The nicest Christmas presents are always the unexpected ones, and this year a kind nephew gave me Charley’s War. This looks like a graphic novel, but it’s actually a collection of episodes from a comic strip that ran in the Battle Action comic in the late seventies and eighties, following the adventures of young Charley Bourne (who enlisted while underage, like all the best heroes) through June and July of 1916 and the Battle of the Somme.
At first I treated it with suspicion – it definitely belongs to the “Great War was futile” genre, and I feared it might be another dreary Private Peaceful – but I was soon reading avidly. The characters may be stereotypes – the genre more or less demands it – but they are varied, and present a wide range of attitudes to the War – the noble, the practical, the vengeful, the cowardly, the cruel,and so on. The interaction between these allows the writer and artist to produce a pretty complex picture of War – terrible but illuminated by moments of courage and generosity.
The creators definitely have an agenda (the writer, Pat Mills, got his first inspiration from the film of Oh What a Lovely War) but they also worked within a genre, though against they grain of it – Battle Action was mostly made up of WWII strips glorifying Nazi-bashing. As Mills says in his introduction, they wanted to avoid the simple “War is hell” message – which usually succeeds only in making war look glamorous and ultra-macho. Their solution was to give the strip depth.
This is done partly by the collage of texts. Charley’s grim war is played out in a very effective counterpoint to his banal letters home. This both tells the reader about his background and stresses the distance between the front and Blighty. There are also postcards, posters and snatches of song that locate the story within its context.
The strip shows good and bad on both sides. Some pleasant Germans are good for a sing-song and swapping of foodstuffs at Christmas, while others are devious and vengeful, setting booby traps, for example. The British are thoroughly mixed. Some soldiers are pretty brutish (The strip follows the convention estblished in fiction written during the War years, of making the most warlike soldier a very Irish Irishman) whil others are decent. There is a contrasting pair of officers. One is Lieutenant Thomas, who cares for his men, turns a blind eye to a bit of harmless thieving, and is shown reading Keats. The other is Captain Snell, who uses the War to indulge his cruel streak, and who tricks some Germans into a Christmas truce, only as a ruse to kill them.
The only general we see is a fat-faced oaf, and there’s no doubt who Mills blames for the deaths on the Somme. The episode about the terrible first day shows Joe Colquhoun, the artist, at his best – the pages are properly chaotic and dramatic, but not unclear. It’s very much the standard interpretation of the battle – straight lines of men walking steadily towards certain death. Lieutenant Thomas (the decent officer) sees that this is wrong, and tells his men to run. (In fact, I gather, recent research shows that many units actually ignored the instruction to keep in line, and advanced in the lozenge formation that became standard later in the War.) As in most depictions of the battle there is the curious matter of the German guns. Here as so often, the German artillery is silent. There is the simple drama of men trudging from safety towards death by machine gun. In fact a third of the deaths on July 1st were from artillery fire on the British reserve trenches, but that doesn’t make for such a clear story, so here and elsewhere – for example in the big TV dramatisation of the Somme last year – it gets ignored. Possibly we should blame the original 1916 Battle of the Somme documentary for this representation. That shows troops preparing for battle and moving up the line unmolested, and going over the top with calm determination. The only shell explosions we see are British ones, and the only death is from machine-gun fire.
Charley’s War is not without its clichés and inaccuracies (I gather that in a later episode nice Lieutenant Thomas will be shot at dawn for bringing his men out of danger. Hmmm…) but it’s a terrifically imaginative development of its genre.
Further volumes of the saga are now available from Titan Books. There’s a good website devoted to the series, and Esther MacCallum Stewart has written an essay that puts Charley’s War into the context of other war comics.