Review of Meetings 2018 (contd.)



July

Romance, Heroism and Betrayal in Villerett

Jim Payne, the History Group’s Vice Chairman, took the stage for the Group’s July meeting. Jim turned the clock back to WW1 and a moving story of Romance, Heroism and Betrayal. The tale revolves around a small village of Villerett in France with a population of 600 people, 200 of which had gone to fight in the war.

As the Germans advanced the British army retreated, fighting as they went, and many soldiers found themselves cut off from their units. Over a few days in August 1914, several soldiers found themselves near the village of Villerett. They were helped by the local population, and those that were injured had their wounds treated. With the help of a local poacher they were led into a local wood where they would be reasonably safe. Jim described how it was while hiding here that they were discovered by the 29-year-old wife of a local landowner whose husband was away fighting. As the German army moved into the area she led the British soldiers to a disused fishing lodge and provided them with food, drink and blankets.

The tide of battle ebbed and flowed with the German army eventually occupying the area in which Villerett lay. The Germans forced the local population to work, helping them with their war effort. The villagers were aware of the handful of British troops hiding in the fishing lodge and, following a village meeting, decided it would be safer to put them up in the village and disguise them as locals. To help achieve this they grew moustaches and let their hair grow long. Over a period of time one of the disguised soldiers, Robert Digby, fell in love with Claire Dessene who bore him a daughter, Helene, but not all the villagers are happy with this event. Jim continued to relate the story which culminated in the German area commander issuing the directive that if all British soldiers in the area gave themselves up within three days they would be treated as POW’s, but any who were captured after the deadline would be shot as spies. Any local person who was caught helping them would be severely punished.

Several of the British soldiers tried to escape back to the British lines but were caught. The last four, including Robert Digby, also tried unsuccessfully to escape and decided to stay rather than surrender. But they were betrayed and caught by the Germans. They all were shot by a firing squad and buried in the local church. The French villagers who were arrested for helping them received long prison sentences and were transported to Germany.

Jim finished on a happier note by saying that Robert’s brother, Thomas, who was with the British Army and often fighting near Villerett, survived the war. He new nothing of the baby until he was sorting out his mother’s effects after her death in 1929. On reading a letter that Robert had sent, on the eve of his execution, to his mother saying goodbye and informing her about Helene, he travelled back to Villerett, located Helene and Claire and officially adopted Helene.

Clare and Helene Dessene

Allen Misselbrook
August 2018

 

July

Visit to Sidlesham

The re-arranged guided tour of the Land Settlement Association site at Sidlesham took place on Saturday July 21st. Visitors were treated to an informative walk around the historic area culminating in a cup of tea and piece of homemade cake at the home of Bill Martin, a former History Group guest speaker, who is an authority on Sidlesham's Land Settlement Association. Due to time restrictions the complete tour wasn't finished, but enough was seen for the visitors to appreciate the purpose of the site.

In the 1930s, a group of unemployed workers and their families were provided with smallholdings in Sidlesham to give them the opportunity to earn their own living. Keynor Farm House was bought along with 290 acres of land for the sum of £13,333.00. Each family was allocated land, house, battery for keeping chickens, and a piggery for rearing pigs. The buildings are all still there and planning permission has to be sought for any demolition of any of the buildings.

A lady who was a child when her family came to one of the small holdings was introduced to the visitors. She remembers it well and was able to talk about her memories. Another highlight of the tour was meeting Norman, whose father owned a smallholding. Four members of the Group were invited to view a very modern tomato growing greenhouse built on land that Norman sold to the tomato producing company. This company honoured Norman by naming it "Normans' Greenhouse" with the name prominently displayed on the door. His battery chicken house is now a wood store for a wood burning stove, and his piggery is now a workshop for all his hobbies. Norman gave a very interesting account of his life when his father worked on the smallholding – he is now over 90 years old and loves talking about his experiences.

Should any reader wish to follow the complete tour, it can be found on the sidleshamheritagetrail web-site

Allen Misselbrook
August 2018

 

September - October

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Allen Misselbrook
December 2018

 

November

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Allen Misselbrook
January 2019