Site unseen: The grave of Le Comte Walsin-Esterhazy

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The Independent Culture
The publication of the Scott Report merely confirms that governments in trouble always cover up. And who can blame them? There aren't many of us who care to have our mistakes and miscalculations broadcast to the world.

What is the most (in)famous cover-up of all time? Not Watergate - let's face it, only a fool plots a crime when he knows that tape recorders are running. Nixon's behaviour suggests that far from being a super-intelligent politician and world statesman, he was in fact just one step up from the village idiot.

No, the best cover-up of them all (excluding the ones we don't know about yet) came a century ago, during the Dreyfus case, when for several years the French Army convincingly maintained that a patently innocent man was guilty of high treason.

Once the 35-year-old Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the first Jew on the French General Staff, had been identified as the fall-guy for the leak of secrets to the German Embassy, things followed naturally. Documents were forged, evidence perjured - no need for Public Interest Immunity Certificates - and Dreyfus was duly found guilty.

On 5 January 1895, Dreyfus's insignia was ripped from his uniform and his sword broken. He was then taken to Devil's Island to rot to death in solitary confinement.

In fact his supporters mounted such an effective campaign, culminating in the publication of novelist Emile Zola's famous "J'Accuse" letter, that world opinion was ignited. Dreyfus was brought back from "the slow guillotine" and finally, in 1900, granted a presidential pardon.

As for the real villain of the piece, the well-connected Catholic aristocrat Commandant le Comte Walsin-Esterhazy, a court martial had naturally declared him innocent. However, Esterhazy thought it prudent to flee France and spend the rest of his life in exile in the pretty Hertfordshire village of Harpenden.

A handful of elderly residents still remember Esterhazy's personal charm, although others mutter about "that damn French spy".

When Esterhazy died in 1923, he was buried in the churchyard of the parish church of St Nicholas - but under the different name of Count de Voilemont. The gravestone, paid for by a mysterious Frenchwoman, survives to this day.

However, there have been suggestions that Esterhazy was in fact a double agent who had deliberately fed misinformation to the Germans. At this point the mind boggles; as Sir Richard Scott is now all too familiar with the nuances of duplicity, perhaps he should be called in to investigate.

Le Comte Walsin-Esterhazy's grave is on the west side of St Nicholas churchyard, Harpenden, Hertfordshire.