IWM Wartime Classics

Alan Jeffreys

Since 2019 the Imperial War Museum has published classic novels written by World War Two veterans. Here the IWM Senior Curator introduces the series and tells us why it's so important.
IWM Wartime Classics, From the City, From the Plough, by Alexander Baron
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The IWM Wartime Classics series was established in late 2019 with the re-publication of four Second World War novels. Since which, six more have been produced. Each novel is written directly from the author’s own experience of the war. They take the reader right into the heart of the conflict from a number of different perspectives, such as the home front, D-Day and the Normandy campaign, the North African and Malayan campaigns, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, Bomber Command and war behind enemy lines. They capture the atmosphere, trauma, chaos, camaraderie and give a real sense of the war that other media do not quite provide. Moreover, there is an introduction to each novel that sets them in context, giving the wider historical background.

Two of the novels give a flavour of what the series is about and what it brings to our wider understanding of the Second World War. Firstly, Alexander Baron’s From the City, From the Plough (IWM, 2019) is a wonderful depiction of what it was like for ordinary soldiers, rather than the largely officer-penned novels of the First World War. It depicts a fictional infantry battalion training in England, before going on to fight in the D-Day landings and the ensuing Normandy campaign. Baron initially joined the Pioneer Corps, later joining an infantry battalion in 1944 and he served in Italy and North West Europe. It is this experience that the novel is largely based upon. It proved very popular on original publication and has remained admired by commentators and historians ever since.

David Piper’s Trial by Battle (IWM, 2019) is a lesser known novel of the Malayan campaign of 1941-1942. It is the story of Alan Mart, a British officer in an Indian Army infantry battalion, from his training in India to the intensive jungle fighting on the Malayan peninsula. Piper evokes the claustrophobia, heat and intensity of the campaign in this unparalleled novel. It also relates the culture shock of British wartime officers acclimatising to India and the Indian Army. Once again, the fiction relies heavily on Piper’s experience of leaving Cambridge, having read Modern and Medieval Languages, to attend the Officer Training School in Bangalore and his subsequent service with the 4th Battalion, 9th Jat Regiment. Piper spent three terrible years as a prisoner of war in Singapore, and then Taiwan. Like From the City, From the Plough, Trial by Battle is considered to be one of the best novels to have come out of the Second World War.

These are just two of the ten novels published so far. The outpouring of poetry and literature from the First World War is more often remembered, but this series shows there are some great forgotten Second World War writers in addition to the better known work of Vassily Grossman, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Olivia Manning, Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller. Novels, poetry, art, film and photographs all shape how we imagine war to be. Novels, in particular, can convey the realism of war that is not always apparent in other forms of media. Alexander Baron certainly thought so, for as a screenwriter, he was often critical of war films as he thought they did not bring out the reality of war. The novels encapsulate a period that is perennially popular and show how the war shaped the authors’ lives, as a microcosm for the wider impact of war. They are all forgotten classics from IWM’s library that deserve a new readership in the twenty first century.

The IWM Wartime Classics series of novels are available for sale at the Imperial War Museum online shop, and are currently running a 3 for 2 offer.