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MBTM Blog: The Real Charles Bourne Part 1

The Men Behind the Medals: The Real Charles Bourne - Part 1

With our new exhibition, Into Battle: The Art of British War Comics, opening recently this special installment of the Men Behind the Medals blog looks at the service of Private Charles Bourne.

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.


Robert Charles Bourne was born on the 27th Sept 1878 in Birmingham, the son of Robert Hoper Bourne & Ann Eliza his wife and had two brothers.


Charles married Alice Beatrice Williams in Birmingham in April 1900, and the next year they were recorded in the 1901 Census living in Selly Oak, with Charles working as a wood turner. Their first child – Chares Roland – was born in April 1904 in Atcham, Shrops, although at that time the family lived in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. Their second child – Pauline Ruby – was also born there in 1908, but the next child – Rose Marjorie -was born in Littlemore in 1913. There was one other daughter – Ivy Cleopatra – born in Headington, Oxford in December 1915.

Men of the Oxf. & Bucks LI march through Oxford during the Great War

When war broke out in August 1914, the family were living in Chapel Lane, Littlemore, with Charles still a wood turner/carpenter.  Like many men, Charles joined the Army, being attested on 27th July 1915 in Oxford into the Oxf. & Bucks Light Infantry as Private 19308, and joining the 3rd Battalion on the 4th August 1915, one of some 241 men who joined the 3rd from the Depot that month. At some stage, there was an added note on his records of his wish to join the RFC as a wood turner/fitter – a request which was never granted.


The 3/1st Battalion was set up to handle recruitment & training for the two front line Territorial Buckinghamshire Battalions – the 1/1st and the 2/1st. After being formed, the 3/1st moved to the Portsmouth area and were based in Cambridge Barracks, Portsmouth. So, after a initial spell at the Depot in Cowley, Oxford, Pte Bourne would have joined the 3/1st on the south coast for a few months further training. Pte Bourne’s only entry on his army “crime sheet” was recorded with the 3rd Bn on 20th November 1915 at Portsmouth, when he was noted as being late on parade for a 03.00 muster prior to a route march – for which he was given 3 days confined to barracks.


On the 17th December 1915 Pte Bourne landed in France, posted to the 2nd Bn, but only joining them on the 4th January 1916 when he was allocated to Captain Boardman’s “C” Company. At this time the 2nd Bn were resting near St Hilaire, having taken heavy casualties at Givenchy in September, but were soon to return to the trenches at Festubert near Bethune.  They remained there until the end of February 1916, when they were moved south to the Angres front, north of Vimy, holding the line previously held by the French Army. With four days in the trenches in a quiet sector, rotated with four days in reserve, the 2nd didn’t see a lot of combat but there was a steady stream of casualties, and the weather was terrible.

Soldiers from Charles' battalion in their trenches at Givenchy, September 1915

After four months near Vimy, in late July 1916 Pte Bourne and the 2nd were on the move again, south to the Somme Front where a major offensive had already opened. On the 30th July they were part of an attack near Delville Wood on Guillemont Station, The attack went in at 04.45 and heavy German artillery & machine gun fire caused heavy casualties with no real gain to the attackers. Reportedly, some of C Company managed to reach the Station, but none of them returned when the attack failed with some 217 casualties.


We continue the Real Charles Bourne's story next week. Already he has seen bitter fighting on the Western Front, much like Charley did in the comic. As we'll see, this will not be the first battle Charles fights in that sees his battalion take many casualties. Charley's War was notable for its unflinching realism in depicting the human cost of the First World War, with Charley losing many friends along the way.

Artwork from Charley's War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun ©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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