Saturday, 22 October 2011

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

Part II of II - Lost and found …and lost.

Claire Dessenne’s news that she would be having a baby the following autumn stunned them all into silence.  Marie Coulette saw the expression on her daughter-in-law’s face, and with rare tact ushered everybody out of the kitchen.  Claire suddenly found herself alone with her mother. 

The fear and tension Eugénie had been feeling reached an intolerable pitch, for now an innocent baby was to be thrust into the maelstrom their lives had become.  Not only would Claire’s situation become infinitely more vulnerable with regard to the occupying forces, but her position in the village would create scorn, disapproval and petty jealousies, for she knew that with the extreme shortage of eligible men, Robert had become a focus for many of the young women.  She could see nothing but trouble ahead, but Claire was blind to all but the wonder of the feelings between her and Robert, and the miracle that was about to enter her life.  She was quite convinced that the village would rejoice with her.

The reality was somewhat different.  As the war had intensified, privations grew and lives were increasingly at risk from a Kommandant who as a former small town magistrate before the war had been presented with the unique opportunity to indulge his obsession with petty bureaucracy and apply his power over others with relish.  The villagers’ lives became more confined, their initial kind heartedness towards the British soldiers gradually altered by their growing awareness of the danger they courted daily.  The diminishing stores of food were a constant reminder that if nothing else, these strong and healthy men represented extra mouths to feed.  In fact, a group of Villeret villagers consisting of the older women, the children and men who could not fight – the ‘useless mouths’ as they called them – were being taken away to a place of safety, because the food was running out.

The church in Villeret, before
the First World War
It was in this atmosphere that Claire’s baby was born one late autumn day in 1915, and the little girl was named Hélène, after Robert’s mother Ellen.  He was fiercely proud of his little daughter, and soon took to walking round the village with her in his arms to show her off to anyone who would stop and look. 

He would sing her a little lullaby...

My little cockatoo
With the bright blue eye!
My pretty little chou,
My cabbage butterfly.
I'll love you in the morning
I'll love you late at night,
When the new day's dawning
You'll still be my delight.
My little cockatoo
With the bright blue eye!
My pretty little chou
My cabbage butterfly.
                                                                      - Elizabeth Major

" cabbage butterfly..."

Of course the people of Villeret couldn’t resist the miracle of a new life, this tiny morsel of happiness in a world gone mad, and were charmed by her father’s devoted care.  For a time there was a truce towards the British men.  But the bad feelings returned.

Eugénie, ever the Cassandra of the community, was quick to point out that the British soldiers were not as welcome as they once had been, and that it was merely a matter of time before someone betrayed them to the German authorities.  She claimed they all felt that they should have made greater efforts to find a way through enemy lines by now, although Claire protested vigorously that Robert was preparing the necessary paperwork and they had not tried any harder because it was still too dangerous.

And that was another point, added Eugénie – it was pretty obvious that Robert had too many compelling reasons to stay. 

Some weeks later David Martin returned from the fields with grave news.  The Kommandant had put up new posters in the villages under his control stating that he – Major Evers – was well aware that the villagers were hiding guns and food, and that there were British spies in the locality.  All British soldiers being sheltered were to surrender by 30th April 1916, when they would be held as prisoners of war.  Any found after that date would be shot and their French hosts fined and imprisoned.

In the discussion that followed, Claire was urged to go with the ‘useless mouths’ being evacuated, taking her baby with her, but she refused to even countenance being parted from Robert.  Stress levels rose further when Marie Coulette returned from the village, furious because she had learned that Tom O’Sullivan had been talking to the German guards in his terrible French/patois, cheekily asking one to light his cigarette for him, and even teasing him a little.  No bright young guard would have been fooled by this, and he had just been lucky this time.  Tom was unrepentant.  He had just been having a little bit of fun, and he was determined to go his own way.

L to R:  Robert Digby, David Martin, Tom O'Sullivan, Charlotte Lelong

But it could only have been a gesture of defiance.  Evers’ latest pronouncement meant that the likelihood of betrayal was even greater, and they would have to leave.

The British men departed that night.  Robert and Claire bade farewell in love and sorrow, trying not to dwell on the fact that they were being torn apart, and dreamed of meeting again in a better place.  

Eugénie had barely had time to calm down a little when on the following evening the men returned, looking dishevelled and desperate.  They hadn’t been able to get anywhere near the German front line, let alone cross it.  Robert commented that he thought they had been sighted by German troops, and were only just able to get away.  Marie Coulette hastily took them into the barn for the night, but they would have to decide the following morning what to do. 

Time had run out for the young British men, and this time they would be lost forever.  A few days later in the night, German soldiers burst into the barn, and only Robert Digby was quick enough to jump out of the window and disappear into the woods.  Martin and O’Sullivan were captured and put in jail.

Thus was the random cruelty of war.  Robert Digby was once more wrenched from the home he loved, and was never to see his daughter or Claire again.

Other houses in the village were raided and among others, the mayor Parfait Marié was taken into custody. 

His father Emile Marié (a man of generous girth, known as ‘Le Gros’) took over as temporary mayor of Villeret, and he proceeded to devote all his energies to getting his son freed while still obeying Evers’ orders and doing his best for the village.

Meanwhile Robert Digby hid in the woods, surviving as best he could on the spring berries left behind from the bombardments, but he realised he could not do this indefinitely and the front line was still too near.  Emile Marié knew where he was, and would bring him food and news from time to time, until one day he came to meet him in the forest and told him that Major Evers had declared that if Digby were still in the area and were to give himself up, he would be sent back to his regiment without being punished. 

While Robert remained in the Villeret area, Claire and little Hélène would be in danger of being held as hostages by Major Evers, and he did not wish Marie Coulette and Eugénie to come to any harm on his account.  He was resolute.  The following time he saw Emile Marié he quietly told him he would give himself up, and a day later he walked back to Villeret and handed himself in to Emile Marié, from where he was taken to Le Câtelet and to Major Evers.

The German Kommandant never had any intention of letting Robert Digby return to his regiment, and the British soldier knew this.  He was locked in a cell within the same jail as his two other comrades, and one morning he heard their distress as they learned that they were to be shot that day.  Later on he heard the sound of their execution, and knew he was to follow shortly. 

On Tuesday 16th May 1916 he wrote letters to Eugénie asking her to look after her daughter and granddaughter for him, to his mother telling her about what had occurred and asking her to recognise Claire and Hélène as part of the Digby family, and finally to Claire:

“My darling Claire,

This is the last letter of my life.  I am condemned to die by firing squad at five past ten tonight.  Farewell, and never forget Robert, who dies happy and satisfied for France and for my own country.  I kiss you.  Embrace my baby girl and later, when she is grown, tell her the truth about her father, who has died content.  Send the letter I have already written for my mother.  I have given another letter for my family to the pastor, because the Germans have intercepted the letters of my comrades.


Your loving Robert”


Ben Macintyre came to the story in the nineties, when he met Hélène as an old lady, and she told him her story. Thus it is Hélène who tells the story in the opera.




They had been betrayed. 

The Dessenne hayloft had been discreet and remote enough to conceal the British soldiers for almost two years, and there had been no interest by the Germans in the property.  If Major Evers had ever suspected Marie Coulette of harbouring British spies he would have seen to the consequences personally. 

There were various people in Villeret who had reason to want the British soldiers gone, and not least was the frightened Eugénie.  Then there were various women – Charlotte Lelong among them – who had a crush on Robert Digby, the most handsome of the three, and resented that Claire should have him.  There were various men – the postman among them – who secretly loved Claire and wanted her lover gone.  Emile Marié understood the danger in which these men had placed them, and there were many others who no longer wished to share their meagre supplies of food.  The truth was not to be revealed for a further ninety years.

Contrary to his wishes that he be buried in Villeret, Major Evers dictated that Private Robert Digby’s grave should be dug in a remote corner of Le Câtelet cemetery and only one modest bouquet of flowers would be allowed.  Villeret villagers disobeyed however, and the grave had a huge tower of flowers deposited upon it, to the Kommandant’s annoyance. 

This is a cross erected near Villeret for another
British soldier, who died in 1918.
A few short weeks later their world went mad and the land exploded for four vicious months between July and November of 1916 while the Battle of the Somme roared around them.  It seemed at times that the struggle to stay alive was all that kept them alive, and yet for the people of Villeret there was worse to come.

In February of 1917 the order was issued that all should assemble in the village square.  From here they were forced to march into exile to the Ardennes, and Villeret was razed to the ground.  It was flattened completely, as was Le Câtelet.

The Dessennes were among the families which returned to their village after the end of the war two years later, and with struggle and great penury rebuilt their homes.  The Lelongs did not return other than briefly to view with dismay what was left of their property.


And finally…

Robert had a brother, Thomas, who coincidentally fought his war very close by to the fugitive and never knew it.  When their mother Ellen died during the twenties, Thomas found among her things the letter Robert had written to her, asking her to recognise his daughter.  From this yellowing scrap of paper he learned about Hélène for the first time, and that his mother had never wished to reveal it.  So in 1930 Thomas Digby visited Villeret and found Hélène, now aged 15, and drew up an official document at the mayor’s office in Villeret, recognising her as a Digby.

Hélene and Claire in about 1923

Hélène (left)
& Claire (right)
in later life

There is one thing left to say, which I have learned from an article written by Ben Macintyre for The Times in April 2009. 

He had recently been contacted by a Belgian historian who had learned from a forgotten archive in Brussels some facts about espionage during the First World War.  The historian had read Macintyre’s book, and thought he ought to know who had been responsible for betraying Robert Digby.

One of the documents says “…Robert was denounced by the mayor of Villeret and taken by him to the Kommandant at Le Câtelet, where he was shot with three of his companions.”

So Emile Marié – Le Gros – was probably corpulent at a time of great food privation because he had been receiving preferential treatment from the Germans, and he probably betrayed the soldiers to protect himself and get his son released from jail.  Macintyre remembered one of the villagers stating that Claire had hated Emile and wanted him dead.  Perhaps she knew.


The opera was very successful, playing to full houses every night, and received excellent write-ups.  (See here, here and here) and the Wetherells hope one day to be able to stage it again.  Elizabeth Major, the opera’s librettist, could not have used Ben Macintyre’s story in its entirety, as there were numerous families in the village of Villeret who played an important part in the narrative, representing too many characters to portray on a stage.   So what I have told you is the bare bones of the story, which I hope will prompt you to buy the book and be fascinated, as I was, by the background and what happened after the war. 

To encourage you in this endeavour, I have purchased two second-hand copies of the book, which I shall be delighted to post to the first two people who leave a comment and tell me they would like to have a copy, even if a little dog-eared (and give me their e-mail address so I can contact them).

Should you wish to purchase the book yourself, these are the details:

UK:  A Foreign Field, Harper Collins, ISBN 0-00-653171-7. 
US:  The Englishman’s Daughter, Random House, ISBN 978-0-385-33679-6

Ben Macintyre


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's digital archive

The cast of "A Foreign Field" - second half

Niall Hoskin (Major Evers)

Ron Moncrieff & Peter Naish (German soldiers)

Ian Arnold (David Martin)

Paul Arden-Griffith (Tom O'Sullivan)

Geraldine Aylmer-Kelly (Hélène Digby)

Eric Wetherell, Composer and Musical Director



Vagabonde said...

That was an engrossing story. I really enjoyed it. World War 1 and also World War II were hard times. There are still so many stories that we don’t know. I recently read Sarah’s Keys – have you read it? That one is during the second war.

Joyful said...

That was one sad story and you told it well. My heart went out to Claire, her daughter and the British soldiers.

I'm sorry I've been tardy in reading it and your last post. I've just been very busy and tired.
If you still have an extra copy of the book, I would be interested in reading it. You could let me know via email and I'll get back to you.
Have a nice weekend!

Lonicera said...

It's a film, isn't it? I haven't seen it or read the book though, I must admit. As you say, there are so many stories to tell in wartime.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Joyful for your kind comments in both parts - I'll be in touch with you by e-mail.

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