A small tale extracted from the annals of the “War to End All Wars,” by historical biographer Macintyre (The Napoleon of Crime, 1997, etc.), proves powerful and evocative.
As the guns of August 1914 echoed in Picardy, some British Tommies became separated from their units, the King's Own Lancasters, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the Royal Hampshires. Left behind to be hidden by the townspeople of Villeret were four private soldiers, including the dashing Robert Digby. The gallant French villagers cared for “their Englishmen” for nearly two years under German occupation, which was frequently brutal. Eventually, the soldiers were hidden in plain sight disguised as peasants, and for a while the war seemed to forget them. Handsome Pvt. Digby and the prettiest girl in town became lovers and soon were the parents of a splendid baby girl. But as the Boche settled in, the gallantry of the people of Villeret was inevitably strained. The four servicemen were betrayed, captured, and executed. Finally, Villeret itself was obliterated. It's a simple story, but Macintyre reports it beautifully. In his hands, the tale of hidden warriors also serves as a portrait of the French countryside and its people during the Great War. Macintyre lucidly depicts the gossip, the cooperation, the courage, and the final treachery of Villeret and its inhabitants. In a coda, he ventures to identify the probable informant. He even offers, with scant evidence, an important reason for Digby's reluctance to attempt a return to his lines as soon as he might have. That singular reportorial leap, however, does not detract from the fundamental merits of a humane and enticing text.
Wrapped in well-researched history and presented in exemplary prose, this elegy of a lost time recalls the verse of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke. (2 maps, 8 pages b&w photos, not seen)