Picture Postcards from the Great War

Bruce Bairnsfather ww1 Postcards 

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During the First World War, apart from the rum-ration and letters from home, there was something else which was said to help maintain morale amongst British front-line troops and raise a laugh. It was the character known as "Old Bill". He was the creation of Bruce Bairnsfather, an officer in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment who arrived in France in 1914. "Old Bill" with his blob nose, walrus moustache, muffler and balaclava (later it was replaced by a tin helmet) made Bairnsfather a household name.
Serving as a regular soldier, Bairnsfather left the army in 1907, to pursue a career as an illustrator and had some success doing posters for Beechams and Liptons. When the Great War broke out in August 1914, he rejoined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a second lieutenant and by November was serving at the Front. He started drawing again and before long his sketches "were in great demand to decorate dugout walls." said a contemporary. Bairnsfather’s battalion were in the trenches at Bois de Ploegstert near Messines, and it was while resting in billets there, that a soldier suggested Bairnsfather send some of his sketches to England for publication.
ww1 postcard of Bruce Bairnsfather
Bairnsfather later said,

"The first of my war drawings materialised during November 1914, in the neighborhood known as ‘Plugstreet Wood’ and this same section was the inspiration for many more to follow.

[We had] the honour of defending  a series of waterlogged slots in the flat ground, in the shattered village of St Yvon. On starting to draw, I had no idea of deliberately making sketches through the war, and had not the faintest idea of their coming popularity. They began by being trench-scribbled efforts which I found an irresistible urge to put down."

Bairnsfather’s first sketch was accepted by the Bystander and was reproduced in the issue dated 31st March 1915. The magazine paid a fee of three Guineas for it. Bairnfather first saw the cartoon in print in May 1915 when a fellow patient at a convalescent hospital pointed it out to him. The drawing showed a group of soldiers peering out of a dugout as a shell exploded behind them. The caption read; “Where did that one go to?” Bruce Bairnsfather's cartoons started to appear regularly in the Bystander and realising he was a talented artist, it gave him an exclusive contract. In February 1916, the Bystander published 43 of his cartoons in magazine form under the title of "Fragments from France." It cost one shilling. Selling over 250,000 copies, it was followed by seven more volumes of his work. 

Recalling his time in the trenches, Bairnsfather said he frequently "saw the satire" in trench-fighters finding themselves "in such a macabre and pathetic predicament of mutilated landscapes, primitive trench life, ceaseless wearing drudgery’ and the ‘ever-present danger of the final nuisance." The stolid humour and relentless endurance of soldiers living and fighting under such appalling conditions appealed to him with such force, he said that, "the drawings emerged as my only means of being articulate about what I felt."

Due to the immense popularity of Bairnsfather’s illustrations, it was inevitable they would soon appear on postcards – and they did!  Published by the Bystander as ‘Fragments from France’, fifty four of the artists best cartoons - printed in sepia on soft card - were released in nine sets of six cards each. Many of them depicted "Old Bill", the "Tommy's favourite wartime character."

                                                       Here is a checklist of the fifty-four cards

Postcard titled
ww1 postcard
The card on the left titled "WHERE DID THAT ONE GO TO?" was Lieut. Bainsfather's very first "Fragment from France." It was based on a real event, which he had experienced while serving in the trenches in November 1914, at Bois de Ploegstert near Messines in the Ypres Salient. The card on the right carried Bainsfather's most famous cartoon. "Well if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it." He drew it while recuperating after being injured in the Second Battle of Ypres.The centre card is titled "There goes that blinkin' parapet again."
Bairnsfather's most famous drawing of all  - "if you knows of a better ‘ole go to it." - was sketched during the early Somme era and this, more than any other of his work, brought "Old Bill" to world-wide fame.

On the right is the packet in which the first series of six cards appeared.
 packet in which the first series of Bruce Bairnsfathers six postcards appeared.
The nine series of six cards were released by the  Bystander at monthly intervals and the fortunes and tribulations of "Old Bill" and his pals was eagerly followed by civilians back at home and by soldiers at the front.
Bairnsfather postcard
Bruce Bairnsfather ww1 postcard
The card on the left is titled "IN AND OUT (I)" and sub-titled, "That last half-hour before 'going in' to the trenches for the 200th time."  It was the first of two cards from Series 3 which illustrated (I) the anxiety of those about to return to the front-line trenches and (II) the joy and relief of coming out of them  The card on the right titled "IN AND OUT (II)" and sub-titled "That first half-hour after 'getting out' of the trenches for the 200th time",  is the second of the pair.  'Ensign' wrote about these two cartoons in The Outlook. "You may have possibly seen Captain Bruce Bairnsfather's two inimitable pictures depicting the hour before going into trenches and the hour after coming out. Well, they are absolutely IT. Lord how we laughed over them in the front line; and mind you, I am not puffing Bairnsfather: he does not need it…but take it from me he is one of the people who by supplying roars of laughter and joy to the troops are helping to win the war."
Bruce Bairnsfather postcard
Bruce Bairnsfather postcard
The card on the left from series 3 and captioned "They've evidently seen me." was Bairnsfather's second 'Fragment from France.' He first sketched the idea for it, on the wall of an old French cottage situated just behind the Front Line. Later, a Major Lancaster asked him to redraw it - which he did. He applied a colour wash and then sent the illustration to the Bystander in April 1915. He told the publication "Although I did not observe from a chimney myself…I happen to ‘live’ in a house. By "Live" I mean waiting for the next shell to come through the roof." He was paid 2 guineas for the cartoon. The card on the right captioned "THAT 16-INCH SENSATION" was from series 6. Bairnsfather was badly wounded by a shell burst in April 1915 and during his weeks of convalescence suffered recurring nightmares. He said, "I think everyone who gets 'knocked out' knows this sensation of 'fighting one's battles over again.'" After he recovered from his wounds, Captain Bairnsfather did not go back to the Western Front, instead he was sent to train recruits at Albany Barracks on the Isle of Wight. In late 1915, he was commissioned as an 'Official Cartoonist' and it was then that he created his famous character ‘Old Bill’. The card in the centre, titled "TROUBLE WITH ONE OF THE SOUVENIRS" was from series 3 and showed Old Bill and his mate, with armfuls of souvenirs including the much prized German spiked helmet. Bairnsfather too, was an avid collector of battlefield trophies and when his first leave came through, he was worried about the large amount of booty he wanted to take home. His main concern was his "heavy bags of souvenirs. one package...had four 'little willie' cases inside, in other words, the cast-iron shell cases for the German equivalent of our 18-pounders", he said. "The haversack was filled with aluminum fuse tops and one large piece of a 'Jack Johnson' shell case."
'Old Bill'
Bruce Bairnsfather postcard
Bairnsfather postcard
The card on the left shows 'Old Bill' "DIRECTING THE WAY TO THE FRONT" The sub-caption says, "Yer knows the dead 'orse 'cross the road? Well keep straight on till yer comes to a p'rambulator 'longside a Johnson 'ole." A Johnson Hole, made by a shell fired from a German heavy gun, was so called because of the large volume of black smoke it produced on bursting. Soldiers at the front associated the black smoke with the famous black boxer Jack Johnson.  The card on the right, titled "WHAT IT REALLY FEELS LIKE to be on patrol duty at night-time" vividly depicted what many soldiers in the front line felt when night fell and particularly when engaged on patrol into No-Man's-Land. The cartoon expressed Bairnsfather experience of this, when he wrote, "To me the...horrible reality of this terrible  elementary and brutal war, was burning a hole in my mind and system, which time can never heal." The card in the centre was titled "THAT EVENING STAR-SHELL" and sub-titled "Oh,star of eve, whose tender beam. falls on my spirit's troubled dream - tannhauser." Here the soldier was liberating a rum-jar, and fell to the ground as a star-shell light up the sky.
Plum and Apple Jam
Bairnsfather ww1 postcard
ww1 Bairnsfather postcard
The card on the left titled "THE ETERNAL QUESTION" and sub-titled "When the 'ell is it going to be strawberry?" was Bairnsfather's way of illustrating the fact that front line troops sometimes received inferior quality tinned rations. Plum and apple jam became a symbol for second best. Raspberry or strawberry jam was considered to be of much better quality. The card was posted on the Western Front from FIELD POST OFFICE 152 on 12th November 1916, to an address in Kent. Part of the message reads, "This card is good generally speaking but hardly applies to us as we had quite a lot of strawberry during the summer." The card on the right, titled "The Things that Matter" was captioned "Scene: Loos, during the September offensive. Colonel Fitz-Shrapnel receives the following message from 'G.H.Q.' 'Please let us know, as soon as possible, the number of tins of raspberry jam issued to you last Friday." The card was a splendid example of the ironey that Bairnsfather frequently depicted in his cartoons.

In 1983, the acknowledged experts on the life and work of Bruce Bairnsfather - Toni and Valmai Holt - were told by a veteran of the Great War, that "naturally the stories of Old Bill were always with us and, incidentally, kept us going."

An old lady also spoke to the Holts that day and said to them, that one evening during the war she went to a dance and met a young Australian sergeant. "He was jolly, and so was I" she said, "and when he was made an officer and sent to France, I used to go to all the shops to buy Bruce Bairnsfather's postcards. He said they used to put them up in their dug out for a laugh…I would like to think those postcards gave all the boys in the dug out pleasure. It did me sending them. He was killed on the Somme and all my photographs were returned to me, but not one postcard…"

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