We begin this blog with perhaps the most famous cartoon by the most famous cartoonist of the Great War. Bruce Bairnsfather’s ‘Better ‘Ole,’ was published in The Bystander magazine’s Christmas number on 24 November 1915 and was an instant hit with its readers both at home and at the front, summing up, as it did, that most elemental of human conditions - discontent. Under the title, ‘One of our minor wars – "Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it"’, the scenario of two hapless Tommies, marooned in a shell-hole in No-Man’s Land during a heavy bombardment and bickering over their predicament conjured humour out of the blackest of situations and epitomised both the dry wit of the typical British Tommy with his world-weary wisecracks, not to mention his admirable stoicism.
Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment had limited success as a commercial artist prior to the outbreak of war. But his talent for drawing found him fans in the trenches and after decorating several officers’ dug-outs in France, he was persuaded to send one of his drawings back to Britain for publication. The magazine he chose to approach was The Bystander, purely due to the fact that a copy of it was lying around and its size and format seemed to suit his cartoons. Much to his surprise, he received a letter of acceptance a few weeks later, together with a cheque for two guineas and a request for more drawings. His first cartoon, ‘Where did that one go?’, appeared in the magazine on 31 March 1915 and was the first of hundreds Bairnsfather would draw for the publication through the war and beyond. ‘The Better ‘Ole’ was reproduced countless times, with a colour version appearing in one of a series of portfolios called ‘Fragments from France,’ released by The Bystander through the war and later on a range of pottery by Grimwades. When Bairnsfather penned a stage adaptation of his cartoons with Arthur Eliot which was staged at the Oxford Theatre, London in 1917, there was only one name for the play - ‘The Better ‘Ole.’
Bairnsfather’s cartoons are a well-loved and integral part of Great War popular culture; and are likewise an integral part of our WW1 collections here, housing, as we do, the complete run of The Bystander which is part of the Illustrated London News archive. ‘The Better Ole’ may be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the First World War but we’ll be featuring lots more about Bairnsfather in this blog over the coming months, including, we hope, some more unexpected and little-seen images of his life, work and legacy.
Click here to see some other examples of Bairnsfather's work.