GRIN AND BEAR IT – The Centenary of Old Bill
To the ordinary soldier, humour was as essential an armament as his rifle or his bayonet. It was a defensive weapon, vital to staving off the despair or descent to insanity … the logical reactions to the surrounding hellishness.
Patrick Bishop Historian and author
A HIGH EXPLOSIVE OF MIRTH
On September 15th 1915 I should like to claim the event of the greater strategic impact took place not in France or Flanders but in Fleet Street. The Bystander magazine printed a cartoon. No need to take my word for it. Here’s General Sir Ian Hamilton “The creator of Old Bill has rendered great service to his Country, both as a soldier and as one who has done much to lighten the darkest hour.” A later drawing in the same series was chosen by Tim Benson, founder of the Political Cartoon Society, as one of his ten favourite cartoons. He wrote for History Today “Nowhere else (other than UK) does the cartoon have such an impact … No other medium, written or visual comes close to capturing moments in history more …”
To be truthful, Old Bill emerged only gradually from his famous shell-hole. Mark Warby, leading authority on Bruce Bairnsfather, explained to me “Although the cartoon you have chosen is one of the most familiar early representations the character really just developed though the drawings. He wasn’t referred to as ‘Bill’ until 16 February 1916.”
The man who had created the character would go on to become “the most famous cartoonist in the world.” Old Bill was the creation of Bruce Bairnsfather. For someone who never lived permanently in Shropshire, his love affair with the place extended for over 50 years – especially his beloved ‘Clun country.’ We are also very fortunate in our legacy of his paintings and murals.
LOVE OF NATURE
Mark Warby has been fascinated by Bairnsfather since a school project in Redditch. He has identified some fitting quotations from him on his love of nature “(I) have finally concluded that there is no pleasure that brings one so near ecstasy as being in the country on a still, sunny summer’s morning, when it is yet hazy from evaporating dew. Listening to the songs of birds and the drone of passing bees. Being aware of the smells of honeysuckle and the smoke from a distant bonfire.”
And then came the War … The bonfire smoke had been replaced by the stink of cordite, the drone of bees by the rattle of machine guns and the scent of honeysuckle by mustard gas. Bairnsfather had previously tried and abandoned a military career; as a second lieutenant with the 5th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regt (Militia). In February 1908 he resigned to become an artist. Now he was back as a machine-gun officer.
Trying to understand the phenomenal success of his work; there are no rose-tinted spectacles. Bill Tidy, creator of cartoon strips which celebrate his own working class roots, highlights Bairnsfather’s rare talent for the humorous portrayal of universal suffering: “The acceptance of awfulness, I think, is what comes to soldiers after a while. None of Bairnsfather’s work is condescending. This is the way people spoke and this is the way they acted. He knows when to drop an ‘h’ and it works; it stands the test of time.”
One reason must be his putting up with the same privations as Old Bill and his comrades. “It was a long and weary night, that first one of mine in the trenches. Everything was strange and wet and horrid.” Bruce Bairnsfather, Bullets & Billets (1916). His specialist role gave him a privileged view of the battlefield. “No one gets a better idea of the general lie of the position than a machine-gun officer. In those early, primitive days, when we had so few … these had to be sprinkled about a position to the best possible advantage … people like myself had to cover a considerable amount of ground before our rambles in the dark each night were done.”
A HOUSEHOLD NAME
That first winter of the war, he turned his words into sketches. He sent off a drawing to The Bystander magazine. “Where did that one go to?” was published in March 1915. A month later Bairnsfather was wounded and sent home. The magazine asked for more drawings. It could not have come at a better time, within a year he would be famous.
The Bystander soon began to feature his Fragments from France regularly. They were loved both by the men at the Front and their families. Bairnsfather’s most famous cartoon “Well if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it” was published on 24 November 1915. Two soldiers are sharing the same shell-hole on the battlefield.
Despite the odd outburst in the House of Commons, “these vulgar caricatures of our heroes,” from 1916 he was attached to the War Office Intelligence Department as an ‘Officer Cartoonist’ and in this capacity toured the Allied fronts. Somehow laughing in the face of death became official policy.
NO DUG-OUT, BILLET OR MESS ROOM WILL BE COMPLETE WITHOUT IT
(The Bystander ad for 48 page Fragments from France January 1916)
The Bystander listened to its readers. “Letters we have received by the score from officers and men on active service in all the theatres, assure us that nothing since the war began presents the actual facts and feelings of the fighting men so realistically or so humorously as do these sketches by one of themselves … (my emphasis)”. Within a month the first and second editions had sold out and the third edition was “nearly sold out.” By the middle of March, 150,000 copies had been sold. By the end of the month this had risen to 200,000. Twelve editions of the first volume of Fragments from France were produced.
After the War a former infantry officer Sidney Rogerson seemed to hit the target. “One of the remarkable characteristics of the British soldier, that when by every law of nature he would have been utterly weary and ‘fed-up’ he invariably managed to be almost truculently cheerful.”
When the fourth volume appeared end August 1917; nearly two million copies of the Fragments had been sold. 60,000 copies were being shipped to the Dominions, Colonies and America. Almost overnight Bruce Bairnsfather became a household name. On the back of this fame, sales of what we would call “character merchandise” took off. The Bystander also produced a whole range of postcards, jigsaws, colour prints, playing cards, and calendars.
Towards the end of 1917 The Bystander granted Grimwade’s Ltd, Stoke-on-Trent a licence for the production of the cartoons on a range of Bairnsfather Ware; a butter dish, plates, teapots, flower pots, jugs and tobacco jars. It was another immediate success, and for the rest of the war, Grimwades potteries churned out thousands of pieces. The Pottery Gazette was far-sighted “it is almost inevitable that most people will want to put by pieces of this ware as a reminder to their children and children’s children of the most stressful period in the world’s history.” Bairnsfather would become a collectible. A hundred years later I saw a definitive display of the ware at the Royal Shakespeare theatre in Stratford.
Bairnsfather was more than a cartoonist. In a career lasting over forty years he performed many parts. He was an accomplished author, playwright and lecturer. Between 1920 and 1950 he undertook eleven lecture tours of America and Canada. He appeared in vaudeville in America, and in variety in England. In the 1920’s he was one of the first celebrities to be recorded talking on film in America. He lived almost permanently in New York from 1926 to 1932 and worked for many publications such as Life and The New Yorker. In the 1930’s much of his work appeared in The Passing Show magazine, later Illustrated. He also contributed to the British Legion Journal.