The Great Unmade? Charley’s War

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Charley’s War, the brilliant WWI comic strip from author Pat Mills and artist Joe Colquhoun that featured in the pages of Battle Picture Weekly, has been beautifully reprinted in hardback volumes for several years. The final volume is expected around November this year. This is a modest and timely appreciation of that monumental work: as we draw nearer to the 100th anniversary of The Great War, author Pat Mills reports that several interested parties have made tentative approaches to adapt the strip for television, but nothing further has arisen. A shame, as this would make an excellent film or mini-series.

The strip was revolutionary and multi-layered for a weekly boy’s comic. On one hand, it was an exciting tale of Charley Bourne: an East End lad who lies about his age to join up – idealistic and naive. While, on the other, it was a subversive and subtly political expose of the horrors of war, raging against the base causes and the casual cruelty of the army system on both sides.

It left an indelible mark on a generation of comic readers. The tragedy is that, apart from a few honourable exceptions, the mantle has not been taken up elsewhere.

There are two possible reasons for this. One, Pat Mills, who co-created 2000AD and Battle Picture Weekly (or Battle) was given a decent research budget to ensure even the smallest detail of the campaigns and trench life Charley endures ring true. Also, Pat is no mean writer. Every character is memorable and unique; ‘Weeper’, so called because a gas attack causes his eyes to run constantly; Smith Seventy, based on John Lennon and very protective of his machine gun (“It’s a bit technical“); and Ginger, Charley’s more savvy mate. Then of course there is Charley’s nemesis, Lt Snell, an upper-class swine who thinks nothing of using an unconscious Charley as a shield when he has to dash across no-man’s land to the next trench.

Secondly, the art. Joe Colquhoun was already a comics veteran, drawing for boys’ titles such as Lion and Champion. A modest man, his artwork is staggering in detail, characterisation and realism. No wonder an unnamed academic stated of the work “It stands equal with All Quiet On The Western Front as a social document.”  Just look at these comparisons of Joe’s work to the real photographs:

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charley's war cloth hall ypres

 Such quality is too time consuming for today’s market, it seems.

The stories are drawn from real life incidents and campaigns. Throughout, Charley experiences horrors such as the Somme, and witnesses the last great cavalry charge (also recounted in Michael Murpurgo’s novel War Horse, now a play and Steven Spielberg film ). He is forced to serve on a firing squad, refuses to shoot his own officer, and is tied to an artillery piece wheel as “Field punishment no.1”.

charley's war field punishment

Charley also helps the “claykickers”, navvies and miners recruited to dig  a massive mine beneath the Messine ridge to destroy the enemy position from below. Another incredible tale, familiar to readers of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong.

Charley’s War also visits the home front when Charley is sent home on leave. We meet his mum, working in a munitions factory, and his sneaky brother in law Oily, peddling black-market goods. Charley befriends a French Foreign Legion deserter, Blue, and through the framing device of Blue’s tale of how he deserted, Mills and Colquhoun relate the terrible events of the French battle of Verdun. Blue also crops up later as a Percy Toplis-type in the mutiny at Etaples. Charley’s regiment has been sent to the brutal training camp to toughen up before the next big push. What galls Mills is how the establishment have sought to downplay this significant event in British military history. The book, The Monocled Mutineer, on which Alan  Bleasdale based his television drama, has several bona fide quoted sources from major and minor players. A full account of the event is due for release by the Ministry Of Defence in 2017, supposedly. Later, Charley marries a nurse when sent home to recover from an accidental shooting, narrowly avoiding a wrongful charge of self-punishment in a Court Martial. He runs into his younger brother Wilf, an air observer / gunner, trying to stop the German air raids on the civilian populace.

In a brilliant and moving time shift, the story briefly flashes forward to the 1980’s, where old veterans tour the war memorials of Belgium, and the sites of old battles. One veteran recalls the night Charley, now a stretcher bearer, carried him to safety just as a bomb exploded. As he finally recalls Charley’s name, he is relieved not to find it among the fallen.  This segment is more moving and poignant than the bookending of Saving Private Ryan.

Mills wrote his last script for the story on 26 January, 1985, disappointed at the now shrinking research budget. He ended it with Charley in 1933 during the Depression, unemployed. As he walks away, an East End news stand states “Adolph Hitler made Chancellor of Germany.” Soon, more young men will be betrayed by the politicians. The strip did continue briefly into WWII, Joe continuing to draw, but with a new writer, sadly without Mills’ bite. It is not known if Titan will publish beyond Mills’ reign, though it would be a nice recognition of Joe’s exemplary skill.

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On 19 August 2011 Pat Mills gave a talk on Charley’s War at The Imperial War Museum, as part of the Comics and Conflict conference. Here is what he had to say afterwards:


Talking about Charley’s War at the Imperial War Museum brought back memories of the strong emotions I think we all felt when I was writing it and Battle readers were reading the serial. Grant, my interviewer, gave me some new statistics to ponder at the interview… in WWI there were 1 in 12 British casualties, compared to 1 in 4 British casualties during the current conflict in Afghanistan. Those are shocking figures.  But the 1 in 12 should not give the impression of a “safer” or easier war. The war memorials in every British town indicate otherwise, as well as incidents in Charley’s War like the telegraph boy riding through the East End and everyone dreading to receive a telegram announcing their son’s death. In the East End I suspect it was more than 1 in 12 for there to be such a reaction. But it was always the working class who bore the brunt of war-then and now.” Mills goes on to state that newspapers should highlight the 1 in 4 casualty rate: “When newspapers become more like comics, that’s when comics have to become more like newspapers.”


Pat Mills (stripes) interviewed at The Imperial War Museum 19/08/11

Originally posted 2013-03-25 21:03:56. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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