This book tells the story of Robert Digby, a private in the British Expeditionary Force. Aged 28 at the outbreak of war in August 1914, he was one of several British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines on the Western Front. Unable to return to their units, they hid in the French village of Villeret. Living in daily fear of capture and execution, they were fed, clothed and protected by the villagers, including local tradesmen and the matriarch Madame Eugenie Dessenne, living under the noses of the German occupiers and masquerading as villagers.
A close bond soon formed between Digby and Madame Dessenne's 19-year-old daughter Claire. In November 1915 she gave birth to their daughter Helene, and six months later somebody in Villeret betrayed the men to the Germans. Digby and three others were captured, tried as spies and executed.
Villeret was deliberately destroyed in 1917 by the Germans, and a bleak picture is portrayed of a once thriving community, reduced to little more than rubble, a mass of dugouts and muddy craters overgrown with rank brambles of barbed wire. In peacetime the countryside slowly healed, with trenches filled and ploughed back into the fields, though the new post-war landscape was a bleak one shorn of mature trees and time-honoured landmarks, with grenades and poison gas canisters still buried in the soil.
This book is a very human portrait of how war changes and brutalises people in the name of survival, destroys cultures and whole ways of life, and deprives communities of their past, present and future.
This report prepared by John Van der Kiste