Review by Syvlvia D:
Carrying On is a matter of fact account of life in the trenches in Flanders seen through the eyes of the men of one regiment known as the “Hairy Jocks”, undoubtedly based on the experiences of the author who was an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. It is a sequel to his story of the first year of World War 1 up to the Battle of Loos, The First Hundred Thousand which was published in 1915 and became one of the most popular books of the period. It isn’t really a novel but an annecdotal description of life in the army in Flanders with factual accounts of what the soldiers would do when they were given relief from being in the frontline, how the quartermasters would go about getting the men billeted, relationships with the local people, how the communications system worked as well as descriptions of the devastation of towns and villages (particularly Ypres), of life in the trenches and of the fighting. It takes the story of the war up to the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Carrying On is very different from the novels we are familiar with that were written in the period after the First World War such as those by Sassoon, Brittain, Graves and, indeed, from the German perspective, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. It has none of their passion, and sense of hopeless and desolation. Nor is there any sense of the losses the Regiment must have suffered, which must have been enormous. As Hay himself admits in his Author’s note,
“since the incidents of the story were set down, in the main, as they occurred and when they occurred, the reader will find very little perspective, a great deal of the mood of the moment, and none at all of that profound wisdom which comes after the event” (p.viii).
The only hint of emotion comes in a comment by the Temporary Company Commander when they are asked to take part in yet another ‘push’ and they have just lost another popular officer:
“And we owe the swine something!” he added through his teeth” (p.85).
Even the ‘powers that be’, although referred to irreverently as “Olympus”, come in for no criticism.
With its detailed and humorous descriptions of life in the trenches and resting behind the lines, it is difficult to think of the book as a novel. The description of the French interpreter surely cannot have been invented. Having spent seven years as a London ladies’ tailor,
“Now, called back to his native land by the voice of patriotic obligation, he found himself selected ….. to act as official interpreter between a Scottish Regiment which could not speak English, and Flemish peasants who could not speak French. No wonder that his pathetic brown eyes always appeared full of tears” (pp 192-3).
However, it is doubtful that there were actually people with the names Private Tosh, Major Pumpherston and Sergeant Mucklewame.
We may find it hard to understand the lack of emotion or sections such as when Hay describes a group of German prisoners of war, “With their shifty eyes and curiously shaped heads, they look like nothing human” (p.285) but we have to remember that these were men who were fighting a bloody war, who had to kill and see other men being killed, so perhaps it was inevitable that they had to harden their hearts and rationalize their actions in order to remain sane.
I would never have chosen to read this book but found it did have a certain macabre fascination.