Solved: the riddle of executed First World War soldier Robert Digby
Solved: the riddle of executed First World War soldier Robert Digby
Ben Macintyre thought he knew who condemned a fugitive British soldier to death in France in 1916, and wrote a book about it. Now, ten years later, an e-mail out of the blue has convinced him that he had the wrong man. Here, he sets the record straight
History never stands still. Just when we think we understand the past, it moves on. Ten years ago, I set out to try to solve a murder mystery left over from the First World War. Two years later, thinking that I had done so, I wrote a nonfiction book about the case: part war story, part love story and partly a historical whodunnit.
Then, last month, I was contacted by a Belgian historian who had gained access to a forgotten archive in Brussels that contained a trove of information about espionage during the First World War. He had read my book and had uncovered crucial documents relating to the events it described. The new evidence offered an extraordinary and unexpected postscript to my story. The person whom I had suspected of the crime was almost certainly innocent. The culprit, to judge from these long-lost documents, was someone else. A decade after I stumbled across this strange, sad tale, and nearly a century after the death in question, here was an opportunity to answer, once and for all, the question that nagged me for so long: who killed Robert Digby?
I first heard Digby?s name in 1999, when I was Paris correspondent for The Times. One morning, I received a telephone call from a schoolmaster in a little village on the Somme in northern France. He explained that the village was about to unveil a plaque to four British soldiers who had been killed there in the middle of the First World War. Would I like to write about it?
Somewhat unwillingly, I drove to the village of Villeret, through a grim landscape dotted with graveyards. In the rain, I watched as the mayor unveiled a simple plaque on the wall of a ruined château that read: Ici ont été fusillés quatre soldats Britanniques. Four British soldiers were shot by firing squad on this spot. They were named as Privates Thorpe, Donohoe, Martin and Digby.
Times Archive, 1916: 'The day goes well'
The fighting is developing in intensity but British troops have already occupied the German front line
Archive Topic: The Battle of the Somme
I was turning to leave when I noticed a little old lady, hunched in a wheelchair, staring intently at the plaque. We fell into conversation. She explained that these four men had been stranded in Villeret in 1914, left behind when the British Army retreated in the first, frantic days of the war. Unable to cross the trenches to rejoin their comrades, they had been fed, clothed and protected by the people of the village, and hidden from the German occupiers. My interest was thoroughly aroused, but what she said next sent my heart bumping. Lifting a mottled finger, she pointed to the plaque. ?One of those men was my father.?
Hélène Cornaille-Digby, 85, took me home to her tiny house, just a few hundred yards away, and told me a story that she had never told anyone before: it was a story of great heroism and base cowardice, of love, betrayal and, finally, murder. I would spend the next two years trying to unravel what had happened to her father, executed before she was a year old.
Private Robert Digby of the Royal Hampshire Regiment, a 26-year-old former chicken farmer, had been wounded in the arm and separated from the rest of his regiment in the first battle of the war. He linked up with the other three lost soldiers and staggered into Villeret in August 1914, as the retreating British Army headed south. They hunkered down and waited for news that Germany had been defeated.
The news never came. Slowly, bloodily, the battle-front stabilised, about five miles south of Villeret. The first trenches were dug, and Digby and his friends found themselves on the wrong side of the front line, trapped in the village and surrounded by the German Army.
At first, the British stragglers were welcomed. The men grew moustaches and learnt to speak the local patois, the better to camouflage themselves among the villagers. 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.
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.
Yet as the months wore on and the soldiers adapted to their strange captivity, the atmosphere began to change. Human nature has a way of reasserting itself, even in the most inhuman circumstances. More than one young woman in the village had been drawn to Robert Digby?s good looks and charming manners, but he had eyes for only one: Claire Dessenne, a vivacious 18-year-old and, according to legend, ?the most beautiful girl in the village?. Love blossomed, despite the deep disapproval of Claire?s mother (her father was away at the front) and the carnage taking place a few miles away. On November 14, 1915, Claire gave birth to Hélène. Digby adored his baby, born beside a battlefield.
But the love affair and the birth of the baby girl had subtly altered the relationship between the fugitives and the villagers. The German Kommandant of the area, Major Karl Evers, had heard rumours of British spies in the rear and threatened dire reprisals. The whispering began.
On May 16, 1916, the four soldiers were asleep in a hayloft when the German military police burst in, acting on a tip-off from someone in the village. Digby alone escaped, by leaping through a window and sprinting to the nearby woods. Thorpe, Donohue and Martin were seized, bound and marched to cells in the nearby German HQ at Le Câtelet. They were swiftly tried, sentenced to death as spies, and executed.
Digby was still at large in the woods outside Villeret. Finally, after a week, Emile Marié, the acting mayor, came to the wood where he was hidden and called out his name. Marié explained that Evers had threatened to kill everyone in the village unless he surrendered, and begged him to do so.
After a last night of reflection and deliberation, Digby walked slowly back to Villeret and gave himself up. His trial lasted less than an hour.
On that damp afternoon in 1999, Hélène Digby showed me the letters written by her father from his condemned cell to his lover, her mother.
They are painfully touching. ?Tell the child not to weep for me, for I have brought her into a world of such unhappiness . . . later, when she is grown, tell her the truth about her father, who has died contented.?
A week after giving himself up to save his lover, their child and the villagers who had harboured him, Digby was marched to the old château, tied to a post and executed by firing squad. Digby was killed by eight nameless German soldiers but his betrayer remained somewhere in Villeret.
For months I sifted through the evidence to try to discover who had denounced him. There were several candidates: Eugénie Dessenne, Claire?s mother, who had always opposed their relationship; Achille Poëtte, the village postman, who was known to be in love with Claire; Jeanne Magniez, the local landowner who had fraternised with German officers, and Marié, the acting mayor, whose son Parfait had been arrested along with the soldiers.
I spent months combing through dusty archives and talking in overheated French kitchens with the descendants of those involved. Villeret had been utterly destroyed in the closing stages of the First World War but rebuilt in 1919. Most of its inhabitants had returned. Many of the same families still live in Villeret: they talked about the events of the First World War as if they had happened last week.
The villagers were welcoming but guarded. I began to suspect that they knew more than they cared to say. General opinion seemed to be that the betrayer was a woman, someone whose advances Digby had spurned in favour of Claire. The most likely suspects, it seemed to me, were the Lelong family. Léon Lelong, the village baker, had been instrumental in hiding and helping the fugitives but his attitude had changed abruptly in 1916, when he had urged them to leave the village. His daughter Clothilde was said to be besotted with Digby.
Although the family claimed that they had been punished for helping the soldiers, I came across judicial records showing that the sentences had never been carried out. The Lelongs had gone to great lengths to ensure that their version of events, in which they emerged as heroes, was accepted as official after the war.
I strongly suspected that Léon Lelong had betrayed the soldiers but I could never be sure. In A Foreign Field, I wrote: ?The mystery of what happened in 1916 is so bent with age, so overgrown with 80 intervening years of village gossip, that it will never be possible to untangle it completely.?
The events of that war are now on the farthest tip of living memory. Gradually, in the years after the book was published, the few remaining memories died away. Hélène Cornaille-Digby died in 2005 at the age of 90, removing the last living link to Robert Digby. I assumed that the mystery would never be solved.
I had not thought about Digby for many months when I received an e-mail from Jan Van der Fraenen, a Belgian military historian at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels, who explained that he was writing a book about First World War espionage. He had come across a reference to Robert Digby in the Archives Services Patriotiques ? ?a hidden archive?, in his words, that contained thousands of interviews, reports, photographs and documents about Allied spies.
Digby?s name appeared in a file on the Réseau Marié, an Allied spy network that also dabbled in smuggling and organised crime, run by one Victor Marié. I had alluded to Marié in my book. A small-time crook, he had offered to spy for the Allies behind the lines but had been captured by the Germans and ended up betraying his own network.
The document discovered by Van der Fraenen was a report, written in French by Victor Marié for his British spymasters. It described how Marié had come across ?Robert? hiding out in Villeret and how the Englishman had tried to cross the Belgian frontier but turned back when he found it impassable. Marié was a nasty piece of work but he seems to have been impressed by Digby, describing him as ?a true Englishman?.
The next sentence was underlined by Marié: ?Robert was denounced by the mayor of Villeret and taken by him to the Kommandant at Le Câtelet, where he was shot with three of his companions.?
This could only mean Emile Marié (no relation ? Marié is an infuriatingly common surname in the area), the acting mayor who had coaxed Digby out of the woods to his doom, was the betrayer. A statement from a double-crossing spy is not definitive proof of guilt, but Victor Marié had no reason to finger Emile Marié, and there was always something dubious about the mayor.
There had been other reasons for suspecting him. His son had been arrested along with the first three soldiers and threatened with execution but then inexplicably released. People in the village had referred to Emile as le gros, the fat one, because he had managed to remain suspiciously corpulent while everyone else was close to starvation, the implication being that he was receiving preferential treatment from the Germans. He moved away from Villeret after the war.
It seems that the Lelongs had been innocent after all: Digby had not been denounced by a jealous woman but by a village official keen to curry favour with the Germans, protect his own skin and spring his son from prison.
I recalled a conversation with George Cornaille, one of the oldest men in the village, a relative of Hélène by marriage. ?It was Emile who sold Digby to the Germans,? he said. When I pressed him for more, he had muttered only ?Claire wanted Emile dead?, then clammed up completely. At the time I had not given much credence to the outburst of one old man, though I recounted it in the book.
Looking back, I now believe that several of the villagers I interviewed knew that the culprit was Emile Marié but kept the secret from me, fearful of stoking old enmities and understandably wary of this nosy Englishman raking through their history. Hélène seldom talked about who might have betrayed Digby. I always sensed that she wanted me to find out, but not through her.
Emile Marié is long dead, of course, and it is now too late to tell Hélène Cornaille-Digby that I think I have finally found the person who sent her father to his death.
The discovery of this long-lost spy report does not materially change the history of the First World War. It does not make Digby?s execution any less tragic, nor comfort his daughter, nor alter the strange love story of Robert Digby and Claire Dessenne. Yet it does offer a chance to set the record a little straighter, to judge the past anew. Simply knowing who did it, at long last, is a small measure of justice.
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