Friday, 11 August 2017

Charley's War - The World War Two Era

In this post, Sector House 13 member Paul Clarke looks at an aspect of the classic Charley's War strip from Battle that is often forgotten as he examines the continuation of the story into World War 2, without the guiding hand of Pat Mills.

Charley’s War – The World War 2 era

Charley’s War, the creation of Pat Mills and artist Joe Colquhoun, made its debut in the landmark 200th issue of Battle in January 1979.

A realistic and sometimes brutal story of an ordinary ‘Tommy’ in World War One, it quickly became a firm fan favourite.  There was no other series quite like it in Battle, or indeed any other British comic of the time, and it became the heart of the weekly despite, or perhaps because of. its anti-war stance.

Pat Mills' final word on Charley's War
Pat’s involvement with Charley’s War came to a premature end after he rounded up the Russian Civil War campaign of 1919 and brought Charley back home to unemployment and the great depression.    

Mills has his last powerful word on the futiliy of the slaughter with his final panel, with Charley ruminating on the war to end all wars while a newspaper seller gives the news of Hitler election in Germany.

One of the reasons Pat quit the strip was IPC’s refusal to agree a research budget to allow him to continue the stories into World War 2.  Pat would have loved to have continued the series applying the same anti-war angle that he had for the First World War. 

But Charley’s War did continue onto the Second World War with writing duties handed to Scott Goodall.  Scott was from an earlier generation of writers and was quite popular.  But he was writing “old school” stories that were progressively losing favour with the readers.  Sadly Charley’s War was to be one of these.

Pat’s style was more political than Goodall's and while he felt there was anti-war material that could be applied to the Second World War there was, perhaps, not enough of it.

In contrast Scott’s writing was more traditional and having learnt his trade on the likes of Valiant, Lion and Cor things were going to change.  He’d written the semi-comedic adventures of Captain Hurricane for Valiant and one of the classics of British comics, Marnie the Fox, the adventures of a wandering Fox cub, for Buster soon to be reprinted by Rebellion.  But these strips were from a different time and had a different tone.

I recently watched the ‘Dunkirk movie’ and was reminded of the depiction of the same events from Charley’s war that I saw as a kid.   That inspired me to look back at Scott’s run, take a look at some of the key aspects and see how it compares with Pat’s.

Central to a good story are the secondary characters.  Pat provided many memorable characters in his run of Charley’s War.  Foremost among these were the villains, but Pat’s take on villains was not the standard seen in most British comics.  Bad guys were as likely to be drawn from the allied officer class or establishment figures.  

We all have a villain we love to hate, and for me it was Captain Snell, Charley’s sadistic and vindictive company commander.  Mills would contrast Snell with the more sympathetic and human Lt. Thomas and show the horror of the war clearly when he orders the twenty-two year old Thomas to be executed for refusing to carry out an order.

Pat wrote characters that the readers cared about.  They invested a lot of emotions in these characters.  Who can forget the gut wrenching scenes of Charley carrying what was left of his best mate Ginger in a sack after he was blown up?  That packed a huge of emotional punch for any young reader at the time.

Madame Flaubert
So Scott Goodall inherited a good set of characters already established by Pat – Kate, Old Bill and Charley’s infamous brother-in-law Oily.  But a new cast was needed for the World War 2 stories – Charley’s son Len (Pat would have named him Charley after his father), his friends Wattsie, Handy Hordle, Archie Bentall, Wally Forbes, Hortense Flaubert and the officer they called Winslow Boy and the sadistic Sergeant Nickles.

Looking back at these characters I think Len was the only one you generally cared about.   I cared about his character as he was a young man with a very bright future compared to the one his father started off with.  You really do want him to survive this and hope that Charley finds him.  The readers wanted Charley to find his son.  But the others were just characters used as plot devices. 
The weirdest one, and perhaps the one with most un-realised potential, was the French war widow Hortense Flaubert who waged a one-woman war against the Germans!

A careful examination of the characters Scott created reveals that he attempted to replicated Pat’s templates and based his new characters on older ones previously created by Pat during his time on the strip.

Handy Hordle is very like Mad Mick from the Somme storyline.  Guy great with his hands, and in a scene replicated from the earlier series he holds up the ceiling of a cellar as it is about to cave in.  Handy doesn’t suffer the same fate that Mad Mick, perhaps showing another difference in the writing style.

Another character that was based on a Mills Template was Handy’s sidekick Archie Bentall.  He is just like Smith 70 although not on the technical side.  Archie was big on words and was the walking dictionary of the team.  Handy however was no Young Albert.

Of the two commanders, Sergeant Nickles and the Winslow Boy could easily have been in Pat’s script.  Nickles is sadistic although probably not on the same scale as Snell, although I suspect they would have got on like a house on fire when it comes to shooting prisoners.

The Winslow Boy
The Winslow Boy reminds me of Snell when he was having his tea and sandwiches when Charley brought the urgent telegraph message to him.  His refusal to read the message until he was finished his tea showed the arrogance and the feeling of entitlement of the upper class officer.  The Winslow Boy brings shows that upper class characteristic in that he treats the war as if it were a sport, hence his cricket references.  War was not a game in Charley’s book.

Goodall takes the series in a different direction to Pat’s when he begins scripting duties on 02/02/85.  We begin three years into the future, its 1936 and Charley is married to Kate with a young son called Len

It is a new life for Charley, no longer on the dole.  He has attended night school and become a mechanic.  Education has been the key for Charley and he emphasised this with his 17 year old son who finds school boring.

It’s quite a contrast to the working class hero that Pat had portrayed in his strip.  It does look a bit odd to see Charley settled in his council house with his steady job.  The birth of a new middle class Charley perhaps?  I am sure Pat would disagree with this!

We get snippets of the German build up to war.  As you can imagine Charley is tired of war.  At one point he berates a punter in the cinema and accuses him of being a warmonger.   When Len tells Charley he wants to join the army, Charley cracks up and storms out of the house.   This leads to a chance encounter with Old Bill who is getting a beating from a mob.  After fighting them off Charley is surprised to hear that Bill wants another crack at the Germans.  Charley isn’t interested and has had enough of war.

No explanation is given on how Charley has got back into uniform.  When the story picks up on issued dated 23/02/85 we are back in France as the scene jumps to May 1940.  According to the narrative of the story Charley has been in the army since January of that year.

The story from this point is told in flashback as Charley and Wattsie are been cut off from their comrades following a German attach on refugees.  Taking a break they start to talk about the events that brought them to this point and how they came to have been cut out from their comrades in the ongoing German attacks.

Sergeant Bert Nickles is the topic of conversation.  Known as Old Nick by the men, he clearly has a dislike and deep contempt for Charley because he is a veteran from the Great War.  Perhaps an insecurity because Charley has seem as much, if not more of war than he has.  Charley almost comes to blows with him.

They finally end up in a deserted town and are ambushed by a German patrol.   Surrounded by the Germans it looks like the war is over for them until they meet Cryril Hordle (AKA Handy) and Archie Bentall who come out of a cellar and fire on the Germans, allowing Charley and Wattsie to get undercover.

They finally escape the patrolling Germans and find a Bern carrier which begins their cross-country adventure and brings the story up to date. 

At this point the focus of the story was on Charley finding his son Len.  As Charley and his comrades are making their way through the countryside the Germans are on the attack.  Charley scans ahead and spots a bridge still intact.   On the bridge there is an officer instructing the demolition of the bridge and the officer is Len.  Excited by this prospect of a reunion, Charley drives the Bern carrier at great speed to try and reach him.  But the bombardment opens up again and kills he engineers.  Seeing that his comrades are all dead, Len reaches out and pulls the switch that blows the bridge just as Charley is reaching it.

Dramatic scene as Charley attempts to save his son Len

Searching through the bodies there is no sign of Len, only his insignia lying on the ground.  At this point Charley’s adversary, Old Nick appears.  He mocks Charley and turns his back on him. Charley attempts to strike out against him only for Handy to hit him on the head and stop him.
The next story contains another reference to the Great War.  Charley’s commander, Captain Nixon is confident that they have the Germans on the run.  But Charley reminds him what had happened in 1917 in The Battle of Arras.  Charley remembers the battle, or Slaughter Alley as they called it, only too well.  Suddenly it is the British who are on the run and the retreat from the Germans begins.

Flashback to 'Slaughter Alley'

The story takes a breather from the action in France at this point and switches back to the home front as Charley receives a letter from his brother-in-law Oily.  He receives the news that Len is missing believed killed and that Kate has been sent to jail for storing black market goods.  Charley smells a rat immediately and thinks Kate is being set up by Oily.  He is desperate to get home to clear her nail but his plans are put on hold as a German sniper starts taking out senior British officers.

One again Charley remembers his time during the Great War as a sniper in another flashback.  With the  word out that Charley’s has special experience and he is introduced to the ‘Winslow Boy’, a chinless wonder in charge of taking out the sniper and who talks of the war as if it was a cricket match.  He tells Charley that wants the sniper ‘bowled out’.

So the game begins. Charley Bourne vs Heinrich Holtz.  Only one can win.  The duel becomes personal when the German sniper attacks, shooting Handy.  Charley decides to go after him and the men play a deadly game of cat and mouse.

German Sniper Heinrich Holtz
Charley, thinking back to his time during the Great War as a sniper remembers being trapped in a wood pile.  A German is trying to smoke him out via the only opening. He remembers the advice Len Southgate, his sniping partner, gave him - to do something unexpected and take the enemy by surprise.  

 Charley does exactly that, 20 years later, he catches Heinrich off guard And taking advantage of the German's mistake shoots him before heading back to his lines.

Charley’s War without Pat Mills may not have been the ground breaking series that it had been.  There was an edge missing, a political and personal edge that made it one of the most memorable comic strips of its time.  But there was enough to enthral and entertain the kids who read Battle.   It’s certainly one of the comics I still remember with huge affection, and there is a lot to be enjoyed and written about.  Next time I want to look at the parallels and differences in the way Charley’s War and the recent Dunkirk film dealt with the Dunkirk evacuation

Paul Clarke


  1. Speaking as someone who has never read any Charlie's War this review has certainly got me interested in exploring the stories. Great descriptions of the main and secondary characters Paul, as well as the political and social aspects that I never knew would be so important to a war story.Ot certainly sounds very "grown up" compared to some of the Warlord and commando books I was reading at the time. Thanks for the great review Paul.

  2. James thanks for the kind comments. I always felt there was a difference between Battle and Warlord. I do remember reading it but the comic never had the same pull as Battle for me. Same as Commando. I didn't read that or even Battle's equivalent of it for some reason.

  3. Thank you for this article, I bought all the Charley's war volumes republished by Titan but they wont reprint the Second World War strips, despite there must be some demand and interest. Do you know where I can get hold of a copy of them? I havent read them since 1986 but still remember them.

  4. I'm sorry, but the answer is no. Paul, who wrote this article, had to spend a lot of time building up his collection of Battle back issues to get to read all of these stories

  5. What issue numbers of Battle Action were Charleys War WW2 run?

    Loved WW1 reprints. Willing to track down originals.