BRUCE BAIRNSFATHER AND OLD BILL

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Welcome to the first  original and official website owned by Old Bill collectors and updated by Joe Bristow and  is dedicated to the works of Bruce Bairnsfather a prolific cartoonist during the first and second world wars.This wesite in constantly updated with all the latest news and events related to the work of Bairnsfather with its very own hot news page.

  Some say Bruce Bairnsfather was the guy that won the first world war by keeping the morale of the troops up. Even nearly a century on there are still dedicated followers of his work.

Several meetings of Bairnsfather fans have happened over the last couple of years with followers coming from as far afield as New Zealand to retrace the steps of Bairnsfather.

The cartoon shown on the title page is probably his most famous and indeed one of the most famous cartoons ever produced, leading to a title phrase "If you know a better hole - go to it".

His first world war cartoons, were published in the Bystander and issued in collections titled "Fragments from France".  He went on to write numerous books notably "Bullets & Billets" and "From Mud to Mufti".

 

Over the years, due to the popularity of his cartoons quite an array of collectibles from the first world war, second world war and post war have been produced including pottery, car and motorcycle mascots, prints, posters etc.(examples of which can be seen in the photo section).Please email with any question or comments on this email

Joe.bristow@blueyonder.co.uk

 

 

WW1  were bairnsfather fought please click on video link

 


 

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CAPTAIN BRUCE BAIRNSFATHER
Royal Warwickshire Regiment
09.07.1887 ~ 29.09.1959
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Born on 9th July 1887 at Muree on India's North West Frontier, Charles Bruce Bairnsfather was destined to become the best known and best loved of Britain's Great War artists.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined the Warwickshire Regiment and served on the Western Front. He experienced the strange Christmas truce of 1914 and later wrote about it in his best-selling autobiographical account 'Bullets & Billets'.

It was whilst serving in the infamous Ypres Salient that he created the first of what were to become his 'Fragments from France' cartoons on the wall of his billet - a battle-scarred cottage in the village of St Yvon. He also created the character of 'Old Bill', he of the walrus moustache and tin hat who so epitomised the poor old British Tommy and struck a nerve with them.

In April 1915 Bruce was wounded and shipped back to 'Blighty'. With his cartoons attracting attention at home he was approached by the Bystander magazine and so began the publishing phenomenon 'Fragments from France' - a series of cartoons which sold in millions.

Bruce returned to active duty in France in late 1915. However, his health again deteriorated and he was hospitalised and formally classified as no longer fit for active service.

In 1916, with the French suffering heavily at Verdun they requested Bruce be loaned to them to create cartoons for them to help raise moral. The British appointed him 'Officer Cartoonist' (the first ever such title in the British Army) and sent him back to France. He also toured the Italian front and drew for the Italians, and when the Americans entered the war he toured with them too.

Following the war Bruce earned his living through his cartoons. At the time of the Second World War he offered his services to the British, but was not used to any great degree and so ended up serving with the American forces as a cartoonist.

Throughout his life he suffered many ups and downs and turns of fortune, but through it all Old Bill was always with him.

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In September 1959, after three major operations, he succumbed to bladder cancer and died, aged 72.

Although greatly loved and respected by those who served Bruce never received any public recognition for the part he played in the Great War, when he was described as 'the man who helped us win the war'. The authorities and top brass resented the jibes and mirth, often at their expense, in his cartoons which were so loved and enjoyed by the ordinary soldiers.

Although never forgotten by the men he served with, nor by countless fans around the world today, Bruce has nevertheless never been honoured, or is his passing marked by any official memorial. For a man who did so much for the nation in its hour of trial and tribulation to still go unrecognised is shameful.

Bruce Bairnsfather will never be forgotten by those who knew him, or have known of him.

 

 

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ST. YVON BELGIUM 13TH DECEMBER 2003

BRUCE BAIRNSFATHER 1887-1959

In a dugout beneath a cottage on this site in the winter of 1914-1915 lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather of the royal warwickshire regiment drew the first cartoon of the series that were to be published as Fragments from France.His immortal character Old Bill ,the archetypal humerous British soldier soon evolved and appeared in books,plays,films,on china and many other media,often in the classic situation of THE BETTER OLE.

Bruce Bairnsfathers morale raising contribution to the war effort was recognised and he became world famous.He also took part in this area in the 1914 Christmas truce .


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THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE
OF 1914

 
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"A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet and looked about. This complaint became infectious. It didn't take 'Our Bert' long to be up on the skyline. This was a signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied to by all our Alfs and Bills, until, in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside the trenches, and were advancing towards each other in no-man's land.

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"A strange sight, truly!"


So writes Bruce Bairnsfather about the Christmas Truce of 1914. This event was an outbreak of spontaneous fraternization between troops almost entirely concentrated in the British sector on the south edge of the Ypres Salient. Contact was in varying degrees from exchanging smokes, chatting or playing football in No-Mans-Land, to sharing meals and dinner gossip in the opponents trenches. It occurred less frequently where one or both of the opposing formations were elite or hard-edged types. From its occurrence, the Christmas Truce has been looked upon as a symbol of a humanity not yet submerged by the mechanical forces of industrial-age warfare. With its ability to inspire and hold the imagination of later generations, the Legend of the Christmas Truce might be looked upon as a rare positive outcome of the Great War.

Those present, however, like Bairnsfather, premier cartoonist of the First World War and creator of "Old Bill" , were decidedly less sentimental about it. His account above of the unauthorized truce is widely quoted, but no one ever adds what he wrote a few paragraphs later:

"There was not an atom of hate that day and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to war and the will to beat them relaxed It was just like the interval between rounds in a friendly boxing match.' [Author's italics.]

Books

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, arguably the greatest cartoonist of the Great War, went to his grave largely unmourned by a nation which had forgotten the huge debt it owed this talented and singular man. But across the land many an old soldier, the veterans of that terrible carnage on the Western Front, remembered and shed a tear for their favourite, their 'officer cartoonist', the creator of Old Bill and 'Fragments from France', the man who got them through it with a heart full of mirth, a chuckle and a laugh, 'the man who won the war'. For Bairnsfather had been through what they had been through, seen what they had seen, experienced what they had experienced. He had shared it all with the stout-hearted British Tommies, who, smothered in mud, flies and lice, in trenches built with the decomposing bodies of the dead, desperate to come to terms with the appalling conditions, the illness, the squalor, the disease, and the constant fear of death, needed something to pull their minds away from the brutal reality of that grim slaughter. It was Bairnsfather who gave it to them. Drawing on their shared experiences, he worked his magic with pencil and pen, brush and ink, and brought smiles to the faces of that doomed generation; once flushed with the bloom of youth, made sterile, grey and pallid by the horrors of the war of attrition being waged by their superiors.



Bairnsfather was a man of his time, arguably in the right place at the right time with a fateful combination of circumstances which very rarely occur. He emerged as the soldiers' favourite, entrusted by them with the merriment of their souls, souls pounded and battered by the constant crash of shells and the rat-tat-tat of machine guns which sliced through their ranks like hot knives through butter. Here, for the first time since they were printed in 1916 and 1919, are Bairnsfather's own autobiographies, 'Bullets & Billets' and 'From Mud to Mufti', telling his story in his own inimitable style. Together with his illustrations, a comprehensive biography, maps, facts and figures, and a glossary, the book provides a unique insight into the way this 'officer cartoonist' perceived the war, his war, and how he got through it doing what he did best, putting a smile on the face of the good old British Tommy.    

BULLETS AND BILLETS

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Published in December 1916 by the publisher Grant Richards , was Bainsfathers first attempt at writting a book and a very good one to.The book covered Bairnsfathers first 6 months in france up untill his being wounded and exit in the second battle of Ypers .

The first edition of 50000 copies were sold out in the first week such was his popularity at the time.The book was reprinted at least seven times over the next two years,even today you can still buy a modern reprint of Bullets & Billets.A limited edition of 100 copies of the book was made each with a personalised sketch was printed in 1917.Please read Bullets and Billets and from Mud to Mufti in full on the Bullets to Billets page.

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FROM MUD TO MUFTI

When the war ended in 1918 Bairnsfather was back in England working on a new book again for Grant Richards.It followed on were Bullets & Billets left off and covered his wide range of travels to many place and adventures during the war finishing with his arrival back in England from America in October 1918.The book again as with Bullets and Billets was a great success.


FILMS

THE BETTER OLE

(the 1926 version)

 

The lead role of Old Bill was played by Sydney Chaplin.

Directed by  Charles "Chuck" Reisener.

Made by Warner Brothers .

 

 

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Syd Chaplin was a successful silent-film comedian whose importance has been upstaged by his much more famous half-brother. But in fact it was Syd Chaplin who helped kid brother Charlie get his first jobs as a performer in Victorian music-halls. After Charlie Chaplin became a film star, it was big brother Syd who negotiated the contracts that made Charlie a multi-millionaire. Richard Attenborough's film biography "Chaplin" sadly neglected the major contributions which Syd Chaplin made to Charlie's career, in addition to entirely ignoring Syd's own career as a comedian.

Like the Addams Family movies, "The Better 'Ole" is a live-action movie based on characters that originally appeared as magazine cartoons. "The Better 'Ole" stars Syd Chaplin in heavy make-up as Old Bill, a Tommy Atkins (private infantryman) in the British Expeditionary Forces during the Great War. Some historical background is necessary here. Americans of a certain age will recall Willie and Joe, the two riflemen drawn by American cartoonist (and infantryman) Bill Mauldin for "Stars and Stripes" magazine during World War Two. During the same period, English military humourist W.J.P. Jones was lampooning British Army officers in a panel cartoon called "The Two Types". What those characters represented for the Second World War, "Old Bill" represented for the British army during the First World War. Old Bill was created by Bruce Bairnsfather, a B.E.F. army captain and talented cartoonist. Bairnsfather's most famous drawing depicted Old Bill and a younger infantryman in a filthy trench full of rainwater. The younger man has clearly just finished uttering a complaint, and the caption reveals Old Bill's reply in his Cockney accent: "If you knows a better 'ole, go to it." That scene is re-enacted by Syd Chaplin in this movie, along with several more of Bairnsfather's drawings. (Bairnsfather's creation also became a London stage play, and there was a 1919 film version made in England ... so this movie is a Hollywood remake.)

Most of this film's appeal will be lost to modern viewers, who can't be expected to realise how incredibly popular (and how important to morale) Bairnsfather's cartoons were for the British war effort (and, to a lesser extent, the American war effort) during the Great War. Alas, too much of the humour here is too predictable. The best scene in "The Better 'Ole" occurs when Old Bill and his troopmate Alf go behind enemy lines disguised as the front and rear of a horse. This sequence is funny, but it's too similar to a scene in the earlier film "Shoulder Arms", in which Charlie Chaplin is a doughboy who goes behind enemy lines disguised as a tree. The fact that Syd Chaplin appears in "Shoulder Arms" (in two supporting roles) only emphasises how derivative "The Better 'OIe" is.

"The Better 'Ole" features good supporting performances by comedy veteran Edgar Kennedy and his unjustly obscure half-brother Tom Kennedy. The Kennedy brothers both had long film careers but only seldom worked together because they were similar physical types. Here, they're in separate scenes.

I enjoyed "The Better 'Ole" but I expect that most modern audiences lack the patience for it. Syd Chaplin deserves to be rediscovered, but this movie isn't one of his best efforts.
 

  Film reviews of the time 

THE BETTER 'OLE
starring Sydney Chaplin
PHOTOPLAY
December, 1926

Brother Charlie used to make pictures like this before he got all tangled up in Art. However, we come, not to bury Charlie, but to praise Syd. In this film, Syd picks up the characters of the popular Bairnsfather cartoons, weaves new adventures around Bill and Alf and makes a picture which is to comedy what "The Big Parade" is to drama.
There is one gag that places Syd right up with the Immortals. Bill andAlf, playing front and hind legs of a horse, respectively, are left in a French town that is captured by the Germans. The gorgeous adventures of that horse will always be stored in our mind as one of our Beautiful Memories of the Eighth Art. Chuck Reisner, the director, must be credited with an assist. Take the children or they will run away and go by themselves.

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THE BETTER 'OLE
Starring Sydney Chaplin
PICTURE PLAY
January, 1927

If you think Sydney Chaplin was at his best as a female impersonator in "Charley's Aunt" and it s successors, by all means see him in "The Better 'Ole" and get the shock of your life. Also, I may add, the laugh of your life. For he comes across with such glorious humor in this picturization of the war comedy that one is inclined to dare all other comedians to equal him. Certainly Syd surpasses his own record, and one trembles for fear his later pictures may not live up to his present one. Incidentally, this is one of the rare instances when a film is better than the play from which it was taken.

Ask me for the plot of "The Better 'Ole" and you find me dumb. The story is slight indeed, yet it is there; and so packed with incident that it reflects great credit upon the skill of everyone concerned in it. Syd is Private William Busby who has served thirty years in the British army, and is known as Old Bill, from which you will gather that he does not take the war too seriously. Accidentally, he frustrates a spy within his own regiment and ultimately checks the advance of the Germans. Offered by his general anything in the world, Old Bill modestly requests a sergeantry, and remarks to his buddy, Alf, "Bli' me, this ain't a bad war after all."

There is neither love nor heroines in "The Better 'Ole." Instead we have humanness and wholesome laughter. Don't pass this up; it's great.

 

OLD BILL & SON

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MODERN REVIEW

   A film that once did its bit in cheering up a Britain at war, it is unlikely to have them rolling in the aisles at the multiplex. This is not to say that it couldn't still raise a few laughs, if it was ever shown again.

From what I have read of the contemporary novelisation, and seen of the 12 production stills included in that volume - which appears to be a very faithful adaptation - , it is a jolly effort all round, and might well appeal to anyone who enjoys 'Dad's Army'. Perhaps a television audience would appreciate its quaint charms.

Certainly, it is redolent of its era. Old Bill reminds one of an elderly if slightly dotty relative, whom we should be more sorry than we are to see shuffle off into oblivion. I would go so far as to say that we would be altogether nicer and more interesting people if we made the past generations more welcome at our flickering electronic hearth. But I suppose someone over fifty would be prone to such opinions. The under-forties probably find such ordinary old films too creepily remote from the common light of current fashion for comfortable viewing. There is, truly, nothing more disturbing than being forced to observe the precursors of your own flimsy wisps of existence in that dusty shaft of relentless ephemerality!

But for all those out there who habitually prowl the graveyards of long-forgotten tears and laughter, illuminated by the unnatural light of other days, you might try second-hand booksellers for the next-best thing to seeing the film itself:

Old Bill & son : the story of the film /by Bruce Bairnsfather and Ian Dalrymple. - London : Hutchinson & Co., [1941]
   

ABOUT ME

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I am a 40 year old builder and Bairnsfather collector living in the southwest city of Bristol. I collect all aspects of Bairnsfather's collectables, but my real passion, albeit an expensive one, are his original drawings and sketches .I am also a keen photographer and motorcyclist.

Joebristow@aol.com

 

Up until a 6 years ago the main hobby of my life was Enduro Motorcycle Racing. This came to an end following a knee injury, and the bike began gathering dust in the garage.Whilst searching the internet for various things, I came across Old Bill, and Bruce Bairnsfather. My collecting began, and before long I had a fairly respectable collection building up and I began to lean toward sketches and autographed items, my Birthday present was a very nice signed copy of "The Bairnsfather Case" complete with small sketch of Old Bill which came all the way from New Zealand.

If only I could get my hands on an original Fragment drawing.

2004 arrived and I continued my search for all things Bairnsfather, searching the internet for items to add to the cabinets, travelling about the Country to fairs and auctions looking for the right piece to fill that spot and an elusive Fragments from France No.8.

Then, there it was "Adaptable Enemies" - on Ebay. Blinkin heck as Old Bill might have said. I sat tight, OK how much could I afford to put on this one? Then David Cohen came up with "Alhambra" and "Coiffure in the trenches" - the dilemma set in, which one did I like the best, which one could I afford? I went for "Adaptable Enemies" - The Enduro motorbike went on E-bay. The final minutes dragged by, the final seconds, the email "You have been outbid".... NO!

I was gutted. I contacted David Cohen, but already "Coiffure in the trenches" had been sold. Beaten to it again!

Then up popped Bill Asprey of Cartoon World. Who had an original Bairnsfather entitled "Best noose of the War", it looked the business, but I hadn't seen it in any of the Fragments or books I had. Bill sent me a condition report although the only provenance was a verbal report that it had been rescued from a tip. Was it a genuine original? Should I go for "Alhambra", whilst I deliberated on this "Alhambra" was snapped up and the decision was made for me.

I contacted Bill Asprey, payment was made, a delivery date set with the promise of a full refund should I not be happy with the drawing. Whilst waiting, I found a copy of Fragments from France No. 8 and on arrival flicked through, and there on page 13 was "Best Noose of the War", I tried to compare the magazine print with the web-site image, but had to wait until Bill arrived with the drawing.

Delivery day arrived, and the picture was unveiled. One look said - this is original, Bill pointed out the writing on the back. It was framed and hung up probably before he reached the M32 on his journey home!

 

 

 THE BEST NOOSE OF THE WAR originaly appeared in the Bystander magazine dated 12th December 1917,also that the flying no" notation and page reference on the back of the drawing referred to the theme of that issue of the magazine and page on which it appeared,as with nearly all his drawing from this period it was signed on the back.

I also confirmed that it was probably drawn about 2 weeks before the publication date around the end of November 1917 .Bairnsfather was living with his parents at Bishopston near statford upon avon,so it may have been drawn there ,or in London.The drawing was originaly sold at a exhibition of Bairnsfather drawings from theBystander which was held at the Greatorex Gallery in London in February/March 1919.

 

Now if only i could get my hands on a copy of the Bystander for 12th December 1917!!!!!!!!!

 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank a number of people for their enthusiastic and valued support and supplying invaluable material without which the, this website would be a poorer place, namely Clarence Simonsen (WW2 Bomber research), Mark Stephens, Steve Smith, Graham Micklejohn, Brian & Claire Hill, Charlie Hayter, Rick & Maureen Sperinck and Tonie & Valmai Holt for their much appreciated support. Apologies to anyone I have missed out.

 

 


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