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MBTM Blog – The Real Charles Bourne Part 2

The Men Behind the Medals: The Real Charles Bourne - Part 2

With our new exhibition, Into Battle: The Art of British War Comics, opening recently this special installment of the Men Behind the Medals blog continues the story of a real Private Charles Bourne, serving with 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry during the First World War. If you've not read Part 1, you can find it here.

One of the comics which features heavily in the new exhibition is Charley's War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun. Originally published in Battle Picture Weekly in the late seventies and eighties, the strip became regarded by many as one of the best british comics. It sees title character Charley Bourne join up underage, before quickly seeing combat in The Battle of the Somme. While working with Oxford-based Rebellion Publishing on the new exhibition, we discovered a real-life Charlie Bourne had signed up with the county regiment, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Though this real life story diverges from that of the fictional Charley - he was no boy soldier, for instance - the breadth of the conflict portrayed and the detail included in the comic means you may spot a few similarities.



After a couple of weeks to recover and rebuild, Charles Bourne's Battalion, 2nd Bn, Oxf & Bucks LI, moved to a different section of the Somme Front: Beaumont/Serre. Here they alternated again with a few days in the trenches and a few days in reserve. On 13th November they took part in another major offensive known as the Battle of the Ancre. They were part of the force detailed to attack a major defensive strongpoint known as The Redan, with the 2nd OBLI supporting a Royal Fusilier unit. The attack commenced at the late time of 05.45 and a heavy mist confused the attackers and hindered movement. Although the initial objectives were taken, the attack stalled amidst fierce fighting in Munich Trench, with the 2nd nearly surrounded by the German counterattack. A withdrawal to the original start line was made, but the 2nd again suffered heavily with 248 casualties – including Pte Bourne’s Company Commander, Capt Littledale. Immediately after this, Pte Bourne was granted home leave of one week.


Charles' medical record shows that he was then hospitalised for a week from 21st December 1916, re-joining his unit on the 27th December, when the 2nd Bn were billeted in Fontaine sur Maye. His medical records do not provide any detail, but his later pension card mentions a gunshot wound to the head, so this is possibly the reason for hospitalisation. Whilst in hospital, Pte Bourne also received treatment for a corneal ulcer.

The 2nd Battalion’s records show that in the year ending December 1916, they had suffered 341 casualties. By mid January 1917, the 2nd Bn (and Pte Bourne) were back in the front line at Pozieres, and took part in the next attack on the Ancre on the 17th February – which was also a failure.


Following this, by April 1917, the 2nd Bn along with the rest of 2nd Division were moved north to the Arras sector in preparation for the next offensive which became known as the Battle of Arras.  They took part in the 1st Battle of the Scarpe in early April 1917, the Battle of Arleux in late April and then the 3rd Scarpe in early May.

A photograph from Arras, taken earlier in the war.

On the 21st June 1917 the battalion then moved north once more, and by July were in the trenches near Bethune. It was there on the 12th July that they suffered a very heavy gas shell attack with about 20 casualties. The 2nd served in the front line here – roughly 6 days in the trenches followed by 6 days in support – until the 1st November 1917, when they moved north to Marles Les Mines, before entraining for a move back south to the Arras sector again.

An Oxf & Bucks LI NCO models a gas mask during the Great War

On the 2nd November 1917, Pte Bourne was sent on detachment for a week to a Tank Corps unit, the reasons not being explained in his records. However, following this he was back with the 2nd Bn in time for the move south. The 2nd moved back to the Arras sector, but Pte Bourne was not with them long, entering hospital again on the 3rd December 1917 with severe diarrhoea.


After treatment, he spent a week at the Base Depot in Rouen, before reporting back to the 2nd Bn on 14th January 1918. In February 1918, Pte Bourne was awarded 12 days leave at home in the UK, reporting back for duty on the 19th.


However, in March 1918 Pte Bourne was once again sent off to hospital, specifically the 16th General Hospital in Le Treport. His medical record notes “debility”, which was used to cover a wide range of problems including physical weakness, muscle loss and weight loss. With his physical condition worsening, Charles Bourne was judged as not being fit for a front-line infantry unit, and on 30th March he was posted home to the Base Dept again before being posted to the 3rd Bn on 17th June 1918.

Soldiers parade through Oxford during Peace celebrations in 1918.

Pte Bourne was subsequently transferred to the Labour Corps (as Pte 663426) on 15th October 1918. He served initially in 583 Coy, before being posted to 578 HQ Coy in Tunbridge Wells on 29th November 1918, and was finally discharged from the Army on 10th May 1919.


Following his discharge from the Army, he was judged to be 30% disabled from a gunshot wound to the head, and awarded a small pension which would be reviewed after a year. Sadly, his wife Alice died in June 1923, but Charles remarried in November 1929 to Nellie Derby, a lady some 20 years younger than him.


Charles was still married when recorded in the 1939 Register, with them living in Vauxhall Rd, Birmingham with his daughter Ivy, and with Charles still working as a wood turner & cabinet maker. He was also recorded as being an ARP Warden.


In later years, through the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Charles lived with his brother Reginald in Dawlish Rd, Selly Oak, Birmingham.  Reginald was some 11 years younger than Charles, was also a wood turner and had served in the Royal Field Artillery in the war.  Charles Bourne died in February 1980 in Birmingham, some 101 years old.

'Charley's War, Cover art from Battle Action, 1979 (© Rebellion Publishing IP Limited)


In the Men Behind the Medals blog series, SOFO Museum’s Research volunteers look at the stories behind some of the medal sets in the museum’s collection, from those that can be seen on a visit in our dedicated Medals display, to some of those that are still tucked away in the archive.

SOFO’s Research volunteers respond to enquiries we receive through our Research Service, helping people find out more about their relatives who served in the county regiments, and raising funds to support the museum in the process. Using a combination of the museum’s records and those available elsewhere, they piece together stories like this one.


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