On this date in 1916, Private Robert Digby was shot by a German firing squad in the tiny northern France village of Villeret.
Digby was the last of a quartet of English soldiers who had been part of the British Expeditionary Force who met the Hun’s first foray into France in 1914.
Digby and his mates, Thomas Donohoe, David Martin and William Thorpe, were stranded behind lines.
Villeret took them in and changed their uniforms for peasant clothes while they worked the fields and tried to keep their heads down.
“Every inhabitant of Villeret knew of the British soldiers in their midst but none breathed a word, although the Germans had threatened to execute anyone harbouring enemy fugitives,” writes Ben McIntyre, who wrote the book on these men. “Even when food ran low and German troops were billeted on every house, the secret was kept safe. It was an astonishing act of collective bravery.”
To the west, in trenches the men could not pass, the war ground uncounted souls into horsemeat.
Digby became the lover of a village girl, and fathered a daughter by her.
This perilous idyll under the very bowers of hell could not last long. The Brits were mysteriously betrayed, and arrested by the Germans in May 1916 — all save Digby, who escaped out the window of a barn.
After a week on the run in the nearby woods, the mayor of Villeret found Digby, and told him that the Germans were threatening to execute the villagers unless he turned himself in to face his comrades’ fate. Digby did so.
McIntyre’s book, A Foreign Field: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in the Great War, explored the village of Villeret and the life of Digby’s daughter Hélène Cornaille-Digby — an infant when her father was shot; an octogenarian when McIntyre met her.
The enduring mystery of the place, at least to McIntyre as an outsider, was the unanswered question of who betrayed the English. Was it a jealous lover? A disapproving family? A fearful neighbor?
Years after the publication of the book, McIntyre (so he thinks) accidentally solved the mystery.