Saturday, 26 November 2016

From Mud to Mufti - The Forgotten Cartoonist of World War One

Lt. Bruce Bairnsfather
The past couple of years have seen a lot of attention paid to various anniversaries associated with the First World War.  While looking through a web-site on cartoons of the Great War I came across a name I'd never heard before, the name of a man who was as popular in his time as a TV or movie star and yet is now almost totally forgotten.  

Bruce Bairnsfather, had movies made about him, had his creations as heavily merchandised as almost any movie or television show and had such an effect on troop morale that he was described by newspapers as "the man who won the war".  His first compilation of cartoons, “Fragments from France”, published in January 1916 sold over a million copies.

Bairnsfather was a cartoonist, one whose morale boosting impact on the men in the trenches led to him and his creation "Old Bill" becoming among the best known names of the later war years.

Had it not been for the war it is likely that Bairnsfather would have been a nameless artist, who might have had a few cartoons published in one of the weekly magazines of his time but it’s unlikely he would ever have achieved the public prominence that he did.

He'd been born into a military family, having spent much of his early life in India before being educated at the United Services College at Westward Ho! beginning in 1895.  He failed the entrance exams to both Sandhurst and Woolwich military academies but briefly joined the Cheshire Regiment anyway, leaving in 1907 to become a full-time artist, working mainly on advertising material.

Bairnsfather's drawing of the Christmas Day Truce sketched on the day itself.
At the outbreak of in 1914 he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a second lieutenant and served with a Machine-Gun unit in the front lines.  At Christmas of the that year he was part of the famous Christmas Day truce where soldiers from both sides of the line met in no-man's land and exchanged gifts and played football.  In his illustrated autobiography, "Bullets and Billets" (1916) he recalls the way in which contact was made between the two sides. 

He talks of "the Boche" sticking their heads out of the trenches, just a little at first and then becoming braver.  Until finally "a complete Boche figure appears above the parapet".  His account of the incident included the story of how he swapped buttons with a German officer as each dreams of the stories they will tell of the heroic way in which they captured these souvenirs of war when they got home.

He describes a member of his unit cutting the unruly hair of a German soldier, each babbling happily in a language the other did not understand.  His cartoon of the event became one of the most famous images of the time, but was not popular with the powers that be.

Sometime between April and May of 1915 he was injured during the second battle of Ypres.  A particularly terrible battle that marked the first extensive use of poisonous gas by the Germans.   He was hospitalised, suffering from Shellshock and hearing loss.  He described how he obtained his injuries in “Bullets and Billets”.

I couldn't grasp where I was.  I lay and trembled...

I had been blown up by a shell.

I lay there some little time, I imagine, with a most peculiar sensation.  All fear of shells and explosions had left me.  I still heard them dropping about and exploding, but I listened to them and watched them as calmly as one would watch an apple fall off a tree.  I couldn't make myself out.  Was I all right or all wrong?

I tried to get up and then I knew.  The spell was broken.  I shook all over, and had to lie still, with tears pouring down my face.

I could see my part in the battle was over.

"Old Bill", in all his glory.
Bairnsfather dragged himself back from the front lines, taking shelter in a cottage garden surrounded by rows of dead and mutilated men.  Finally he was helped by a nameless stranger to a field dressing station.  This account, which ends the first volume of his autobiography, closes with the news that three days later he was back in London in a hospital bed.  He would never be fit for frontline action again.

His next posting was to a regimental HQ on Salisbury Plain as a machine gun instructor.  Here he continued his cartooning career. Selling his evocative images of trench life featuring "Old Bill", to various magazines, most notably the weekly Bystander. 

"Old Bill" was not an officer, not even a sergeant, he was one of the men.  He was uncouth and untidy but wise in the ways of the world.  To begin with Bairnsfather's cartoons were not popular with high command.  They were seen as vulgar and not representative of the best features of the British Soldier.  Helmets were askew and at times officers were not portrayed in a particularly favourable light.

Best known of all of BB's cartoons.
But his work was not aimed at senior officers, it was aimed firmly at the men Bairnsfather had commanded and shared Trenches with.  He understood the life of an ordinary Tommy.  He understood the misery of the mud and the terror of the bombardments.  His cartoons made the men laugh, while at the same time showing a deep understanding of their ordeal and an affection for people he simply regarded as his comrades.  It is no exaggeration to say that he became loved by the men as one of the "good officers", one of the ones who really got it.

His impact on the morale of the British soldier was quickly recognised and objections to his work quickly faded.  The War Office appointed him official cartoonist for Military Intelligence Section 7B.  Indeed so important was he felt to be to morale that both Bruce and his creation, Bill, would at one time or another be dubbed, “the man who won the war" in the newspapers.

He was quickly approached by the French, American and Italian armies, redoing some of his best cartoons substituting soldiers from these armies for the Tommie’s he knew so well and extending his fame beyond the British Trenches.  He continued working on "Old Bill" well after the end of the war, becoming as famous as any cartoonist has before or since.  Old Bill was the subject of books, stage plays and films.  Bairnsfather himself was the subject of one of the first British sound films and even wrote and directed a 1928 Canadian movie called "Carry on Sargent"

His cartoons appeared on plates, cups and anything else that might be printed upon.   There is even a story, that the Police force were given the nickname "Old Bill" because of the post war habit of so many of them to sport a version of Bairnsfather’s Bills' famous moustache.

A WW2 Cover to the US services magazine, Yank
When World War two broke out his services were not required by the British and he eventually became the official artist of the American Forces in Britain, supplying cartoons for the Stars and Stripes and Yank magazines.  He painted designs on the noses of American bombers and drew cartoons on bases for the men. 

He seems to have been forgotten by the British during the Second World War and by the time he died, from bladder cancer in 1959 was largely forgotten.  

Perhaps the people did not want to be reminded of the horrors of the First World War.  But for a time he was one of the most popular figures in Britain, his special ability to capture both the humour and the horror of the trenches made a real difference to the lives of men fighting in a 'War to End all Wars".   There are very few cartoonists who can have had such an impact on so many people.

I don't think he deserves to be forgotten.

Bruce Bairnsfather’s first two volumes of autobiography, "Bullets and Billets" and "From Mud to Mufti", had been out of print for many years.   They were made available a few years back by Mark Marsay and Great Northern Publishing as a combined volume as The Bairnsfather Omnibus.  He writes with humour, affection and understanding.  It's now 100 years since the first volume was published and the style may seem a little odd but I have no hesitation in recommending them as a great and moving read.

A collaboration between American war Cartoonist Dave Berger and Bairnsfather.

Check out some more of his artwork here.


1 comment:

  1. Nice summary there Peter. Because I've known his WW1 work for so long, but not his later work or life story I wouldn't have thought it conceivable that the creator of such an iconic figure as Old Bill, could be neglected with time but I guess that's the way of the world.