1914: Then Came Armageddon

Fragments from France

Selected cartoons from the various editions of Fragments from France by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather

About the Author

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (1887-1959), a British artist and soldier, had extensive practical experience in the trenches, having joined the War in 1914. Bairnsfather was born into a British military family. Before joining the war, he enrolled in art school but left to pursue being an engineer and ultimately joined the military.  He spent much of his time actively fighting at the Western Front, sketching along the way. During his time in the rear to recover from wounds, he developed his skills as a cartoonist, which he then used to amuse his comrades beginning with his first publication in 1915.

Bairnsfather emerged as one of the most popular cartoonists of the First World War. His regular cartoon series about the soldier “Old Bill” was titled “Fragments from France” and appeared in the weekly publication The Bystander. Old Bill was a “Brit” that people back home could relate to and who displayed a calm, slightly humorous detachment from the mundane and dangerous life of soldiering. He was depicted as an elderly British man with a prominent mustache. Bairnsfather intended the drawings to be a humorous take on the “ingloriousness of war, its preposterous absurdity, and of its futility as a means of settling the affairs of nations” (Fragments from France).

Camera Portrait of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather

A Letter from the Editor of “The Bystander”

After the astounding success of the first edition of Bairnsfather’s cartoons, the editor of The Bystander commented on the necessity and impact of his work during the publication of the second collection of Bairnsfather’s cartoons titled Fragments from France.

“He has become a household word–or perhaps one should say a trench-hold word. Who is ever the worse for a laugh? Certainly not the soldier in trench or dug-out or shell-swept billet. Rather may it be said that the Bairnsfather laughter has acted in thousands of cases as an antidote to the bane of depression. It is the good fortune of the British Army to possess such an antidote, and the ill-fortune of the other belligerents that they do not possess its equivalent.”

The Bystander's Fragments from France by Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather
First Edition of Fragments from France
Bruce Bairnsfather on the front lines, less than a quarter mile from the German trenches
Bruce Bairnsfather on the front lines, less than a quarter mile from the German trenches

Fragments from France Grows in Popularity Among the Soldiers

Bairnsfather received many positive reviews surrounding the satirical lens through which he portrayed the war. In a letter to Bairnsfather, a soldier wrote, “may I, with all deference, congratulate you on your humour, your fidelity, your something–else not easily defined–I mean your power of expressing in black and while a condition of mind” (Fragments from France).

Similarly, a Scots officer in the Edinburgh Evening News spotlighted how the Fragments from France were the “quintessence of life.” It described soldiers gathered together to laugh and enjoy the various publications of Bairnsfather’s work (Fragments from France).

Closer to UW-Madison, one  American Soldier, Dr. George H. Reddick from Wabeno, WI, explained, “Bert and Old Bill were two characteristics that you might find in any battalion. Rumor hath it that Old Bill was a character in the Warwicks that Bairnsfather picked for his model.”

Bairnsfather explained that he does “not claim any unique quality for these experiences. Many thousands have had the same. I merely, by request, made a record of my times” (Bullets and Billets). 

Second Edition of Fragments from France, titled More Fragments from France, by Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather
Second Edition of Fragments from France
"Well, if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it."

Bairnsfather’s Most Famous Work

In October 1915, Bairnsfather produced his most famous cartoon in his first edition of Fragments From France after being admitted to the hospital for shell shock. It was titled, “One of our minor wars – ‘Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.’” Bairnsfather depicted two soldiers in a shell hole as other shells fly past them. Old Bill and another soldier are seen discussing shelter from the shells. Bairnsfather comments on the satirical battles of war by showcasing the conversations between soldiers seen in his conversation between Old Bill and his comrades. His dry wit makes light of these soldiers being stuck in no man’s land. The bickering between them provides a lightness to a rather bleak landscape of overhead shells exploding.