From the City, From the Plough by Alexander Baron – a reading experience reprinted from 1948
This is an authentic reading experience that recalls the fate of a battalion of men in a war. The fictional Fifth Battalion, Wessex Regiment is a remarkable one; at a significant point in the Second World War this large group of men is drawn together from several groups. Those “from the plough”, from the farming communities, want nothing more than to help at local farms while the Battalion waits to go into action, then to ultimately return to their fields. There is a group of men who rule the gambling, mainly on the dog tracks, and have worked out how to get anything they want, food, leave and all the other perks which make army life bearable. There is another group of war hardened veterans brought in, with all the cynicism of experience in another theatre of war. The picture of this ill assorted group of men, idle in the sunshine of early summer 1944, or training hard for unknown challenges, shows the effects of people being cut off from their homes and loved ones, and getting on as best they may. Some behave well, some welcome others, while there are also incidents of violence and desperation. Then there is movement, a plunging towards an attack, but it is also a time of gradual and unexplained delays, routes to invasion which seem obscure, a secrecy and misinformation. When Normandy is reached, the description of fighting is intense, unsparing and completely authentic. This is not the muddy trenches of the First World War, this is the mobile , bewildering and no holds barred movement of men through the beaches, fields and houses of real people. As someone with a family history of such experiences, the atmosphere of improvised attack were familiar to me; the little events of humour and relief consistent with the untold stories of danger and even death.
This novel is so readable because it does not record the huge numbers of men and weapons transported, it creates and maintains characters who experience the challenges of preparation, transport and battle. This author records his eyewitness accounts of everything through the experience of Alfie Bradley, who experiences first love. A Private Smith who wants to come back to a farming job. Charlie Venable, who follows his own rules and finds his own motives to fight on his terms. The officers, reading, discussing training, torn by their own challenges. This is not just an action novel of battle, this novel is a series of portraits of real people enduring and experiencing an unique set of circumstances.
This book is one of a set of four books written in the Second World War which shows the experience of so many. Their immediacy and personal impact is ensured by their writing from the midst of experience rather than the long view of memory. I felt this book provided a significant change to my perspective of what the invasion of D Day was actually like, and did so through personal accounts lightly fictionalised for powerful effect. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel. I recommend it for anyone who wants an accurate, moving and sometimes funny book, full of insight into people preparing for battle and the truth of war. An amazing reading experience.