D-Day was 69 years ago this week, but that was only the start of some of the most bitter fighting of the war as the Allies struggled to retake France. This campaign is the subject of the novel by Baron. Born Joseph Alexander Bernstein in 1917, his father was a Jewish refugee from Russia who had come to London in 1913. The family lived in Bethnal Green.
Growing up, Baron was allied to the Young Communist League, but when he was called up he was pleased to be part of an army fighting Fascism. Due to poor eyesight, he was not allowed to join the infantry nor was he able to become an officer because of his political beliefs. Instead he was drafted into the pioneer corps, supporting front-line troops. He took part in the assault landings in Sicily in 1943 and went on to Italy before returning to the UK in time to participate in the D-Day landings. His experiences on the battlefield led him to alter his beliefs, to change from being active politically and instead to start his career as a writer.
He survived the war physically unharmed, but having suffered what was in effect a nervous
breakdown. It took him some time to recover. Returning to London, he supported himself by writing reviews and began work on the book that would earn him worldwide recognition. ‘From the City, from the Plough’, published in 1948 by Jonathan Cape, was an instant success. The novel tells the story of a fictional infantry battalion, following them through their final months of training, the assault on the D-Day beaches and the ensuing battles through Normandy. It is a book about the stark reality of war – the soldiers are not idealised. People do not always behave heroically, death is not glamorised, which is why it is convincing as well as moving. The horrific events unfold in a language that is clear and unemotional, though not lacking in sympathy for the pity and waste of war.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in this stage of the campaign and, and who wishes to gain an understanding of the day-to-day experience of war from the point of view of the ordinary soldiers who were involved.