ANAVETS Shoulder to Shoulder

November 2017

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 22 of 33

22 SHOULDER TO SHOULDER O n 15 October 1923, the British cartoonist Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather, undertaking a lengthy vaudeville tour of America and Canada, opened a weeks' engagement at the Princess Theatre, Montreal. While appearing at the theatre, Bairnsfather had the honour of being made a Life Member of the Army & Navy Veterans Association of Canada, and was presented with his member- ship certificate and gold badge by the association's Dominion Secretary, Capt. Harry Colebourne. At the height of his popularity during the First World War, it was said there were "thousands and thousands" of Bairnsfather devotees in Canada. One Canadian newspaper observed that "this young Captain of the Royal Warwicks has made for himself a name that his nation will remember as long as the mighty events that brought it into prominence are not themselves forgotten." This feature tells the story of this celebrated cartoonist, whose "kindly feelings for the Canadians" lasted over forty years. Serving as Machine Gun Officer with the First Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Lieut. Bruce Bairnsfather spent the winter of 1914-15 in trenches at St Yvon, on the edge of 'Plugstreet' Wood in Belgium, and participated in the famous 1914 Christmas Truce. An electrical engineer by profession, his first love had always been drawing. Before the war he had achieved moderate success with com- mercial designs for firms such as Beecham's Pills and Lipton's Tea, and now began to draw comic sketches for the amusement of himself and the soldiers around him. His humorous observations of life in the trenches were soon in great demand, and brightened many a dug-out wall. Early in 1915, someone suggested he send something off for publication. He made a finished drawing of one of his sketches and sent it off to The Bystander magazine in London. His cartoon, "Where did that one go to?" was published in the magazine on March 31, 1915. In April 1915, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was ordered to Ypres to support the Canadians following the first gas attacks at Ypres. On 25 April 1915 Bairnsfather was blown up by a shell during the Battle of St Julien – one of 17 officers and 500 other ranks from his regiment who were killed, wounded or missing in the attack that day. He later wrote of having come to the aid of a Canadian officer who had been wounded during the battle, shortly before he himself was blown up. Sadly the officer died five days later in hospital. Sent home to 'Blighty' suffering from shell-shock, Bairnsfather was visited in hospital by a representative from The Bystander who informed him they would be pleased to receive more of his drawings. He soon became a regular contributor, his cartoons appearing weekly throughout the remainder of the war. A prominent character soon emerged in Bairnsfather's cartoons - a walrus moustached old soldier who the artist named Old Bill. The public took Old Bill to their hearts, and he and his creator became inseparable. Bairnsfather's most famous cartoon, captioned "Well if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it," was published in the Bystander on 24 November 1915. An instant hit, it would become one of the most well-known cartoons of the twentieth century. Since its original publication, the caption has been used more than 300 times by other cartoonists worldwide - two Canadian Prime Ministers have been depicted in the "better 'ole" - and the phrase has also been used on ten occasions by Canadian politicians in debates in the House of Commons and Senate in Ottawa. Bruce Bairnsfather was soon a household name. Early in 1916 The Bystander published the first of eight volumes of his Fragments from France cartoons, selling over 1 million copies. They also began a huge merchandising campaign, issuing reproductions of his drawings as postcards, prints, playing cards, jigsaws and on all manner of other items. There were exhibitions of his original drawings and even a series of Fragments from France films shown in cinemas. From 1917 Staffordshire firm Grimwades produced a whole range of 'Bairnsfather Ware' pottery, each piece bearing one of his cartoons. The huge appeal of Bairnsfather's cartoons lay in his having experienced life at the front and his ability to capture exactly the 'frame of mind' of the men in the trenches. Canadian soldiers writing home from France were among those praising his drawings. In July 1916, Sergeant Thomas Williams, serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, sent the first two volumes of Fragments from France to his sister in Ottawa. "You will think they are the funniest sketches you have ever seen," he told her, adding "to one who has been out here they are irresistible. We have laughed for hours at some of the pictures. I bet there is not a man in the CEF who has not seen and laughed at these two magazines." BRUCE BAIRNSFATHER: THE MAN WHO MADE THE EMPIRE LAUGH IN ITS DARKEST HOUR By Mark Warby

Articles in this issue

view archives of ANAVETS Shoulder to Shoulder - November 2017