamations in patois.

Major Evers had heard the singing and laughter, and as he demanded to be given some of the local gin for which he knew Eugénie’s husband was famous, he claimed to be on a courtesy call. 

He then proceeded to remind them of the rules he was putting in place in the village, until his eye was caught by the handsome clock on the mantelpiece.  In reply to his enquiry Marie Coulette told him it was a family heirloom but that it did not keep good time.  She made no pretence at hiding her contempt, and was not surprised when Evers told Scholl to bring it to him because he fancied it would look rather smart in his office.  He seemed to accept it as normal that locals were playing cards in the back room and did not remark upon it, as if his purpose on that occasion had been solely to terrorise the women.  After making a few more veiled threats he and his men departed.

As the card players drifted back into the kitchen, all tried to shake off the gloom caused by Evers’ visit.  While Charlotte tried to make the point that not all Germans were bad and their soldiers were suffering in equal measure, Marie Coulette angrily countered that she would neither pity them nor ever give in.  But it was clear that nothing could dampen Claire’s happiness.  As long as the sun shone and they had enough to eat, she said, all would be well, and there would soon be another mouth to feed….


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's digital archive

The cast of "A Foreign Field"
(in two parts - second half follows with second post)

Liz & Eric Wetherell
(Librettist and Composer/Conductor respectively)

John Telfer

Pam Rudge (Marie Coulette)

Pauline Wetherell (Eugénie Dessenne)

Rosie Clifford (Claire Dessenne)

Simon Woodhead (Robert Digby)

Gemma Dunster (Charlotte Lelong)


Concludes in the next post, and I have a special giveaway offer for you, so don't miss it...



Simone said...

I really enjoyed reading this Caroline...lovely photos too :)

Funnily enough I am currently reading "Resistance" by Anta Shreve which is the story of a Belgian village where the Resistance are active. The main character is Claire and sh falls in love with the American pilot she has in hiding. It's a good read :)

Lonicera said...

Thanks Simone! I've read a few Anita Shreve books and enjoyed them - particularly one about collecting coloured glass on the beach - can't remember the name. I loved the image. I'll look out for the one you mention.

Theresa aka Tessie Rose said...

So interesting!

Joyful said...

An interesting first installment. In reading your descriptions of German expectations for food and other items of desire, it reminded me of the book Guernsey and the Literary Potatoe Peel Society.

I hope you are now settled into your new job ;-)

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