(Image: © 2015 Estate of Barbara Bruce Littlejohn)

100 Years Ago: Celebrated First World War cartoon makes its debut

Posted on centenarynews.com on 24 November 2015
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On November 24th 1915.The Bystander magazine in London published the latest contribution from soldier-cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather. His drawing, with its celebrated caption - “Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it!” - would become one of the most well-known and enduring cartoons of all time, as Mark Warby explains.

Bruce Bairnsfather had sent his first cartoon to The Bystander in March 1915, while serving as Machine Gun Officer with the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment in Belgium. Blown up by a shell during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, he was sent home to England, and while recovering began a regular series of drawings for The Bystander, which continued throughout the First World War.

Compilation volumes of his Fragments from France sold over one million copies, and his cartoons were reproduced on all manner of merchandise, from postcards, playing cards and jigsaws to handkerchiefs, and even a range of Bairnsfather Ware china. His most popular character was Old Bill, a typical old soldier who the men fighting at the front and their families back home took to their hearts.

Everyone knew an Old Bill type, and their husbands and sons would write home telling them how life at the front was just as Bairnsfather drew it. Old Bill went on to appear in books, plays and films, and in 1919 Bairnsfather was credited as “the man who made the Empire laugh in its darkest hours.”

Ploegsteert in Belgium - Bruce Bairnsfather served here in 1914 (Photo: Centenary News)

The enormous legacy of Bairnsfather’s original “better ‘ole” cartoon is still evident today. In the 100 years since his drawing was first published in The Bystander, his caption and/or “better ‘ole” theme has been borrowed and adapted by over 130 cartoonists in more than 200 cartoons published in seven countries.

At least ten British Prime Ministers, eight US Presidents, four Australian, two Canadian and one New Zealand Prime Ministers have been depicted in that famous setting, as have two Russian Presidents and one King – not forgetting those two progenitors of the First and Second World Wars, Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler.

As well as being parodied by other cartoonists, the phrase “if you knows of a better ‘ole go to it” has also been used by politicians worldwide – including British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1939) and US Presidents Roosevelt (1941 and 1943) and Eisenhower (1956), with Hansard recording over thirty uses of the phrase in British Parliamentary debates from 1919 to the present.

To mark the centenary of Bairnsfather’s famous cartoon, I have commissioned cartoonist Ron McGeary to create a modern interpretation of the original. Ron’s drawing shows the two Tommies celebrating the occasion with a barrel of “better ‘ole centenary beer.”

(Image © Ron McGeary)

Here in the UK, many of the top newspaper cartoonists of the last ninety years have used the “better ‘ole.” From past greats such as David Low (Evening Standard), Strube (Daily Express), Philip Zec (Daily Mirror), Giles (Daily Express) and Illingworth (Daily Mail), to more recent masters of their art including Peter Brookes (The Times), Steve Bell (The Guardian) and Martin Rowson (The Guardian) - the most recent to use the theme, in January 2014. However it is The Daily Telegraph’s Nicholas Garland who holds the record, with nine versions of the “better ‘ole” since 1971, his last in 2005. Several Punch cartoonists, including Sir Bernard Partridge also drew their own versions. Ralph Steadman even used the caption in Private Eye.

More than 65 American and Canadian cartoonists have used the “better ‘ole” – including at least twelve who had previously won or went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. The list includes revered names such as ‘Ding’ Darling, Daniel R Fitzpatrick, Vaughn Shoemaker, Herblock, Clifford K Berryman and Patrick Oliphant.

In Australia the “better ‘ole” has been used by more than twenty Australian cartoonists – including Arthur Mailey, Will Donald, Ian Gall, Will Mahony, Alex Gurney and Harry Eyre jr.

'Two men marooned'

Bruce Bairnsfather’s original cartoon, depicting “two men marooned in a sea of devastation and danger. Old Bill and Bert, with Bert rather wondering whether the poor refuge could not be improved upon, and Old Bill reproving him with the words “well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it” was drawn in October 1915 at Greenhill House, Sutton Veny, near Warminster in Wiltshire. The house was at that time Headquarters of the 34th Division, to which Bairnsfather was attached as Machine Gun Officer.

Vivian Carter, Editor of The Bystander immediately saw the cartoon's potential to strike a chord with his readers. For maximum response he chose to publish the sketch in the Christmas number of the magazine, on 24 November 1915.

In Bairnsfather – Fragments from His Life, published in December 1916, he explained why he made this decision, and what made the cartoon so successful: “Christmas, 1915, marked the lowest level of the Allied fortunes, and angry pessimism was the note of the day. We, the Allied nations, were in an ‘ole, and we knew it, and the question we were all wrangling about, between bombardments, was whether the future was going to show things worse, or possibly better. There was therefore a symbolism about the ‘Better ‘Ole’ picture that raised it altogether above the ordinary ’Fragment’ level.”

The Editor went on to say: “The public saw it and collapsed. It was the limit. A funny picture enough, that of two men engaged in a furious squabble in the midst of a bombardment, but the question of the quarrel – ie, whether by any possible chance either of them could be in a worse predicament – seemed somehow to hit the public in its tenderest spot…no cartoon of the war, in actual fact, hit the public so much as that of the two desperate men in that Johnson ‘ole.”

In comparison to Vivian Carter, Bairnsfather himself “did not think so much of this drawing at the time” and felt it was “no better or worse than the other sketches I had been doing.”

At the time “Well if you knows of a better’ ole…” was submitted to The Bystander, Bairnsfather had not yet entered into any contract with the magazine. He received four guineas in payment for the cartoon.

As Bairnsfather’s most acclaimed cartoon celebrates its 100th hundredth birthday, there is no doubt that his famous phrase, which has found its way into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, will continue to be used by cartoonists for many years to come. I think we are also safe to conclude that if the Guinness Book of World Records had a category for the most used cartoon caption or theme, “well if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it” would surely hold that record.

Mark Warby has spent 36 years researching Bruce Bairnsfather’s life and work. From 1999-2010, he edited and published a bi-monthly newsletter for fellow enthusiasts worldwide, and has written numerous articles on the cartoonist for publication. He was a historical consultant to the Royal Shakespeare Company for their Winter 2014-15 production The Christmas Truce by Phil Porter. He is currently working on a major new biography of Bruce Bairnsfather. You can discover more here.

Ron McGeary is a professional cartoonist/caricaturist with 40 years’ experience. His work has appeared in most British national newspapers and magazines including The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, and The Sunday Times Magazine. He is a member of the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain, the Association of Caricature Artists, The British Cartoonists' Association, and the International Society of Caricature Artists (based in the USA).

© Centenary News & Author

Images: Bruce Bairnsfather's cartoon © 2015 Estate of Barbara Bruce Littlejohn; centenary cartoon © Ron McGeary; Ploegsteert Memorial (Centenary News)