Book: Charley's War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun

Contempt for war and those who wage it is the lasting impression made by this graphical novel, echoing the words of the last World War I veteran Harry Patch.

Charley's War

Charley's War. Words by Pat Mills. Graphics by Joe Colquhoun

From fibbing about his age and having ‘his clearly too young to be of age to fight’ d.o.b on his birth certificate disregarded by recruiters, Charley Bourne begins his journey from London bus worker to regular infantryman  during the Great War. So far so familiar the boy’s own-style territory for a war comic to march down.

This anthology (the first of ten) compiles the initial set of strips of Charley’s War, a comic strip originally printed in Battle Picture Weekly from January 1979 to October 1985.

In this first volume we join the eponymous protagonist all the way from being maliciously pranked by co-workers in a London bus depot to enlisting and arriving in France several weeks before the Battle of the Somme, as he comes to grips with life in the trenches to the battle itself and finds himself at a cliffhanger ending that may or may not bode well for Charley.

Charley’s War stands in contrast to many of the other popular war comic strips of the time. Absent is the revelling in jingoistic nationalism present in titles like Warlord and the easy heroism of Matt Braddock. N or is the action served up purely for entertainment. This is not to suggest it is unexciting. Far from it.

There is plenty of action as Charley and his fellow infantrymen are thrust into the fray. Secrets are revealed, particularly affecting in the case of the character ‘Lonely’, battle is had, blood is spilt, good and ‘bad’ men die. It is thrilling, unflinching and frank, with a political viewpoint of the brutal war machine not often seen in British war comics.

Moments of genuine (if mordant) humour aren’t awol either. Standing to attention and saluting the Sergeant’s cat being an especially light moment. Simply put, it is no shock that the strip was so popular during its run.

Pat Mills is happy to play with familiar war story tropes to subversive effect (as much great genre fiction does, notably so in comics in the works of Alan Moore). Charley is a plucky protagonist and easy to root for. He is no super-soldier, no Steve Rogers or Sgt. Rock, just an ordinary working- class kid on the Western Front: an innocent boy upon and around whom Mills & Colquhoun paint the realities and politics of war.

Each episode usually features epistolary exchanges from Charley to his mother or father, sometimes reciprocated, giving the story the feel of an historical document adapted for the medium. Of course this is fiction, defiantly unfantastical, yet thrilling, rich and masterfully rendered by both writer and artist. It is not a text for tub thumping. There is brutality, fear, along with the perfidy war lends to any sense of morality concerning/regarding the value of life. War is hell and Mills/Colquhoun are not prepared to trade on that as being a necessary or virtuous or glorious aspect. 

Mills does not shy from his point, but is not quite as black and white as some may choose to make out. Whilst class conflict is addressed between the regulars and the Lieutenants upward (also referenced in smaller detail in the German ranks) there is some dichotomy in the latter. Charley’s officer, Lieutenant Thomas, shows real empathy towards his men and deep sorrow upon learning the tragic fate that awaits them twinned with his anger at being unable to prevent it.

One can imagine the book being derided as being a typical ‘lions led by donkeys’ version of events that were common thirty years ago; something establishment revisionism will no doubt find uncomfortably inconvenient in seeing Charley’s War back on the shelf or in a young reader’s hands.

But Mills’s (and Colquhoun’s) research is clearly meticulous, evidenced in the author’s commentary on each episode found after the comic itself in the book, and to slightly lesser extent in the foreword (also by Mills).

The author is clear in both foreword and story that this was a war where vast profits were made on the backs of the poor. Contempt for war and those who wage it is the lasting impression given, echoing the words of the last World War I veteran Harry Patch, “War is organized murder, and nothing else”. 

This is a message Charley’s War is worthy of delivering to this century’s readers.

Source: No Glory in War