Background - ‘Charley’s War’ first appeared in the 200th issue of the British comic, Battle, in January 1979. Battle was part of the stable of comics produced by IPC and debuted in the mid 1970s as a response to their rival, DC Thomson’s, success with their own war comic, Warlord.
Both companies dominated the comics market in 1970s Britain. DC Thomson is probably most famous for its legendary British staples, the Beano and the Dandy, but they also had a long list of successful titles that concentrated on more dramatic storylines - Hotspur, Victor and the aforementioned Warlord amongst them. DC Thomson’s ‘boys’ own’ adventures tended to follow very traditional lines – baddies were disposed with with ease, goodies made it back home in time for tea and cakes.
IPC, not so well established, brought more of an edge to their comics. Their most famous title was probably the Eagle in the 1950s though they also did a fine line in sports themed comics, including the long running Tiger. By the mid 1970s, however, they had employed two young writers who were interested in pushing the envelope somewhat, bringing not only a greater realism to their stories, but also daring to be quite ambiguous about the ‘heroic’ nature of their main characters. These writers were John Wagner and Pat Mills.
Their desire to change the face of comics came to fruition in the establishment of Action in February 1976. Action was extremely daring for its time and acquired infamy when, in October of that year, the comic was actually banned for two months, due to its high quotient of violence. When Action returned it was somewhat toothless in comparison with what had gone before and soon lost its ardent readership. In Autumn 1977, it was amalgamated into Battle.
Whilst the war comic continued to plough its own furrow, Wagner and Mills, having been thwarted somewhat on Action, moved on to help create 2000ad, which was barely less violent than Action but somehow managed to escape the censors’ wrath.
Already established as a risk-taker, Pat Mills had the confidence to then pitch an idea for a story to Battle – one which didn’t concentrate on a maverick hero who could wipe Jerry into shape without skipping a heartbeat – but one which focussed on a mundane, naïve and idealistic young man who becomes a soldier and is thrown into Hell. Perhaps its most obvious cultural reference point is the film and novel 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. Charley’s War was born.
Pat Mills is extremely well known in British comics having been part of this industry for nearly 40 years. As noted above, Mills had written for both Action and 2000ad before penning Charley's War, though he began his writing career at IPC on comics for girls. In fact, in the television documentary, Comics Britainnnia, Mills claimed that Charley's War appeared in a boys' comic but was written with the sensibility of girls' comics. By this, he meant that Charley and his comrades did not overcome their difficulties through thwarting their foes, but instead lived with the situations they were in and tried to get through them.
Before writing Charley's War, Mills' magnus opus was arguably, Judge Dredd's Cursed Earth saga. After Charley's War completed, he went on to create Nemesis the Warlock for 2000ad, perhaps his second best known character. Mills' intention with the story was to take Charley all the way through the First World War, from the Battle of the Somme onwards in 1916, and then to bring him back for World War II and write about his escapades in this conflict. In the event, Mills stopped writing the strip at the end of World War I, though the story did continue briefly with an older Charley in World War II, fighting alongside his son.
Joe Colquhoun was already a British comics stalwart before he began work on Charley's War. Previously he had worked on British favourite, Roy of the Rovers, a story about a successful football player and his team. Another football story that Colquhoun worked on in the 70s was more in tune with Charley's War. This was Nipper, about a poor lad growing up in a grim Northern English town, but who had great soccer skills. Colquhoun's detail at drawing old terraces and the life of the working poor would put him in good stead for Charley's War.
Immediately before beginning Charley's War, Colquhoun was working on the most popular story in Battle, a tale about a British flying ace, Johnny Red. It was something of a risk to move him onto the new story, but Colquhoun made Charley's War his own, his incredible, exquisite detail a hallmark of the strip. Colquhoun pencilled every episode of the story that appeared in the regular weekly comic, though other artists, most notably perhaps Cam Kennedy, drew strips in Battle summer specials and annuals. Colquhoun went through periods of ill health and the story bluntly stopped appearing in the comic during these periods, rather than other artists being drawn in. It is tribute to Colquhoun and his artwork that the strip ended, not so much when the editors wanted it to end, but abruptly when Joe died.
The Story - early days
It is 1916. Charley Bourne is just a working class lad, too young to join up. Charley works at a bus depot and his intellectual capabilities are summarised well on the very first page when his work colleagues tell us they reckon he must have been dropped on his head when he was a baby because they think he's so stupid. Having had enough of being teased by his workmates, he lies about his age and signs up to fight in the Great War. Mills contrasts Bourne's wide eyed optimism in the early strips with the brutal reality of war. As Bourne and other conscripts make their way to the front, they are greeted by soldiers returning, singing cynical songs, a trademark in early stories in particular.
Another trademark of early episodes were the letters Charley sent home to his family, acting as a kind of censored narration on the gory action that was occuring on the page. One particularly memorable letter was sent to Charley to his aunt. Against the backdrop of soldiers being slaughtered on the Western Front, Charley's aunt castigates him for not thanking her for the scarf she sent him. Whilst a very effective device, Mills soon dropped this, perhaps because it interferred with the main storyline.
Charley soon has personal experience of the reality of death at the front line when, in the third episode, he runs out to rescue a runner (a soldier who delivers messages to the front line) and pulls him into a shell hole to protect him against a sniper. Once there they talk about each other's families and then begin to sing a popular and bleakly comic song sung by soldiers in this conflict. As Charley reaches down to get his comrade some water, the runner dies half way through singing the final verse. It's a beautifully written and drawn scene.
Cast of Characters
Early on we are introduced to a whole variety of characters, many of whom die after only a few issues. Perhaps the most unfortunate of these is a young lad named Toots, who is terrified of going 'over the top' (i.e. jumping out of the trenches to approach the enemy). Despite Charley's reassurances, he ends up getting stuck in barbed wire and mown down by a German machine gun. Other characters such as Pop, an older soldier whose sons have already died in the war, and Big Mick, a slightly stereotypical Irish navvy type, hang around for a few issues before also being killed.
However, some characters do last a little longer. Charley's best mate, Ginger Jones, provides some light relief at times. A little more worldly wise than Charley and sensibly scared of warfare (and also hard work), he is a good foil to the naive young soldier. Even so, after a few dozen episodes, Mills kills him off, not in any heroic way, but simply when he takes the wrong turn in a trench and is blown up by a German shell. Ginger's death is sudden and seemingly random, over very quickly, Mills making the point that this is often how soldiers died.
Ole Bill Tozer is perhaps the longest lasting character alongside Charley. Tozer is Charley's platoon Sargeant - a real old British working class NCO, who nevertheless acts like a father to Charley and gains respect for the young lad as the strip continues. It was important that Charley didn't constantly have a cast of characters who were being wheeled out merely to be slaughtered a few episodes down the line and Tozer's Bulldog spirit was often comforting in the bleakness of war.
Despite being the guys at the other side of No Man's Land, Germans were not really the bad guys in Charley's War. No. The one true pantomime villian of the piece was Lieutenant Snell, a truly vile officer of the British aristocracy who doesn't give a damn about his own troops. Fortunately for Charley at the beginning of the strip, his platoon is headed by Lieutenant Thomas, a man who is very much attuned to the needs of his soldiers. Unfortunately, at one point early on, Thomas prefers his men's safety to a direct order and therefore contravenes this, leading to him being charged with treason and then shot by firing squad. Snell recurs throughout the strip, representing the vile order of the day, always seemingly immune to the attacks of the enemy.
More comic relief was provided by two other recurring characters, Smith 70 and Young Albert. Smith 70, so callled due to the ubiquity of that surname in British households, is something of a wiry eccentric, who operates the machine gun for Charley's platoon and won't let anyone else near it because it's "too technical" as he continues to tell Charley. His companion is Young Albert, the soubriquet 'Young' being somewhat ironic. Albert has to feed the old typewriter style gun that Smithy uses and the pair are an effective odd couple, Mills resurrecting from time to time, perhaps to add a little lightness to the ongoing slaughter.
The Lost Platoon
Charley's War ran for nearly six years in total but the storyline that was its masterpiece occurred within the first few months. The Lost Platoon told the story of a soldier called Lonely who had to accompany Charley and Ginger to deliver rations to troops at the front line. Lonely was a member of Lieutenant Snell's first platoon and is very clearly a haunted figure, who when we first meet him is trying to bury himself alive. Lonely's seeming death wish extends when the trio reach the front line and, in the middle of the night, Lonely starts running across No Man's Land, wanting to be killed. Charley and Ginger chase after him.
The three stumble into a German trench and are captured. Lonely then recounts the tale of the Lost Platoon. It is Christmas 1915 and there is stalemate between the British and German lines. Lonely's platoon begin to exchange banter and jokes with the Germans on the other side of No Man's Land. After singing carols together on Christmas Eve, the platoon decide to fire some supplies over to the Germans as a Christmas gift, approved by Snell. However, after hurling over a few tins of beef, Snell orders a bomb to be delivered to the Germans, a joke Snell finds hilarious.
On Christmas night, whilst Snell heads back to the officer's mess, the Germans come over No Man's Land and slaughter the troops, Lonely being the only survivor as he had dug himself into the earth. Lonely then reveals that it was he that had hurled the bomb at the Germans at Snell's request.
The Germans who have captured the trio now decide to execute them but Charley finds a weapon in the trench wall and kills the German soldier about to shoot them. They escape but are chased by the dead soldier's brother, Wolfgang and his buddy, Big Rudi. At this point the British troops unleash a gas attack on the Germans. Whilst the Germans are fine, Charley, Ginger and Lonely have no gas masks and start hunting for dead Germans to find masks. Soon they have two to share between them. The three climb a tree, Ginger and Lonely taking the masks whilst Charley climbs higher to get above the gas. Unfortunately they are tracked down by Wolfgang and Big Rudi, the latter attacking Charley from another tree and pushing him to the earth below.
Big Rudi is about to kill Charley when Ginger turns up and knocks Rudi out. Charley is now very sick, however, having taken in too much gas. Whilst Ginger tries to revive him, Lonely suddenly becomes enthralled by the site of the British cavalry coming into battle. As the soldiers and horses both have gas masks, Lonely thinks that they are the horsemen of death. He says, chillingly, "They've come to take Lonely back down to Hell with them."
Charley, now recovering, watches with Lonely and Ginger as the cavalry descend into battle. Then they spot the fact that there are many German soldiers in the long grass and they are headed for an ambush. Charley wants to dash out to warn the British but Ginger punches him and knocks him out before he can do so. Lonely however spots a chance at redemption. Grabbing a long branch and holding if over his shoulder like a rifle, Lonely starts to march out into the open air. As he does so, he sees the ghosts of the Lost Platoon and he marches towards them, joining in their song 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary'.
Whilst most of the Germans realise it would be foolish to shoot the lone soldier and give away their position, Wolfgang, seeking revenge on his brother's killers, stands up and shoots Lonely. In turn, Wolfgang is spotted by the British and is shot. Both die. Whilst battle ensues, Big Rudi turns up again and attacks Ginger. Charley spots him just in time and kills Big Rudi before he can kill either of them. It is an extraorinarily affecting story.
Charley's War was published in Battle Picture Weekly from 6 January 1979 to 26 January 1985.