UPDATE: The stories featured in this out-of-print book are now collected in Charley’s War: The Definitive Collection Volume 1 – Boy Soldier.
The first volume of Charley’s War saw Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun recreating the horror of the early stages of the Battle of the Somme. This book picks up where the last left off with two main story arcs. The first follows the technological innovation theme from the earlier book and examines the impact of the introduction of the first British tanks on the battle. Seen by the Germans as the weapons of mass destruction of the day, these lumbering behemoths might have turned the battle in favour of the British if it weren’t for their half-hearted deployment by British generals. The second half sees the Germans reacting to this new development in the only way they can – increased ferocity, brutality and dirty tactics – flying in the face of the gentlemanly conduct of previous confrontations run by unsuitable aristocrats.
The other major theme running through this book is the regularlity with which the British army is willing to shoot and torture its own men, for anything from basic insubordination through to falling asleep on duty.
As before, the waste of human life presented in the comic is poignant and more than a little shocking, not least of all because the story is reprinted from a publication aimed at young boys interested in the glamour of soldiering. Charley loses friends quicker than he can make them and the horror of it all turns this social, caring individual away from forming any bonds with his colleagues in the trenches because the likelihood of losing them is so high.
Mills’s tension soaked trenches, interspersed with sporadic incidents of extreme violence, make for hard hitting drama that’s hard to put down. Colquhoun’s artwork portrays the horror and atmosphere well, especially in his backgrounds and close-ups, but his characterisation sometimes veers towards caricature that we felt could sometimes detract from the story’s gritty purpose. When all the English look like bedraggled waifs and the Germans like uniformed barbarians, it pulls us away from the true nature World War I – an entire generation of men grinding one another into mince.
As with last time the book doesn’t complete the series and we’re left teetering on the edge of a cliff-hanger, with German troops spilling into British trenches. By the time you get to the end of this, you’ll probably be writing begging letters to Titan Books asking them to bring out the next volume.