Writer admits he fingered the wrong man in book about WW I soldier

Historians in the News

[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.

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.”...
Read entire article at Ben Macintyre (Author of A Foreign Field: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in the Great War) in the Times (UK)

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