My Journey From Charley’s War to Ragtime Soldier
This is the edited transcript of a talk I gave at the Dundee V&A last week to introduce the comic GREAT WAR DUNDEE, which includes my RAGTIME SOLDIER with fantastic art by GARY WELSH and PHIL VAUGHAN, a natural successor to CHARLEY’S WAR.
There will be copies of the comic available next month from COMIC SCENE UK and also PDF versions shortly from Dundee University.
The question that is central to RAGTIME SOLDIER is… WHY?
It’s a question that is rarely asked in war comics or indeed war films or books. It’s about time it was answered.
Great War Dundee comic. Cover art: Ian Kennedy
The anti-war serial Charley’s War with its brilliant art by Joe Colqouhoun was the number one serial in a comic called Battle during the 1980s. This is remarkable because Battle was a war comic and generally had a ‘war is hell’ or ‘war is exciting’ style to its stories. Charley’s War was the first anti-war story. It left a deep impression on its young readers. And persuaded many of them from military families not to enlist in the army. It led to even more readers becoming History Teachers, passing on its anti-war message to new generations. The collected editions are still best sellers today.
Significantly, Charley’s War my saga still endorsed the widely held view on the Great War that most of us believed in the 1980s. Namely that it was a futile, tragic slaughter and its Generals were stupid and incompetent. But, as we’ll see, there was far more to the conflict.
From a comics pov, that seemed like the last word. What was else was there to say? So I really thought my job was done. And I moved onto other subjects that I feel strongly about such as Third World politics, writing Third World War for the comic Crisis, due to be reprinted next year.
Then attitudes began to change in the 1990s thanks to Revisionism, a powerful movement amongst Modern Historians strongly supported by the State.
The Revisionists, particularly in the Centenary Years, began presenting WW1 as a ‘Just War’ and the Generals as misunderstood men of vision. Despite all the considerable evidence to the contrary.
Thus there was BBC One’s ‘The Somme – From Defeat to Victory’ ??!!! Books about General Haig suddenly started appearing, often written by military men, with titles like: Haig – the Good Soldier. Douglas Haig – Architect of Victory.
If you’re an historian and you want to get into print, write about how great Haig was and publishers will queue up for your book.
It was like they were trying to put the clock back and revive the questionable glories of the British Empire. So I felt I really had to write a new WW1 comic strip to challenge Revisionism and so I submitted various comic proposals to publishers, based on the commercial success of Charley’s War.
They didn’t get anywhere and it slowly began to dawn on me there was a media blackout on anything anti-war during the Centenary Years.
Four media projects on Charley’s War – including a proposed television series from a major production company – mysteriously hit a brick wall.
This blackout applied to any existing anti-war films, too. Examples – Monocled Mutineer; Oh, What a Lovely War; Blackadder Goes Forth. They were rarely, if ever, shown on terrestrial British TV.
It wasn’t enough for the Revisionists to heavily promote their one-sided point of view: they had to silence the opposition.
All this made me look much closer at the reasons for the Great War, which I’d hitherto blindly accepted.
We are presented with only two basic reasons.
First, there’s the ‘sleepwalking into war’ reason. A war that turned into a disaster and was fought by ‘Lions led by Donkeys’
And today’s reason… the Revisionists patriotic, necessary war against Imperial German evil. Fighting for Freedom in alliance with France and – er – Tsarist Russia. It was conducted by Generals of vision working under incredibly difficult circumstances. Their actions were misunderstood, rather than stupid and ultimately led to a magnificent victory.
After, er … five long years of slaughter.
But neither of these reasons make complete sense if you really think about them. And you do not have to be an expert or a historian to figure it out. It’s nowhere near as complicated as you might think. That’s just detail. It’s possible for any single one of us to work it out for ourselves using our intuition and our common sense.
Haig was indeed incompetent with a cruel arrogance, but he was not quite the idiot he’s presented as in the hilarious Black Adder Goes Forth.
For instance, he knew about the terrible power of the machine gun at first hand. He fought at the Battle of Omdurman when just 48 British soldiers were killed while the Sudanese Enemy lost nearly 11, 000 men, many to the machine gun. As for the new trench war, he, or at least his military staff, would have known about the realities and the stalemate of trench warfare from the American Civil War.
And yet at Loos, he knowingly, knowingly, sent all those courageous young men – including Dundee’s Black Watch to certain death, to be machine gunned in No Man’s Land. German machine gunners were screaming at them to go back and refusing to fire anymore.
Similarly, he – or his subordinates – ordered the release of poison gas from British trenches when they knew the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. They knew. So it blew back and asphyxiated many soldiers in the Black Watch.
Why would any General – even a stupid one – do that?
What does our common sense, our intuition tell us? I know what mine tells me.
The battle of Loos was set up to fail. Just like all the great battles that followed which have a very similar story. The Somme. Ypres. Passchendaele.
So this leads to a third reason and conclusion that also make chilling sense and is rarely written about, never discussed and is central to Ragtime Soldier
That the war was started deliberately and deliberately prolonged for four murderous years beyond 1914. For profit, power, and to crush social unrest.
The deliberate war was widely recognised at the time. There was the great journalist E.D. Morel who previously exposed genocide in the Belgian Congo and became a Dundee MP after the war. I pointed Morel’s view out to leading Revisionist Gary Sheffield who simply told me Morel was mistaken. He wasn’t.
Even the poet and war hero Siegfried Sassoon accused the British Government, “I believe that the war is being being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.’ Because he was a foxhunting pillar of the establishment, they put him in a mental hospital. An ordinary soldier would have been shot.
Today, I’m only aware of one excellent book that reveals this third reason. Just one – which is worrying in itself. It’s by Jim McGregor and Gerry Doherty. It’s called Prolonging the Agony and was a major inspiration for Ragtime Soldier and a WW1 novel I’m writing next year. Jim is in our audience here today. Thank you, Jim.
To give you an idea of its importance, James Corbett of the Corbett report produced a film based on Jim and Gerry’s books about WW1.
It has had half a million views. Half a million people wanted to know the truth the Revisionists have concealed.
Through Prolonging the Agony, we get an insight into how the truth of the Great War was carefully hidden. So many key documents that are now missing, destroyed or locked away forever. So many war conferences where the details are mysteriously unrecorded or redacted.
Now if a book is really damning, the Establishment and their Revisionist front men have only one option which is to blank it. They dare not open the subject to debate. And that’s what’s happened.
Responding to Jim and Gerry’s books the media silence is deafening. Despite a film about their work that’s received half a million views. No reviews in the Guardian. Independent. Times. Telegraph. Nothing.
Their frightened, frightened silence is the greatest compliment to your books, Jim.
And Jim has a personal connection to the Battle of Loos, which I also wanted to share with you.
Jim told me recently… ‘My Granny Macgregor’s wee brother, James Louden, Private in the Highland Light Infantry, age 19, was killed at Loos on 2 Oct 1915. He has no known grave I can visit, but his name is on the Loos memorial (with 20,000 others with no known grave) and I’m hoping to go there on 2 Oct.’
So why cover up the truth about the Great War, you may ask?
Because today, Britain and America’s modern wars are similar ‘wars without end’ from Iraq and Afghanistan onwards.
And they really don’t want questions asked about them either.
The similarities between how the Great War started and these other wars started are remarkable. How Parliament and the Public was misled over Iraq, for example. Parliament and the Public was similarly misled by the Machiavellian British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey into joining in the Great War.
Nothing has changed.
And for exactly the same dark reasons as a hundred years ago – for profit and power – they are also deliberately prolonging the agony.
So, with this Media Blackout firmly in place, I had actually given up. I couldn’t see how to get past it. So you can imagine my surprise and delight when Chris and Phil asked me to write Ragtime Soldier about the Battle of Loos and the key election after the war.
Gary and Phil have done a fantastic job in visualising the conflict with the same power and humanity as Joe Colquhoun.
That humanity is reflected in our title. The Tommies called themselves Ragtime Soldiers. Ragtime music was the rock’n’roll of its day. It was hot, sexy and parents, of course, hated it.
Our story suggests the incompetence of the Battle of Loos was deliberate.
Just as Jim and Gerry show clearly in their book how the incompetence at the Battle of Gallipolli was deliberate.
Unfit Generals were needed to prolong the war. The more incompetent the better. If that seems unlikely, I’ve seen similar things happen in industry – notably in comic publishing – so we really shouldn’t be surprised.
Germany tried to stop the conflict by offering a negotiated peace, which was regularly turned down. Because Britain wanted to destroy Germany utterly and came close to doing so by starving the country after the war.
Yet during the war, the British government was also, as a matter of record, trading war supplies with its enemy Germany. The binoculars the British artillery were using at Loos were supplied by the German army. German military vehicles were running on British supplied rubber tyres. All this is, of course, high treason.
The remarkable thing is Dundonians knew something of what was going on. Hence why Churchill lost the election here. Churchill, in 1915, the year of Loos, said he adored war. Loved it. Dundonians had a far clearer idea back then that we do today about our own wars. We might have blogs. Back then, they had pamphlets and they were often harder hitting than anything you’re likely to read today.
And like today, the people were bombarded with propaganda. The Spin Doctors of the time were novelist John Buchan and a Major Pollard who were telling the most revolting propaganda lies to make people hate the enemy.
Pollard – who is the key villain in Ragtime Soldier – was an officer in the British propaganda department MI7B. He proudly claimed he came up with the propaganda lie that the Germans were melting down their dead soldiers into soap. He joked to his cousin how the Germans were having a state funeral for a giant bar of soap and, as he related the story, he was almost doubled up on the floor with laughter.
I believe Pollard also came up with the story that the Germans replaced the clappers inside church bells with nuns tied upside down. And the story of Russian Troops arriving in Scotland still with snow on their boots.
He was a master of Black Propaganda, the kind of propaganda that is still used by our own Spin Doctors today – in Syria, for instance, with fake news about poison gas. He also faked photos of Republican atrocities in Ireland during the Irish War of Independence.
Later, he actually started the Spanish Civil War by rescuing General Franco from exile in the Canaries.
These were the kind of people who were bombarding the public with lies. Whipping up hatred towards conscientious objectors and pacifists. Pollard wrote articles for the Daily Express encouraging its readers to attack them as ‘conchies’, unpatriotic cowards.
But some ordinary people still saw through all these lies – particularly in Scotland. And especially in Dundee.
Thanks to Billy, I learned that Dundonian soldiers were surprisingly sympathetic to pacifists. That really impresses me. It shows they must have had great insight and knew what was really going on.
More insight than some soldiers have perhaps today. Colchester is my home town and it has a large garrison.
And I know if I walked down Colchester High Street in November wearing a white poppy for peace, I would not make it to the far end without being challenged. At the very least. I’ve checked with some Colchester soldiers and they’ve confirmed this is true. At first they didn’t know what the white poppy was. When it was explained to them, they saw it as a betrayal of what they stood for, which of course it isn’t. On the contrary.
In Dundee, at least, the soldiers saw pacifists in a very different and sympathetic light.
And these issues peak in Ragtime Soldier with the astonishing election in the Aftermath: Churchill loses. And two War Resisters win!
I say War Resisters because our media has shamefully turned Conscientious Objectors and Pacifists into negative words. Just like the white poppy. So I say Resisters now. Scrymgeour and Morel, who beat Churchill, were heroes of the British Resistance. Just like the heroes of the French Resistance. And that’s how we should see them – fighting against evil.
And that evil is personified in Ragtime Soldier with the vigilante organisation, the Legion of Frontiersmen. They really existed even though they sound like American super heroes.
They are led in the story by Major Pollard, who really was a cross between James Bond and Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser. And I am dying to write more about him. He is one of those villains we love to hate.
So Ragtime Soldier has more relevance today than even Charley’s War because it’s holding up a closer mirror to our understanding of modern wars.
And I feel we owe it to our forefathers to challenge the Revisionists lies and tell the truth about why all those brave young men really died.
Hence Ragtime Soldier and Great War Dundee comic. We’re reaching a young audience, just like the Charley’s War young audience. And we even have a way for Great War Dundee to reach a nationwide audience.
Through the magazine UK COMIC SCENE on sale in newsstands in October. And also available as a PDF through Dundee University.
We’ve beaten the Media Blackout.
And I’m so grateful to everyone who made it happen, particularly Chris, Phil, and Billy. Thank you.