Welcome to the nbmagazine.co.uk stop on the blog tour for From the City, From the Plough by Alexander Baron!

Here’s a little info about the book:

Spring 1944, the south coast of England. The Fifth Battalion, Wessex Regiment, wait patiently and nervously for the order to embark. There is boredom and fear, comedy and pathos as the men all drawn from different walks of life await the order to move.

With an economy of language that belies its emotional impact, From the City, From the Plough is a vivid and moving account of the fate of these men as they embark for the beaches of Normandy and advance into France, where the battalion suffers devastating casualties.

Based on Alexander Baron s own wartime experience, From the City, From the Plough was originally published to wide acclaim and reportedly sold over one million copies. This new edition of the 1948 classic includes a contextual introduction from IWM which sheds new light on the dramatic true events that so inspired its author.

And about author Alexander Baron:

Alexander Baron was a widely acclaimed author and screenwriter and his London novels have a wide following. This was his first novel.

And here’s Paul Burke’s review of From the City, From the Plough:

A good war-time adventure story should thrill the reader, a good war novel is an altogether more complex thing. It should remind the reader of the horror, the pity and the waste as well as the courage and camaraderie of conflict. Seventy plus years on, this novel still has the power to shock, it’s raw, urgent and real.

When From the City, From the Plough was published by Jonathan Cape in 1948 it spoke of the experience of a generation of people who went through the Second World War. It’s a much sharper and more incisive investigation of war than the Hollywood/Pinewood version. This gritty novel has no long passages of flashback, we come to know the characters in the context of their military habitat and their relationship with the men around them. Their personal lives are witnessed in the context of what they share with each other, how they deal with distance from family and home sickness. We follow them over six months in the build up and preparation for battle, during the D-Day landings, this is the seventy-fifth anniversary year, and in the action in Normandy in the subsequent weeks. They are real people, mostly working class, country lads and city boys, men who’d rather be somewhere else and one or two who can’t wait to get stuck in. They bond with each other, it’s enforced but real, we bond with them. Not all of them will make it and there are parts of the novel that will bring you up short, the weight of the tragedy of war will hit you. This is not a political novel, men don’t express their views on the justification for war but it is a condemnation of war in general. Harry Ratner, a Marxist, served with Corporal Joe Bernstein (Alexander Baron’s real name) in 243 company of the Pioneers in Sicily, Italy, and Normandy. He reviewed the novel many years after publication and I find this simple sign off telling:

“Reading this book, and now reviewing it brings back many memories for me. Farewell comrade Joe Bernstein.”

It’s very clear that this novel is personal and experiential, and all the more poignant and hard hitting for that. Baron is fine writer, he went on to a successful writing career (The Lowlife [1963], King Dido [1969]). From the City, From the Plough not only gets under the skin of its characters it is elegantly written. In short passages and pithy chapters Baron moves the story forward in spare, lean prose. There is an impressive economy of expression that will appeal to modern readers.

This is a serious literary novel, not an adventure story and yet it reads like a thriller. The brutality and horror of war are evident and Baron has a profound understanding of men becoming brothers in arms and demonstrating remarkable courage in the face of a terrifying battle reality. When the films of the era promoted a romantic notion of war this authentic novel represented a more grounded picture. Many of the passages in From the City, From the Plough begin with a familiar image, the novel opens with men in uniform together on a train, chatting away, but each image is a little more pointed than the film equivalent.

The Fifth Battalion of the Wessex Regiment is fictitious, I suspect that small measure of distance from reality simply protects the real soldiers and families of the men Baron went to war with. For every fallen character I have no doubt a friend died.

December, 1943 – January, 1944. A train carriage, smoky and dank with the steam of drying informs, men talking. A sergeant is bemoaning the fact that they have been withdrawn from the Green Howards and action to be transferred to the new Fifth Battalion Wessex Regiment. A soldier brings him back to earth:

‘Lewk, Sarge,’ answered the private. ‘Ah’ve got one ambition – ter see our lass an’ the kids again after t’war, an’ what ‘appens ter me between now an’ then don’t mean a thing.’

In another carriage men are discussing home:

‘The Hero’s Homecoming,’ . . . [Shuttleworth]

‘Gawd,’ someone exclaimed, ‘another one? There’s about fifty divorces laid on in the battalion already.’

Shuttleworth, holder of the Military Medal, was told by his wife that she’d found a real man, a civvy.

The Fifth Battalion, commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pothecary, is based in nissan huts in sight of the coast. The Post Corporal speculates that they won’t be sent to war, too many men like him, past it, he has his North West Frontier medals on his chest. Days later, a medical; he and ninety-three other dismissed. Forty-four replacements from the Green Howards in. Full war strength.

Over the months the men train; we see the humour, the boredom, the desire to get on with it, men speculate about when, officers and ranks, the banter:

‘You ain’t exactly fadin’ away,’ said Charlie Venable, prodding the orderly Sergeant’s sagging belly. ‘I should say you got triplets in there. Who done it, sergeant?’

Career soldiers and conscripts, a mad major’s putting the men through it for their own good:

‘sweat saves blood. . .’

Poaching, robbing and revenge, dance halls, girls and fighting.

This is the first time I’ve come across cowson as an insult since the BBC ban on Chas and Dave.

June 1944, the off. The men board a boat, they’re on aboard for three days before sailing. Then they go:

‘some of the men were talking, some smoking, some vomiting quietly into brown bags of greaseproof paper. The wind was bringing to them now the sound of shells bursting ashore.’

Corporal Gonigle reading Voltaire on the battlefield, surely that has to be a memory?

Men in battle, bogged down, under fire, rain, hunger, fatigue and death. Eventually the men receive a mission, a seemingly impossible mission. . .

‘A man under Fire, sickened by the unending din, shaken by the detonations that come jolting one after another through the ground, with great domes of smoke and flame blossoming around him, his eyes seared by the leaping, white flashes, the explosions flinging great fistfuls of earth into the air all about, does one of two things . . .’

You figure it out.

Perhaps the most significant thing I can say about this novel is that it puts you there in Normandy with the men and their experience is vivid and painful.

The Imperial War Museum and, in particular, senior curator WWII, Alan Jeffreys, have done themselves proud with this new Wartime Classics series. Jeffreys’ introduction to From the City, From the Plough notes that we are far more familiar with the anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front and the poetry of WWI: Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg et al. This novel, a working class tale, is a significant contribution to understanding the tragedy of war. This novels has been out of print for some time but deserve to be read by a new audience.

Over the course of this month, nbmagazine.co.uk will be bringing you reviews of the first four titles in the Wartime Classics series.

Paul Burke 4/4

From the City, From the Plough by Alexander Baron
Imperial War Museum 9781912423071 pbk Sep 2019