Pat Mills’ innovative ideas for the subject and delivery of Charley’s War would never have been realised were it not for the great skill with which he constructed its Characters. All the most grandiose of ideas for a storyline are, after all, nothing without the skill to produce believable players to focus on.
On this page is a brief background to each key Character. So check your hair, tuck in your shirt and let’s mingle. Starting, of course, with Charley…
Of course Charley is the main character, but he isn’t a conventional lead character at all. The way Pat Mills used him within the story is truly original and unorthodox.
The character, at the start of the story, writes his own narrative in the shape of badly spelled letters home. The reader is given a further insight into his character from an angle never before used in this field.
At times, the letters were written by other members of his family, such as Auntie Mabel, and showed, sometimes with humour and sometimes with Irony, the enormous gulf that existed between the soldiers at the front and civilians at home.
Charley is, at times seen wallowing in apathy, bitterness, hatred and occasionally severe depression. The cause of this state of mind being the very thing that other ‘Heroes’ of the genre are there for: Death, Destruction, and War.
Charley Bourne was 16 when the story started (at the most that’s only two or three years older the average reader at the time). He was a lower-working class manual worker who was told he was stupid by people around him but yet when he goes to France after joining up he shows (at times) great common sense and ability to think under pressure.
I believe the idea of him not being an intellectual was designed to appeal to the type of kid who was the readership at the time: kids who wanted to escape into Battle and its stories and out of the classroom. Kids who. perhaps if born 60 years before may have escaped to the Army and found themselves on tree-lined French roads marching to the killing fields of Flanders searching for the same glory Charley (and tens of thousands of men like him in real life) did. Kids who, because of their background believed that success academically was totally out of their reach.
Once the reader had related in this way to the character Mills could then explore his ideas about changing the way that they thought about heroics and War.
Charley’s transformation from idealistic recruit to battle-weary soldier was complete within the first ten episodes (the eleventh being the first of July 1916- the First day of the Battle of the Somme). After this he is changed. He becomes resigned to his fate, non-heroic (unless it’s to save the life of a mate) and sensitised to the horrors he sees around him, but more interestingly he appears much more intelligent than we ever gave him credit for before. In fact if you had joined the story a year or two after its beginning you would be surprised that this Character had ever been as unsophisticated.
This change in Charley is one of the keys to what makes him a great character: he learns and develops and grows as the story develops.
Charley fought in every major battle in World War 1. For the few he didn’t take part in the reader was told the story by a third party (Blue’s narrative on Verdun for instance, or his Cousin Jack’s on the Naval Battle of the Falklands). In the course of his war, he had become a Stretcher-Bearer, was a sniper for a while, Snell’s Servant, Tunnelling Engineer, part of a firing squad (twice), involved in the Etaples Mutiny, was wounded twice and Court-Marshalled (once).
He was a brilliantly crafted character that worked because he was based on a Lost Generation of real, courageous, straight-forward, working-class heroes’, who tragically never returned to their homes.
Charley Bourne survived the War, married Kate, and had a son, Len. When Len Joined the Army in secret at the outset of World War 2, Charley joins up again in order to find him.
Pat Mills stopped writing the story at this point (see interview) but the idea of Charley fighting his War in the next conflict of the 20th Century was always his intention. After he left, the story died within a year and Joe Colquhoun passed away a year after that.
The story ended with the saving of his son Len, and him deciding that he was too old for war and that he had had enough, Charley sails off to a peaceful retirement and the story is re-run from the beginning.
Charley had a succession of mates who were killed quite quickly after they were introduced. Mills had to constantly write new ones, the portrayal of the loss being the main point I believe he wanted to drive home. However, it would not have had the same impact if the reader hadn’t connected with the character and not known some of his background before he was killed. Somehow Mills was able to speed up the process of each character’s development without losing the importance of the person and so, in turn the impact on the reader when they were taken away. The following are the more important supporting Characters in the Story.
Charley’s best friend. Ginger never had a fag out of his mouth and was always the pessimist. Ginger was the complete opposite of the idealistic Bourne. He was killed by a shell later in the Somme battle and Charley carried his remains behind the line in a sack to bury him. He was a great character with a real deadpan ,black sense of humour. The shock of his sudden death and the mental anguish Charley went through because of the grief was a truly sad, moving piece of writing and achieved what I think Pat Mills was trying to say about the nature of death in war – sudden and un-planned for a waste.
Ginger is very typical of the fatalistic soldier so common on the Western Front. He reminds me of Frank Richards, the author of the book Old Soldiers Never Die, which I recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it. The humour of the British soldier in such indescribable hell is conveyed very well by Richards as it is by Ginger Jones. For example, what about this snippet of dialogue? The Sarge: “Let’s hope that brave lad makes it Jones”. Ginger: “Yes good mate was Charley, but he would drink his own bathwater”
A last thought on Ginger; his death may have come from a book of a real soldiers memoirs on the Somme. He, like Charley, has to bury his mate in a sack after a shell killed him. The name of the book is I Survived Didn’t I? by Private Ginger Byrne. (see Bibliography)
Captain D’arcy Snell
As well as its depiction of the carnage of the Great War, Charley’s War contained some very obvious asides on class within the Edwardian society it was set in. An example of this is the character of Captain Snell, Charley’s frequent nemesis and company commander.
Snell seems to be the real enemy of the entire story, more so than the Germans. He was sadistic and the men hated him, and finally disappeared for a while when he was shot by one of his own ricochets in 1917 at Messines Ridge where Charley and company are attached to the ‘Clay Kickers’, engineers who dug the London underground who are employed in tunnelling under the German trenches.
Although shot in the head he survives, only to reappear more insane than he ever was in the hospital where Charley met Kate, his wife-to-be. He returned to duty in 1918 and was finally killed off on the last day of the war when Charley had a showdown with him. Needless to say Charley won and killed Snell with an acid sprayer (Nasty!), only to find out he had been ‘volunteered” by Snell to stay in the army to fight the Bolsheviks in Russia.
Snell always reminds me of Julian Grenfell, the aristocratic young officer who famously wrote of the War as “An absoulute bloody picnic, great fun” and recorded the thrill of “Killing Huns with rifle at 50 yards, great sport”.
Snell is one of the pivots of Charley’s War – he is the personification of the upper-class that prolonged the war to its pointless conclusion at such high cost.
Sergeant ‘Ole Bill’ Tozer
Charley’s beloved and inimitable platoon sergeant who ruled his men harshly but fairly. His name and look was probably based on Bruce Bairnsfathers ‘old Bill’ the cartoon anti-hero of the day. Old Bill was the father figure to Charley right through to the end of the war. He once lost his stripes for a while for falling out during a route march. Tozer also went to Russia with Bourne in 1919.
Bill loved a pint and a game of the illegal Crown and Anchor – typical of the men of the time.
Old Bill was a great character simply because he was so typical of the regular soldier type of that era – I remember where Charley and Tozer go on leave together after the Somme and Tozer wants to buy a drink for Charley – he says something like “only one though, what with me being an NCO and you a private anymore would be a break down in protocol.”
Old Bill with an early character. Note the narrative. The father/son relationship of the sergeant and soldier in the ‘old Empire’ days is something that has always fascinated me. Mills used Tozer to great effect within the story, almost as a walking rulebook with a big heart. In the interim between the Wars Charley bumped into him working as a Cinema Usher, when the Second War started he joined the Home Gaurd. Brilliant character.
Smithy and Young Albert
Smith 70 was a great eccentric character who was into all things ‘a bit technical’. His number two on his beloved machine gun was Young Albert who always wanted to ‘have a go’ but never had enough ‘experience’. How he got his name I don’t know (When I was a kid I used to think he was actually 70 years old and hence ‘young’ Albert!) but I think it’s simply that Smith is such a common name and therefore they had to be numbered.
In Dunn’s The War the Infantry Knew this happened with the Jones’s in the regiment (a Welsh one)! so I think it’s probably how Smithy got his name.
The developement of their characters evolved more after Mills saw Joe Colquhoun’s artistic interpretation of them. During the battle of the Somme Smithy transferred to the Tank Corps for a while.
Smith 70 and young Albert where two characters who added some vital humour into the story, at times that it was very dark-although they appeared so infrequently that it never turned the story into parody. They cropped up usually with some mad scheme of Smithy’s like the ‘water listening device’ or the famous ‘killer rats’.
Smith 70 may have been based (visually) on John Lennon in the film How I Won the War.
Last seen in 1918 in a very technical motorcycle/sidecar MG setup. Shame they never reappeared – perhaps Mills had planned to use them had he continued.
My favourite character of all (and the origin of my cat’s name). Blue was a villain who had joined the French Foreign Legion to escape conviction. He met Charley after he surprised him as he was breaking into his house.
He tells the judgmental Charley his life-story and they become firm friends with the common ground being the hatred of the waste of lives in France.
Blue reappeared two years later when it turned out he was one of the ringleaders of the Etaples mutiny.
Blue, to me, was a vital character because he was a deserter, yet (like the real-life person he was based on, Monocled Mutineer Percy Toplis) was no coward and had been in the front-line, fought his war but saw no point in dying for nothing so walks away.
Looking back, Blue was a thinking version of Charley. Blue was his bad side. For instance, during the plot regarding the Etaples base camp mutiny where Blue is one of the ringleaders, Pat Mills has Charley agreeing with the cause but he just cannot quite bring himself to join the violence and mayhem completely so he remains an enthusiastic observer. Meanwhile, Blue is leading the assault on the commandant’s office along with Weeper and one or two other mates of his…
Scene: Old Bill and Charley the night of the riot.
Old Bill: Bourne – get your kit on and get on the bridge as part of the armed guard to make sure this rabble don’t break out and enter the town”
Charley: Well Sarge, I was thinking…. I think the cause and demands are fair and I agree with the mutineers… I think.”
Old Bill: Think lad? Who gave you permission to think? What’s the point of a soldier that thinks? Forget that notion son, sharpish! Just you let me do the thinking and you stick with the doing, now get your kit grab your rifle and do as your told or else.
Charley: Yes Sarge, Sorry Sarge.”
Blue was the character Charley would have been were it not for the instilled resignation to his fate that he could never shake. The two are really the same apart from that. Blue was named, I think, after the colour of the French greatcoat, but wow, is it not the coolest name ever?
‘Oily’ or ‘Oliver’
Another of Charley’s enemies. Oily was his brother-in-law and was a smooth talking crook that Charley first met when he was called up into the same platoon. He instantly became a pest and was a coward through and through.
In the end he got home with a self-inflicted wound after letting a tank roll over his foot on the Somme. Due to loyalty to his sister Dolly, Charley kept quiet about it, but hated him ever since. Great character. It was because Oily had a racket helping deserters escape that Charley met Blue.
Oily’s only motivation is money – he could never understand the morals and scruples that Charley has. For that alone he is typical of most people in any era!
If Captain Snell was the personification of the upper classes, then Oliver was the embodiment of the greed and profiteering during the War.
He continued with his black marketing buisness in the Second World War – storing the stuff at Charley’s home – Kate being too distraught over their son being reported as missing to care. (thanks to Chris for the info)
The Bourne Family
Another of Mill’s play on words was Charley’s surname ‘a proper Charley born”(geddit?). All his family are here – his Mum, who worked in a munitions factory not far from their home in Silvertown in the east end of London, his Dad who was a special Policeman, his sister Dolly (who married Oliver), and troublesome younger brother Wilf.
Wilf was desperate to join up and tried several times but was rejected due to his age. Eventually Oliver arranged false papers and he joined up in time for the third battle of Ypres where he was wounded. He transferred to the Flying Corps and was killed in 1918. Wilf was a great character because he is also a thinking version of Charley. Charley goes to the Somme and comes home on leave totally changed in his attitudes to war. He then does everything he can to stop him joining up. “Look Wilf, don’t waste your life, you were always the one with brains,” he says. “I know I’m a bit thick and probably arent coming back from France in the long run, but that’s how it is. Don’t waste your brains lying rotting in France like I will be. Do something with your life!”
(If you’re discovering the story for the first time…I told you this Pat Mills geezer was a genius didn’t I?)
Another of Charley’s mates, so called because of his weeping eyes caused by being gassed. Charley first met weeper in this picture at the time of the Ypres battle; he later worked with him when he became Captain Snell’s servant. Weeper later joined Blue and deserted at the time of the Etaples mutiny. Charley risked being caught as a deserter when he saved Weeper’s life when the latter was on the run after the riots. Weeper was hit by a military policeman’s entrenching tool and Charley took him to the deserter’s hideout “sanctuary”.
In the end Weeper was killed by a character called Gunboat who had led the Police to the ‘Sanctuary’. Gunboat accused Charley of leading the Police there and tried to stab him. Weeper stepped in the way of the knife and was killed instead. (many thanks to Paul Daniel for the info)
One of his talents was throwing his voice after working as a ventriloquist in the dancehalls of London before the war. Weeper was another great Character because of his realism. He is typical of his time.
Charley’s wife. Kate met Charley when he was in hospital after accidentally shooting himself through the foot whilst in Ypres in 1917 (and wrongly accused of cowardice afterwards). She was a nurse in the ward where they treated self-inflicted wounds. She gave him a white feather because her fiancé had been killed in Gallipoli 1915 and she hated cowards. He met up with her again in a hospital in England where he met Captain Snell again. A realistic character, and a typical woman in my opinion; she treats you like a bitch, then you marry her!
These, of course are not all of the characters in the story. I felt that they were the most consistent over the years.
Charley’s War created by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun
CHARLEY’S WAR ™ REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, COPYRIGHT © REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.