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 ever seen. In Charley’s War, Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun dramatise 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 find a relatively unscathed German army that has been laying low, dug deep into the earth, and 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 and Colquhoun successfully embrace many of the points of interest that made World War I special in this dramatic recreation, which collects the first 300 pages of the classic strip from the weekly war-themed anthology comic Battle. 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 played an enormous role in the war and it’s well reflected here, building the dramatic incidents of the first third of the story around the relatively new introduction of deadly chemical gas, automatic weapons, barbed wire and reconnaissance aeroplanes. As the story and the war progresses, more new technology is poured onto the field, including the first tanks and the German blitzkrieg response. 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; the extreme punishments used by the soldiers’ own officers to maintain discipline; and the gut churning horror of living knee-deep in muddy, rat-infested trenches with meagre rations.
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. By the end of this book he’s illustrating huge scenes of brutal hand-to-hand combat, as trenches change hands and the fighting gets close and personal.
Eventually, Charley is wounded badly enough to be sent back to Blighty for some much needed rest and recuperation. But his chances of eating too many home-cooked meals are thwarted by German zeppelin attacks on London’s docklands, where many highly explosive munitions factories were located. This final third of the book is more sedate than the previous two thirds, examining the situation back home which, while still potentially deadly, isn’t lethal on the scale of manning the front lines.
Charley’s War is a fascinating insight into the horrors of life during wartime for both soldiers and civilians in World War I. Although targeted at boys, Mills’s script rarely shies from a social conscience and Colquhoun’s art is poignant and shocking, making this just as suitable for adult enthusiasts of war literature as it is for younger readers looking for gritty adventure stories. That it also manages to carry a message about the futility and horror of war makes it inspiring reading.