I go to die now - a betrayed soldiers farewell

'I go to die now' - a betrayed soldier's farewell letter is found after 90 years

A DEEPLY moving last letter written by a British soldier executed by the Germans in 1916 has been discovered in an attic in Hastings. It casts fresh light on one of the most tragic episodes of the First World War.

Private David Martin, from Belfast, was one of a handful of soldiers left behind during the British retreat in 1914, and then trapped behind the lines in German-occupied France.

For 18 months, Martin and three other British soldiers were hidden by French peasants in a little village near the Somme, until they were betrayed, tried as spies, and shot by a German firing squad.

On the night before he died, 28-year-old Martin wrote to his wife, Mary, on a typewriter provided by his German gaoler. He was uneducated and his letter contains numerous spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, yet it is also extraordinarily touching: the final testament of a terrified man summoning up his last reserves of piety, pluck and patriotism.

“Germans shot me for nothing,” he wrote. “I never surrender — the true words of a British soldier. We die happy knowing our [side] is winning. [We] will win for the [war] for you my dear wife and child ... I go to die now. I am not afraid to die.”

Mary Martin never received the letter. Ninety years later it was found among the possessions of Reginald Ernest Burges, a First World War veteran who died in 1977. It remains a mystery how he obtained it.

A former cook, Martin enlisted in the Royal Irish Fusiliers and was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914, leaving his wife and baby daughter in Belfast.

Instead of rolling back the Kaiser’s armies, the British were forced into a pell-mell retreat from Mons. Many wounded or disorientated stragglers were left behind and Martin and another private became detached from their unit.

After wandering for several days, hiding from German patrols, they were sheltered with two other comrades in the tiny village of Villeret. When the battlefront stabilised, the four found they were trapped on the wrong side of the trenches.

The villagers hid the soldiers, Martin behind the oven in the house of the village baker.

Karl Evers, the local German commander, found out that British soldiers were hiding in the area, and issued a proclamation warning that “all those arrested after 30 April 1916 will be punished by death”.

One of the fugitives, Private Robert Digby, had a love affair with a young woman in the village, Claire Dessenne, who gave birth to a baby girl in November 1915.

Possibly motivated by jealousy over the love affair, someone in Villeret informed the Germans of the fugitives’ whereabouts and they were captured in a barn. Digby escaped through a window, but later surrendered.

The British soldiers were taken before a military tribunal at the German administrative centre in the nearby town of Le Câtelet, and after a brief trial without legal representation or a translator, they were sentenced to death.

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