on 27 July 2014
Pat Mills gets out of the sliced up circumstantial story-telling and manages to save Charley's mother first and then to get Charley entangled in some kind of deserter's escape from the military police led by the famous MP deserter catcher the Drag Man because of his brother in law who is the worst fink you can imagine. He is selling new identities to deserters for them to disappear and yet he does not hesitate if necessary to tip the military police about the deserters he has just served, as he will do in this particular case.
In fact this brother in law, Oiley, is the real anti-hero of this volume because he shows how a society can be exploited, and successfully so, by immoral, or rather amoral, people who could sell their own children if not their mothers to and on the meat market. But that does not make the comic strip and book any better because we know about that. It becomes circumstantial again in this volume and the author has managed to avoid getting into real politics. The bad side of this war is once again a bad man and not a system.
The story then is that of Blue, a French Foreign Legionnaire who is trying to desert after serving in Verdun during the battle. That's the perfect excuse for the author to develop a few themes.
First the French Foreign Legion and their strange rules of honor that are generally stamped into a simple choice: you do what the legion's rules say or you just die, executed by the first officer or the first legionnaire. Death is necessarily practically the only way out of the French Foreign Legion. That's the type of people you have there, people who accept to die in order to get out of it.
The second theme is the battle of Verdun itself. This time it is covered in the most superficial and narrow-viewed if not narrow-minded way you can imagine. Don't speak of the rebellion of French soldiers there, of the hundreds, some say thousands of French soldiers shot dead for refusing to fight on the direct command of General Pétain who is of course - and that "of course" is surprising for me because it reveals a tremendous emptiness in historical value of this comic book - NOT mentioned. The battle of Verdun was to become the turning point in the war, or could have been if the Russians on the eastern front had not entered a rebellious and then revolutionary stance of refusing to fight, liberating German troops for the western front. But true enough that is some time later for this episode. Maybe in due time he will consider that alternative to the war: soldiers refusing to fight, though he had the opportunity to consider it in Verdun and he did not.
It is regrettable because the author does not bother to look into French politics that were so directly, obviously, blindingly (that's maybe why he did not seem them) present in this battle. Just as he avoided doing it in the English case, he avoids doing it in the French case, and what's more he take the case of a Legionnaire called Blue who is a British citizen originally who was from the scum of society in England. We are again here in the pro-British approach that has to be British through and through. That Blue is chased as a deserter in England, London exactly, by the English Military Police, and he is English originally which makes the story telling slightly more believable since he can speak English. But once again that is circumstantial and deprives the story of any political and even historical value.
The third element is the role of Senegalese soldiers in this battle of Verdun. They are used as laboratory animals or even rats and sent in the first wave of attack to see how they can behave in front of German fire, and they are purely sacrificed because they haven't even been trained to possible machine gun fire. They are saved because Blue again manages to take his fellow-legionnaires along against the order of the officer and the Legionnaires save the day for the Senegalese and a few lives among them. Actually they also prompt the offensive against the Germans by opening up a gap in the German offensive itself.
The battle around the Fort de Vaux, besieged by the Germans in the first phase of the battle of Verdun is once again an episode that is told more or less for the sake of the French Foreign Legion, for the sake of Blue's characterization and for the sake of showing the diabolical relations among these men who are all criminals of some kind who manage to survive together and fight together in the most heroic way at times though they hate their guts in all possible ways, but it is for them the only possibility to survive some more before getting out by dying or being killed.
Charley manages to bring Blue to some escape route, but Blue is a French Foreign Legionnaire for ever and he will go back to France and reenlist under a new fake name as only the French Foreign Legion permits. At the same time the Drag Man who was coming behind them dies of a heart attack and he is the only one who knows Charley in this desertion episode, apart from his father who had covered him earlier in the escape because he cannot stand the Military Police.
So what's left about this for once unified volume?
Not much after all.
The balance of the battle of Verdun: "OVER A MILLION SOLDIERS FELL DURING THE BATTLE FO VERDUN... THE GRIMMEST BATTLE OF ALL TIMES. OF THE 45,000 FOREIGN LEGIONNAIRES WHO FOUGHT IN THE WAR... OVER 30,000 WERE KILLED." Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, that's short, very short. And what about the Senegalese? They have disappeared from the balance and must be unlisted losses or something like that, what some descendents of these colonized soldiers call in France, the Natives of the Republic.
And then the Drag Man, a connoisseur about such things and an experienced man in all kinds of horror, is attributed this final judgment: "BUT THERE ARE NO CLEAN WAYS TO KILL... WHEN YOU'VE SEEN MEN SLICED IN HALF BY SHELL OR EXPLODING FROM A DUM DUM BULLET, YOU KNOW THAT ALL WAR IS DIRTY!" The only surprising and very significant element in this declaration is the singular "all war is dirty" though we would have expected the plural. The meaning then is that nothing at all in any war at all can be seen as clean and that's a very sad statement because all wars ARE dirty but in all wars there are some MIRACULOUS AND LUMINOUS episodes because even diabolical war cannot destroy all humanity and humane feelings in the soldiers ... AND .... in the civilians.
It is small details like this one that shows the author is not even clear about his condemnation of war as such. He more or less defends a moral stance that makes him turn ideological because he does not see that any war is dirty but any war also covers and contains a purely human contradiction because the libido of any man, their power to love and feel empathy, is able to survive in any situation where the death instinct of man is running high and dominant.
But the most frustrating element remains that decision to keep on a moralistic level and to refuse to go down into the mud of politics or economics, into the muck of history because history is necessarily mucky and a quagmire of contradictory ambitions, desires, perversions and all other possible human feelings, positive and negative, not to mention the passions of man's mind.
Well, at least that was a change by the full unity of the volume.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU