When most people think of world wars, they think of "The Big One," WWII, the last war the U.S. fought in that seemed honorable. But there couldn't have been a Two without a One. It's a microcosmic incident in the crucible of a tiny French town during the first "war to end all wars" that fascinates the reader of Ben Macintyre's (Napoleon of Crime, Forgotten Fatherland) true-life drama The Englishman's Daughter.
In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, when the British and their allies were just beginning to understand how hard beating the Germans was going to be, a handful of the many British soldiers caught on the wrong side of the Western Front found sympathy and refuge in the little French village of Villeret. Like most insular small towns, Villeret simmered with internal family feuds as well as deep distrust of outsiders. But those little everyday enmities took a back seat to greater considerations when the townspeople decided to help the British soldiers stranded behind enemy lines by assimilating them into their population -- right under the noses of the German occupiers.
One of those British soldiers, a private from the Hampshire Regiment named Robert Digby, fell in love with the most beautiful girl in Villeret -- Claire Dessenne. The romance bloomed despite (or perhaps because of) the physical and emotional privations of their situation, and soon it was apparent that Claire was pregnant. As the German occupiers tightened their grip on the French villagers' resources and freedoms, grumblings about the risks of hiding the fugitives began surfacing among some of the people of Villeret. Soon after the Englishman's daughter Helene was born, someone -- most likely from Villeret -- betrayed the British soldiers. Executed as spies by the petty bureaucratic German tyrant in charge of the region, Robert Digby and his compatriots are still remembered by the descendants of their defiant hosts. And who, exactly, alerted the Germans to the proof of their suspicions still remains a mystery.
Ben Macintyre, Paris correspondent for The Times, was summoned to the neighboring town of Le Catelet for the dedication of a plaque marking where Digby and his three fellows were shot. There he met a now-elderly Helene Dessenne and heard for the first time the story of Villeret, the soldiers and their betrayal. Intrigued, he pored over local histories and interviewed the old men and women who were children during WWI as well as the children and grandchildren of the principal players in the story. Piecing together varying oral accounts with village histories and the few surviving official documents (many were destroyed in the next great war), Macintyre has assembled a fascinating narrative of the horrors and depridations of war behind enemy lines.
But it is the tight focus on this tragic footnote, buried under the weight of the war's staggering death toll, that makes The Englishman's Daughter so spellbinding. Macintyre narrows the list of suspects to suggest a likely culprit in the soldiers' betrayal, but whodunnit is not the most important thing here -- it's impossible to answer that definitively anyway. What matters is the portrayal of human nature, at its courageously defiant best and its petty jealousy-fueled, self-serving worst, played out against a backdrop of destruction so vast that the world could never be the same again.