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The Englishman's Daughter    by Ben MacIntyre order for
Englishman's Daughter
by Ben MacIntyre
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001 (2001)

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* *   Reviewed by Anise Hollingshead

The retreat of the British at the Battle of Mons is well-known, and discussed thoroughly in any treatment of World War I. Interpretations of the battle are varied, but the facts are common knowledge to any history buff. However, the fate of many of the soldiers who were lost and left behind in this retreat across France are not so well-known. Ben MacIntrye takes an in-depth look at a small group of British soldiers who became lost behind German lines and were subsequently hidden by French villagers.

The village of Villaret was under German occupation at the time, but the people banded together to hide the soldiers, even though reprisals were certain if they were discovered. This initial generosity was later diluted by hunger and deprivation, coupled with growing conflicts between the soldiers and the villagers, and amongst the villagers themselves. Old animosities surfaced, exacerbated by an affair between one of the soldiers, Robert Digby, and Claire Dessenne, a young village girl. Their relationship resulted in a child. Six months after the birth of the baby girl, the four remaining soldiers were betrayed and subsequently shot by the Germans.

MacIntyre uses interviews, documents, photos and other sources to draw us into the world of rural Picardy, France, during World War I. This intimate but unsentimental treatment of village life in France is effective in its depiction of everyday people who are sometimes astonishingly brave, and sometimes selfish and petty. The book description blurbs seem to imply that moral outrage over the birth of the illegitimate daughter was responsible for the soldiers being turned in, but in fact that had little to do with subsequent events, according to MacIntyre. Apparently, the mores and customs of the villagers were suprisingly tolerant of sexual relations outside marriage, as compared to identical classes of people around the world at this time. Instead, personal dynamics and jealousies played a large part in the tragedy.

Readers of The Englishman's Daughter won't come away with the answer to the question of who betrayed the soldiers; no one really knows. The story itself is the goal here, and it successfully draws us into a world long gone.

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