Charley’s War: Hitler’s Youth (Titan)

The latest collection of Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s war comic strip places two ordinary British soldiers in the trenches with the man who would later lead the Third Reich.

 

112 pgs., B&W; $19.95
(W: Pat Mills; A: Joe Colquhoun)
 
Charley’s War, a comic written by Pat Mills (Marshal Law) and drawn by Joe Colquhoun, is a war comic for people (such as myself) who don’t normally read war comics. It offers a view of World War I from the point of view of two ordinary British soldiers: Charley Bourne, a sniper in the trenches on the Western Front, and his brother Wilf, a gunner-observer (similar to what we would call a tail-gunner) in the Royal Flying Corps. Charley’s War was originally published from 1979 to 1985, and is now available in a series of large-format volumes from Titan. There’s plenty of action to please any fan of the genre, but also enough depth of characterization and concern for historical detail to keep people like myself interested. I particularly like the grunt’s-eye view of war and the lack of cinematic heroism (although, of course, the servicemen are heroic simply by doing their jobs), as well as the chance to see an alternative view of the war that contrasts with what I remember from my American history textbooks.
 
The story begins with young Charley lying about his age (16) to enlist in the British Army, and in previous volumes he experiences, among other things, the Battle of the Somme, the Third Battle of Ypres, and the British Army Mutiny at the Étaples training camp. In volume 8, Hitler’s Youth, Charley finds himself serving in the trenches opposite the man who would go on to be the architect of the Third Reich. As presented in this comic, Hitler is a sort of proto-Eichmann who takes it upon himself to embody the perceived wishes of his commanding officers, making him a fanatic among a crew of otherwise ordinary trench soldiers. Colquhoun makes sure you can pick Hitler out of the crowd, basing his portrayal not on photographic evidence from the period (in which he had a longer mustache) but as the iconic Hitler of the 1930’s. It’s sort of surprising given the level of detail and care for authenticity in Colquhoun’s work in this series (which offers a highly realistic view of life in the trenches) but can be forgiven as artistic license.
 
Life in the trenches is not glamorized in Charley’s War, and neither is life in the Royal Flying Corps. There’s a fair amount of treachery and incompetence portrayed in both branches of the service, and the officer class is satirized for enjoying a five-course Christmas meal while the grunts in the trenches have to make do with a bit of donated cake. You also get a history lesson in matters like the use of periscopes and how to set up a sniper operation to avoid detection, as well as the pecking order among observers and the types of punishment handed out to those who were derelict in their duties. To the credit of both artist and writer, each character is distinct and there’s a great sense of place and period, so you feel almost as if you were down in the trenches, or up in a biplane, alongside the characters. A six-page essay by Steve White about Hitler’s early life and war service is fascinating reading, and commentary by writer Pat Mills on the strip provides more background on the events portrayed as well as a retrospective view on the writing and art. The historical information alone makes this comic worth following if you have any interest in the period, and for Americans it provides an alternative view of a war which is far more significant in European history than it is in our own. | Sarah Boslaugh

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