Charles Bruce Bairnsfather was born on the 9th of July, 1887.
Charles Bruce Bairnsfather was born in India, the son of a Scot. Bairnsfather went to school in middle-England, after begin brought back to Britain, and no doubt he spoke with an English accent, but other than that, we're claiming him as Scots. If he had any English heritage, he'd have been called Barnsfeather or some such. Anyone with 'bairn' in their surname and Bruce as a Christian name, must be Scottish, eh? In any case, his story is worth including as Charles Bruce Bairnsfather grew up to becomeone of the best loved of Britain’s artists of the First World War.
Sadly, however, Bairnsfather never received any official public recognition for the part he played in the Great War, despite being described by General Sir Ian Hamilton as “the man who helped us win the war.” Typically, the authorities and top brass – the ubiquitous 'powers that be' – resented the jibes and mirth, which were often made at their expense, of course, in Bairnsfather's famous cartoons. Some people objected to Bairnsfather's drawings and one pompous member of the House of Commons is reputed to have condemned his cartoons, in Parliament, as “vulgar caricatures of our heroes.” Nevertheless, his genius was appreciated by the ordinary Squaddies, whom he also portrayed so wonderfully, and whose morale, along with that of the nation, he raised, when most needed.
Known as Bruce rather than Charles, Bairnsfather was the creator of 'Old Bill', a cartoon character with pipe, walrus moustache and tin hat, who epitomised the British Tommy in the trenches. The Old Bill character and many others, became extremely popular with the real 'Tommies' and perfectly captured their irony and cynicism. Old Bill rapidly brought Bairnsfather widespread praise and popularity and his character became a bit of a legend. In fact, you can still find Old Bill memorabilia in the form of pottery mugs and plates, playing cards, cigarette cards, jigsaw puzzles, postcards and other such merchandise. In addition, during the 1920s and 1930s, Old Bill appeared in books, plays, musicals, two feature films, and more comic strips.
Bairnsfather's most famous cartoon is one of Old Bill being shelled in a crater with the caption: “Well, if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it.” And in fact, that sketch became a national catchphrase, after being published in Bystander Magazine on the 24th of November, 1915. Many other sketches, such as 'A Hopeless Dawn' and 'The New Submarine Danger' were equally famous and, perhaps alluding to one reason why they were less liked by the 'authorities', were once described as “the nearest thing to anti-war propaganda which the British media had to offer.”
As the man who wrote that last quote also pointed out in his book, 'Daily Sketches: A Cartoon History of Twentieth Century Britain', “[Bairnsfather's] cartoons were by a man who had fought in the trenches and who knew what that kind of wholly new warfare was like.” That put Bairnsfather in the same category as Brooke and Owen, the famous War Poets, as unlike other cartoonists, Bairnsfather had been “actually there on the front line.” It's fair to say that our man Bruce, in terms of his recording of the conditions in which our soldiers fought, was equal to those poets. Bairnsfather also captured very well, the sense of humour, which the soldiers brought to bear against the unimaginably dreadful conditions in France between 1914 and 1918.
Bruce Bairnsfather published two volumes of memoirs: ‘Bullets & Billets’ and ‘From Mud to Mufti’; both of which, fairly obviously, documented his wartime experiences. A Biography of Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather, including a listing of his works and collectables, and entitled, 'In Search of the Better 'Ole', has been written by Tonie and Valmai Holt. The publicity blurb about the book states that: “In this engrossing human story the Holts examine the life of this loveable man and go a long way towards redressing his lack of recognition.” Hear, hear!
Charles Bruce Bairnsfather was born in Muree, on what was then India's North West Frontier and is now in Pakistan, on the 9th of July, 1887. Bruce's father, Thomas Bairnsfather, had been born in Forfar and was then a Lieutenant in the Bengal Infantry. Bruce gained his education at schools in India and at Westward Ho!, the same school as Rudyard Kipling by the way, after being brought back to Blighty and the Warwickshire village of Bishopton. In Stratford-upon-Avon, Bruce, who by that time it was clear, had a talent for art, took up evening evening classes and, in 1904, he sold his first drawing, which was an advertisement for Player's Navy Mixture tobacco, for two guineas.
In 1905, Bruce joined the the third Militia Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and later, despite failing entrance exams to Sandhurst and Woolwich, he transferred to his father's old Regiment, The Cheshires. However, Bruce found army life boring and left, in 1907, to enrol as an art student at the John Hassall School of Art. Initially, after completing his training, Bruce produced advertising posters for household products such as Lipton's tea, Beecham's pills and Flowers' beer. After that, Bruce was unable to get further work and became a part-time artist, whilst working as a sales representative for a firm of electrical joiners.
In September, 1914, Bruce Bairnsfather rejoined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment where he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 3rd (Service Reserve) Battalion. After the Battle of Mons, Bairnsfather was sent to the Western Front where he was put in charge of a Maxim Machine-Gun section. Life in the trenches was so grim and shocking to Bairnsfather that he declined leave home on the grounds that, once he left, it would be too difficult for him to return. However, there was the odd respite from the horrors of war, such as when Bairnsfather was involved in the famous 'Christmas Truce' of 1914, when the British and Germans played a game of football.
Bruce didn't take part in the footie, but his record makes interesting reading: “This was my first real sight of [the Boche] at close quarters. Here were these sausage-eating wretches, who had elected to start this infernal European fracas, and in so doing had brought us all into the same muddy pickle as themselves.” He went on to write of the marked difference in type between the Brits and the Germans: “There was no contrasting the spirit of the two parties. Our men, in their scratch costumes of dirty, muddy khaki, with their various assorted head-dresses of woollen helmets, mufflers and battered hats, were a light-hearted, open, humorous collection as opposed to the sombre demeanour and stolid appearance of the Huns in their grey-green faded uniforms, top boots, and pork-pie hats.”
Bairnsfather began drawing his cartoons whilst serving in the infamous Ypres Salient. It was there he created the first of what were to become his 'Fragments from France' on the wall of his billet; a battle-scarred cottage in the village of St. Yvon. In 1915, 'The Bystander' magazine began publishing his drawings, but prior to that, in the April, Bairnsfather had been badly wounded by a shell explosion and sent back to England. It was while he was in hospital that he was commissioned to do a weekly drawing for the magazine, which led to 'Fragments' being published.
Bruce returned to active duty in France, in late 1915, but his health deteriorated and he was classified as no longer fit for active service. Captain Bairnsfather was then posted to Albany Barracks on the Isle of Wight, to train new recruits and it was during there he created Old Bill. Strangely enough, given earlier statements, the Government do seem to have recognised the positive propaganda potential of Bairnsfather's cartoons as in 1916, he was sent back to France as 'Officer Cartoonist', to help raise the morale of the French. Bruce drew for the Italians and the Americans, for whom he also worked as official cartoonist during the Second World War, contributing to the 'Stars and Stripes' and drawing cartoons on the noses of bombers. In the twenties and thirties, Bruce Bairnsfather became a successful actor, playwright, film producer and author, and worked for the Illustrated London News, and for Tatler.
Captain Charles Bruce Bairnsfather died of acute renal failure, after treatment for cancer of the bladder, in Worcester Royal Infirmary, on the 29th of September, 1959.