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BOOK REVIEW – PAT MILLS AND JOE COLQUHOUN – CHARLEY’S WAR 1994 Titan Books.

 

This is an incredible graphic novel, collecting together the earliest issues of a very detailed story about an ordinary World War One soldier, Charley Bourne, before, during and after the terrible events at The Somme in 1916.

 

Though fictional, the story is based on actual events, with many references to songs, poems and letters home from the period. There are startling details, such as the feral cats in the trenches, attracted by the many rats and not frightened by the gunfire raging round themselves.

 

Charley is regarded as non-too bright in civilian life, so he escapes being the brunt of everyone’s jokes by enlisting in the army, lying about the fact that he is just sixteen.

 

Days into the trench warfare system, Charley sees a message runner get shot, wounded and trapped in no-man’s land. Charley goes to rescue him, and ends up pinned down in a foxhole by a sniper, as the man he tried to rescue dies and the sniper picks off several more of Charley’s friends. The sniper is protected by near medieval body armour, and frightens his fellow Germans for how much he enjoys his job, but thanks to Charley, he is eventually killed.

 

Charley gets a new officer, who, in his previous command, got his entire men bar one killed. The survivor is now shell shocked and Charley is assigned to look after him. The man, known as Lonely, tries to kill himself. Realizing that not stopping him could get himself on charges of aiding a desertion, Charley gives chase to Lonely across enemy lines, and with another friend, the three men are captured by the Germans. On the brink of execution, Lonely tells Charley and the Germans what happened to his previous division. The men had tried to have a new Christmas truce with the enemy, as had famously happened in 1914, and continued each year despite orders from officers of both sides forbidding it.  Lonely’s commander had turned a blind eye to this, but only to get a fix on enemy positions and shell them to death. Later, a German division came after Lonely’s men, Benton vengeance, and due to personal cowardice, Lonely escapes but gets the men killed.

 

The seemingly doomed men are saved by a mustard gas attack from their own side, and after following the example of the rats and climbing trees to escape the low level gas clouds, they capture some German gasmasks, but not before Charley is affected and almost killed by the gas. He recovers just in time to witness one of the Somme’s most remarkable tragedies – the last ever-full British Cavalry charge in battle. Horse was to prove to be no match for machine guns.

 

Lonely at least finds peace, heroically sacrificing himself to save a cavalry team from certain ambush, and becoming a hero at last, but a dead one.  The book ends as Charley gets a new task, as thirteenth runner – the previous twelve having died trying to get a message through.  It is Charley’s 17th birthday.

 

Unforgettably poignant reading, with images such as horse and rider in gas masks and the Somme’s first day battle when 600,000 British soldiers perished in one terrible, misconceived attack – one the authors regard rightly as murder rather than war.

 

The production notes and a prose essay on the history of the Somme add to the book’s credentials.

 

© Copyright. Arthur Chappell        

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