Bruce Bairnsfather, The Cartoonist in the Trenches
Englishmen from all walks of life answered the call of service during the Great War. Not surprisingly, vestiges of their peacetime lives and occupations followed them into the trenches. For Bruce Bairnsfather, the horrors of war could not overcome his sense of humor or his insuppressible urge to draw. During the war, the cartoons he sketched at the front would disseminate throughout the Allied world and prove to be far more important to the war effort than anything he accomplished on the battlefield.
Bairnsfather was born on July 9, 1887 in India, the first child of Amelia Jane Bairnsfather and Lieutenant Thomas Henry of the Bengal Infantry. Bairnsfather’s early artistic influences came from his parents— Janie was a talented painter and loved to paint birds, a gift which her father also possessed. Thomas Bairnsfather was a talented musician and produced a number of musical comedies in Simla, India, writing many of them himself.
At the age of 8, Bairnsfather was sent to school in England, and he immediately had trouble adjusting to his new environment. Compared to India, England seemed dark and dull and he could not relate to any of the other children. But in his loneliness he found his own amusement: he began to draw.
Bairnsfather’s parents and teachers were concerned by his artistic proclivity and during his school years he was constantly being punished for drawing. However this did little to dissuade him, and as his skills progressed a natural gift for caricature emerged. At the age of seventeen, he began selling his cartoons to classmates and, encouraged by these sales, began designing and submitting advertisements. After several disappointments, a design for Player’s Navy Mixture Cigarettes was accepted and his first check for two guineas arrived.
In 1905 Bairnsfather followed his father’s example and joined the army, but quickly discovered the lifestyle boring and tedious. He resigned two years later. After consulting with a friend, Bairnsfather’s father decided to enroll his son in the John Hassall School of Art. Bairnsfather tried poster work, but despite fervent efforts, he was met with utter disappointment. Although he so desperately wanted to be an artist, he took a job with an inventor and businessman named Spencer Flower, whose business sold ‘petrol gas’ generators.
During this time, Bairnsfather continued to send designs to advertisers and found some success with Player’s tobacco and Keene’s Mustard, but there were still more rejection slips than paychecks. Through a contact he made while acting in the local theatre, Bairnsfather was introduced to Sir Thomas Lipton of Lipton Tea. He was asked to submit suggestions for posters and was successful with one design of a caddy driving a golf ball off the top of a Lipton’s Tea packet, with the caption ‘Lipton’s make the best tea,’ a typical Bairnsfather pun. After that, he enjoyed a number of other successes. He won a poster competition organized by the Sunbeam Opera Company and designed a series of twelve ads for Flower’s Brewing Company that were used between 1918 and 1930. But at the outbreak of the Great War, Bairnsfather was laid off from his day job and, without money or a career, he rejoined the army.
Bairnsfather’s love of drawing followed him into the trenches of France. He began drawing cartoons on scrap paper, much to the delight of his fellow soldiers. At there encouragement, he sent his cartoon “Where did that one go?” to The Bystander. The publication accepted the drawing and sent him a check. Soon after Bairnsfather sent them a second drawing called ‘Evidently they’ve seen me’ based on his experience with a sniper.
In April 1915, Bairnsfather was injured in Belgium at the Second Battle of Ypres. While recovering in the hospital, a representative from The Bystander offered him £4 a week for a weekly drawing. A few days later he was back in England working on the drawings that would make him famous.
Once he was rested and well again, Bairnsfather was assigned light duties at the Royal Warwickshire Depot in the Isle of Wright and then made a machine gun instructor at Salisbury Plain at Sutton Veney, all the while producing cartoons. It was at Sutton Veney in October 1915 that he drew his most famous piece titled ‘One of our minor wars.’ It featured two soldiers in a muddy hole with shells exploding in the sky above them, one of them looking disgruntled and the other is saying ‘Well if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.’ The Bystander used it in its Christmas issue and it had an extraordinary effect—the magazine sold out completely.
Seizing upon the country’s enthusiasm, The Bystander published a collection of forty-one of Bairnsfather’s weekly drawings, calling it Fragments from France in early 1916. The Bystander followed the success of Fragments with More Fragments from France and in addition, offered color prints of selected cartoons in several forms at varied prices.
Bairnsfather was redeployed to France in 1916, but he quickly found himself back in the hospital suffering from exhaustion and a painful carbuncle on the back of his neck. He was formally classified as not fit for active service in France and was confirmed as a Staff Captain in the Special Reserve and sent home to get better.
While in England he was persuaded to go to a party where Lady Willoughby de Broke was raising funds for a Red Cross hospital in August of 1916. In ten minutes of lightning sketching, he earned £85 for the Red Cross by selling his drawings to the highest bidder—more than he earned in a month with The Bystander. At this time, Bairnsfather was also writing a book called Bullets and Billets from notes he had begun in France.
The French, acknowledging the morale-boosting effect of Bairnsfather’s work, requested that Captain Bairnsfather be loaned to them and so the War Office appointed him ‘Officer Cartoonist’ in the Intelligence Department. He was also sent on drawing missions to cover U.S. and Italian forces.
In the last years of the war, Bairnsfather had become a celebrity. In 1917 his work was transformed into a hit London stage show, which Bairnsfather wrote in collaboration with Arthur Eliot. His work also graced the silver screen. In May, Film Booking Offices announced its intention to produce twelve Bairnsfather cartoons, each one lasting about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, Bairnsfather was raising money at different auctions and charities. At one charity auction, he had drawn a special picture to acknowledge the outstanding act of the Canadians capturing Vimy Ridge. Also at the auction was a drawing by the famous Dutch artist Louis Raemaker, which went for 4 guineas. Bairnsfather’s drawing ended up selling for 225 guineas— a telling indication of his popularity.
After the war, Bairnsfather continued to produce drawings and books including Carry on Sergeant! (1927), Old Bill Looks at Europe (1935) and Old Bill Stands By (1939). During WWII he was employed an official cartoonist to the U.S. forces stationed in Europe and much of his work was featured in the American magazine, Stars and Stripes.
None of his later work caught on like his Great War cartoons and his popularity never returned to its wartime heights. Bairnsfather died on September 29, 1959, remembered as the man who found humor in the horror of the trenches.
Duffy, Michael. “Poetry & Prose- Bruce Bairnsfather.” Last Modified August 22, 2009. http://www.firstworldwar.com/poetsandprose/bairnsfather.htm
Fristoe, Roger. “The Better ‘Ole.” Accessed August 1, 2011. http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article/87381|0/The-Better-Ole.html.
Holt, Tonie, and Valmai Holt. In Search of the Better ‘Ole. South Yorkshire: Milestone Publications, 1985..
IN THE COLLECTION
190I “Climb into the Old Uniform Buddy,” Postwar, American Legion Parade, 23×36-features Old Bill
“Digging Fun from the Trenches” from p. 252 of The Literary Digest, July 29, 1916. An article about Bruce Bairnsfather, features three paintings from Bairnsfather.
Bairnsfather: A Few Fragments from His Life, Published for The Bystander
Bullets and Billets by Bruce Bairnsfather, Copyright 1917, Fifth Impression
Bullets and Billets by Bruce Bairnsfather, Copyright 1917, Sixth Impression
Carry on Sergeant! by Bruce Bairnsfather, Copyright 1927
Fragments from France by Bruce Bairnsfather, Copyright 1917
Framed needlework of “The Nest” by A. Cook