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 Battle of the Somme, fought through the back end of 1916 between Allied and German troops, remains one of the most horrific combat theatres the world has seen. In Charley’s War, Pat Mills dramatises the experience of climbing out of a British trench and walking into No Man’s Land and beyond, with exceptional attention to historical detail. The British soldiers, expecting to find nothing left after a fierce eight-day artillery bombardment, instead found a German army that had been laying low, dug deep into the earth, more than capable of repelling the slowly advancing troops. That the artillery had failed to even break holes in the German barbed wire defences only worsened the resulting massacre. Of the estimated 750,000 English troops thrown into the attack, 58,000 were injured on the first day alone – a third of those fatally.
Mills successfully embraces many of the points of interest that made World War I special in this dramatic recreation. Charley Bourne is a 16-year-old boy, pretending to be 18 so he can lay down his life for his country – something that the British army necessarily turned a blind eye to in an effort to get able bodied ‘men’ into the war machine. Technology plays an enormous role too, from the relatively new introduction of deadly chemical gas, automatic weapons, barbed wire and reconnaissance aeroplanes. Other details are plucked out of history – a German sniper dressed in full body armour like a medieval knight; the last use of a cavalry charge; and the gut churning horror of living knee-deep in mud in rat-infested trenches.
Although this doesn’t quite capture the gut-wrenching terror of the Somme that a lot of the adult fiction based around it does, nor the unimaginable horror of what it must have been like to be directly involved, it’s easy to forget that this is reprinted from a comic aimed at young boys. That it portrays any horror at all is a bonus. That it’s downright anti-war makes it essential reading.
In an era that sends its heroic young men and women to die in foreign fields over little more than a vague threat of terrorism and a stack of potential oil profits, it’s a poignant reminder that three generations ago it was Europe that was fighting off invaders. And while the people on the front line remain as heroic as they ever were, it’s still the stupid decisions of those at the top, far removed from the action, which must be seen to carry the cost of so many human lives.