BRUCE Bairnsfather brought a smile to the face of many a soldier serving in the First World War.
He made his name drawing the Old Bill cartoons which brought laughter to the trenches where there was usually very little to laugh about.
The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Museum (Royal Warwickshire) in Warwick is celebrating his work with a special display at St John’s House in Warwick running until September 13.
Born to a military family in Murree, British India – now Pakistan – Bruce found himself in Stratford in 1904 after the family returned to England.
He studied art at the newly opened Stratford Technical College and was also an electrical apprentice in the town at Spenser’s in Henley Street.
In 1914 he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and served with a machine gun unit in France until 1915, when he was hospitalised with shellshock and hearing damage sustained during the Second Battle of Ypres.
While recuperating he developed his humorous series of cartoons for the Bystander magazine about life in the trenches, featuring Old Bill – a grumpy soldier with trademark walrus moustache and balaclava.
Despite being criticised by some as a “vulgar caricature” they were massively popular with the troops, and their success in raising morale led to Bruce’s promotion and receipt of a War Office appointment to draw similar cartoons for other Allied forces.
After the war he became something of a jack of all trades – film, director, actor, writer – but he also continued with his cartoons .
Although he continued with Old Bill he was not asked to contribute to teh British war effort, but instead became
official cartoonist to the American forces in Europe, contributing to Stars and Stripes and Yank, while then living in Shropshire.
In later life, he had found himself typecast as the creator of Old Bill. He died in 1959 of complications of bladder cancer in Worcester.
Playwright Phil Porter, who has written the new play ‘The Christmas Truce’ to be staged by the RSC in Stratford this Christmas, has drawn on the experiences of Bruce.
The exhibition at St John’s, from the private collection held by Tonie and Valmai Holt, will feature Old Bill cartoons together with a range of collectables featuring his comic characters, including vases, plates and cups to car mascots, postcards and ashtrays.
Old Bill memorabilia remains very collectable, and one of the museum volunteers, Val Sawyer, is a collector herself.
She said: “I first met Old Bill 30 years ago at the museum in Ypres whilst on a memorial visit of remembrance for a relative who died on the Somme.
“I was interested as the artist was local to Warwickshire and also served in the same Regiment as our relative – the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. I have a great affection for Old Bill and he continues to give me considerable pleasure, as I am not only in touch with him at home but also when I’m at the museum.”
*On Saturday September 13 Mr Holt will give a talk called ‘The Man Who Won the War?’ about the life and cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfather. The talk starts at 11am and will take place at the Quaker Meeting House in Warwick. Tickets are £3 and can be bought in advance from the museum.
Visit http://warwickfusiliers.co.uk for further information.
Good to talk this morning and god that you are interested in the story.
As I mentioned Major and Mrs Holt have asked both the Minister for the 100th Anniversaries and the Shadow Minister if they will support our Campaign to obtain recognition for Bruce Bairnsfather by a statement in Parliament .
Bruce Bairnsfather’s Old Bill cartoons brought a smile to the face of many a serving soldier during the First World War. (s)
One of Bruce’s hugely popular cartoons. (s)