Harry Ratner

Review: Alexander Baron,
From the City From the Plough

Author: Harry Ratner
Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011.
Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive: by Paul Flewers & David Walters in 2017 & 2018
Copyright: New Interventions & Paul Flewers. Used here with permission.

Alexander Baron, From the City From the Plough, Black Spring Press, 2010

When I fought in the British army in the Second World War in Sicily, I did not realise that one of my fellow soldiers, in 243 Company of the Pioneer Corps, a corporal Joe Bernstein, with whom I campaigned in Sicily, Italy and then on the Normandy beaches, would turn out to become a well-known author under the name of Alexander Baron! Nor that 67 years later, at the age of 91, I was to read for the first time his book about the fighting in Normandy, From the City From the Plough, first published in 1948 and reprinted in 2010.

In his introduction to the 2010 edition, the military historian Sean Longden writes:

In the commonly espoused version of literary history, working-class literature exploded in the 1950s with a new breed of writers, the so-called ‘angry young men’. But these were not the first authentic voices of a literate British working class. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there had existed a stream of left-wing writers, many from the factories and mines of industrial Britain. Many were active in the Communist Party, the trade unions or the left wing of the Labour Party. Yet few of these writers ignited the literary world, mostly publishing one or two novels before returning to obscurity. They remain largely forgotten, in favour of their more successful literary descendants from the 1950s.

Yet there is one writer who bridges the gap between the left-leaning writers of the interwar years and the new breed of ‘angry young men’ with their ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas: a novelist who was at his most powerful when writing about the war from the perspective of the ordinary soldier. An author whose work has been largely forgotten to all but a hard core of admirers, but who is increasingly being rediscovered by a new audience. That writer was Alexander Baron, and the book that launched his career was From the City From the Plough.

Alexander Baron was born Joseph Alexander Bernstein on 4 December 1917, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant fur-cutter working in the ‘rag trade’ in London’s East End. In 1934 he joined the Labour League of Youth (the Labour Party’s youth wing). By 1936 the LLOY in London had become polarised into bitterly opposed Stalinist and Trotskyist factions with hardly any ordinary ‘Labourites’ in between. Any new members like myself were soon courted and recruited by the rival factions. The Trotskyists won me over, but Bernstein/Baron must have been recruited by Ted Willis’ ‘Advance’ faction which seceded and joined the Young Communist League. Although I don’t remember him at the time, we must have met either at conferences or in the street battles that the LLOY and the YCL conducted in the East End against Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts.

Until the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, the Communist Party’s policy had been an anti-war one based on the alliance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and their joint rape of Poland. The CP had been advocating peace negotiations with Hitler. Baron had originally loyally accepted this CP line, but had been unhappy with it. As Longden explains in his introduction to the book:

… already the course of the war had begun to change his understanding of politics. In the summer of 1940, when he saw the soldiers returning from Dunkirk, Baron found himself with new thoughts, later writing that he had been ‘obscurely stirred, with a touch of distress. I am sure that this was the other self in me awakened again… there was something going on around me that I did not want to be left out of anymore.’ When he was called up he felt what he described ‘as a drench of pleasure’. It was the start of what he called ‘a struggle for my soul’ between the Communist Party and his membership of an army that was actually fighting fascism.

The Soviet Union’s entry into the war on the same side as the Allies must have been a relief to him — although by then his faith in the CP and Stalinism generally had been severely weakened. When we found ourselves together in 243 Coy RPC he never expressed his reservations to me and I assumed he was still a loyal Stalinist. I regret that I did not approach him more forcefully as I am sure we could have arrived at some sort of accommodation and worked together. He was aware of my Trotskyist views and attempts to argue for them among our fellow soldiers.

Although From the City From the Plough is written as a novel, it is also a very true and accurate picture of the fighting in Normandy seen from the point of view of the ordinary soldier. The events and characters in the novel are based on his own experiences and those of his fellow soldiers. Many Pioneers were seconded from their own Pioneer companies to other formations for various tasks. For example I was, for a time, attached to 50th Division’s counter-intelligence section to search out and capture enemy agents; Baron was attached to an infantry battalion. In the novel the battalion is called the Fifth Wessex and the names of the officers and men are made up. The real battalion was the Fifth Wiltshires, part of the 43rd Wessex Division. The battle described by Barron in the novel for the capture of Mont Pincon actually took place and the incidents described in the novel have been vouched for as accurate by actual members of the battalion at the time.

The novel is not about the actual fighting alone; the larger part of it paints a picture of what happens in between battles and before: the training, the discipline, the boredom; about how the military machine uproots individuals, throws them together in new environments and forces them to establish new personal relationships. The novel contains many living character sketches of seemingly quiet and timid individuals who grow in stature in the face of danger and hardships; of ‘tough’ individuals who break down under the strain. Baron is also very perceptive about relations between officers, non-commissioned officers and the ordinary soldiers and how the maintenance of discipline is more complex than the mere enforcement of rules and the punishment of misdemeanour and how officers and NCOs must win the respect of the men. The novel contains an account of a new ‘hard case’ joining the platoon, a repeat offender who has seen the inside of many civil and military prisons and of the battle of wills between him and the platoon sergeant. The sergeant must not lose face and the respect of the rest of the platoon by allowing the newcomer openly to flout his orders. But he also must not ‘pull rank’ and provoke permanent enmity and resentment — after all some officers and NCOs have received a bullet in the back in battle situations — and he must also retain the respect and support of the rest of the platoon. In the end, the sergeant wins the battle of wills and integrates the awkward soldier within the unit.

Baron’s novel is not ‘political’ in the ordinary sense. His characters do not talk politics, have little to say on their attitude to the war. For them the war is one of the facts of life; like the weather, they can do nothing about it but endure it. Their loyalty is not to king or country but to their immediate mates, their platoon, their battalion. Of course they are frightened; who would not be? But they can’t afford to panic; each man has a job to do whether it is crouching in a slit trench firing at the enemy, clearing mines or bringing up the rations. There is an incident in the novel where a corporal cook and a soldier are bringing up a dixie of tea to the front-line soldiers and are fired on by a sniper. The corporal-cook and his mate unsling their rifles, shoot the sniper, pick up the dixie and deliver the still hot tea to their mates in the front line.

But though not ‘political’ in one sense, the book is intensely political in so far as it paints a picture of what war was really like for thousands, nay millions, of soldiers on both sides. A very similar book could have been written about the German soldiers facing Baron’s characters. Of course Germany was Nazi and Britain was supposed to be fighting for ‘democracy’, but Baron’s soldiers and their German ‘enemies’ shared the same fears and the same experiences. Longden gives us a glimpse of Baron’s feelings in his introduction:

The fighting in Normandy exposed Baron to vicious warfare, with all the horrors that came with it: almost constant noise, the loss of friends, the grip of fear, the sight of hideously bloated corpses and the all-pervading smell of death. It opened his eyes to the tremendous waste of life. One particular sight remained with Baron throughout his life. Looking back at his time in Normandy, Baron recalled being surrounded by the corpses of German soldiers. He was struck by the struggle between his belief in Communism and his feelings about the war. He was still a Communist in 1944, but later he looked back at the fate of the dead Germans and saw them as doomed youth who had been, he said, ‘misled like me by the same blind faith and poisoned by wicked lies’.

Reading this book, and now reviewing it brings back many memories for me. Fare well comrade corporal Joe Bernstein!



Last updated on 11 January 2018