Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bruce Bairnsfather - Cartoonist of the Western Front

The First World War began in June 1914, and in a patriotic fervour, British troops from all parts of the world flocked to the colours – English, Australians, Canadians, South Africans and Indians all joined up to assist the Mother Country in her struggle with Germany.

However towards the end of 1914 enthusiasm had begun to flag- ships full of maimed and wounded soldiers began to filter back from the Western Front, telling stories of horror that gave many of the potential new recruits second thoughts about enlisting.

The war had bogged down into trench warfare across much of France and Belgium, producing diabolical conditions unmatched in modern history. The British and German armies faced each other from a long series of trenches dug into the mud of farming land that stretched for miles across the countryside.

Hell on Earth - World War One trench warfare. Image from Wikipedia Commons (Click to enlarge)

The soldiers lived in these trenches, enduring terrible weather, artillery bombardments, gas attacks and occasional charges from the enemy where hundreds would be mown down by machine gun and rifle fire while trying to get through the barbed wire entanglements in the ground between the trenches – aptly named “no mans land”.

Men were blown to bits, with battlefield rats feeding off the resulting body parts, and others reduced to trembling, nervous wrecks from the unending artillery bombardments. Morale fell as everyone realised that there was no end in sight for this terrible situation and recruitment for the front fell alarmingly.

Then a remarkable man appeared on the scene - Bruce Bairnsfather – in fact Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, a machine gun officer of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

Bairnsfather had previously been in the army before the war but had left to become a commercial artist where he performed advertising work for a number of clients, including Lipton’s Tea and Player Cigarettes. He rejoined the army on the outbreak of war and was commissioned as an officer soon after.

This unusual blend of military training and artistic bent soon burst into flower on the Western Front when he began, in his spare time, producing satirical cartoons on trench life that he hung up on farmhouse walls where he was billeted during breaks from the trenches.

The Professional Touch - "Chuck us out that bag o' bombs mate - its under your 'ead" (Click to enlarge)

These cartoons captured a unique type of grim humour that was obtusely derived from the horrors of daily trench life and they soon became highly popular with all his fellow officers.

In 1915 one of these cartoons was submitted to a popular English magazine of the time, “The Bystander”, and the reaction produced resulted in the editors immediately requesting more of the same. A full special edition of Bairnsfather drawings called “Fragments from France” followed and produced the biggest ever monthly sales figures for “The Bystander”, with over 225,000 copies sold – a massive figure for the day.

One of Bairnsfathers' earliest Cartoons - "Where did that one go?" - Fragments from France Vol 1 (Click to enlarge)

However, the reception to the publication was not unanimously positive – a Member of the House of Commons described the cartoons as “vulgar caricatures of our heroes”. However the soldiers along the western front loved “Fragments” and one officer later remarked

“To us out here the “Fragments” are the very quintessence of life. We sit moping over a smoky charcoal fire in a dug-out. Suddenly someone more wide awake than others, remembers the “Fragments”. Out it comes and we laugh uproariously over each picture. For are these not the very things we are witnessing every day, incidents full of tragic humour?”

After being wounded at the second battle of Ypres, Bairnsfather was eventually repatriated to England where it was later decided that he would do far more good for the war in his role as a cartoonist than as a machine gun officer.

More editions of “Fragments” were demanded and generated, and Bairnsfather’s cartoons ended up producing a totally unique chronicle of trench life on the Western Front during the First World War.

Coiffure in the trenches
Fragments from France, Volume 1 (Click to enlarge)

The journalist Martin Walker later remarked that

"The cartoons were by a man who had fought in the trenches and who knew what that kind of wholly new warfare was like. Veterans of the Western Front have paid almost universal testimony to Bairnsfather as a historian of the conditions in which they fought and the sense of humour which the soldiers brought to bear against the life, or more precisely, against the death."

Bairnsfather’s contribution to the war effort was tremendous but ironically he received no official recognition from the Government – a situation that hurt him deeply. He died on 29th September 1959, a much loved figure amongst the veterans of the First World War.

He is also well remembered for his eye-witness account and drawings of the amazing Christmas Day truce of 1914 when British and Germans abandoned the war for the day, shook hands, played soccer and chatted together. To read about this see


Over recent years Bairnsfather’s legacy has enjoyed a comeback, thanks largely to the miracle of the Internet. Two interesting websites can be seen here:



1 comment:

  1. With humour, people can endure almost anything. Good story, Richard.