Bruce Bairnsfather: Voice of the Soldiers
By Aimee Benoit
Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity, somewhere in Belgium, miles and miles from home.
Cold, wet through and covered with mud…so far as I could see, the future contained nothing
but repetitions of the same thing, or worse.
—Bruce Bairnsfather, Bullets and Billets, 1916
The First World War (1914–1918) was one of the most grueling and deadly conflicts in history, yet soldiers on the front lines made the best of it. British machine-gun officer Bruce Bairnsfather (1887–1959) entertained his comrades by sketching cartoons on rough bits of paper. The drawings were passed up and down the lines, conveying the humour and absurdity of life in the muddy Belgian trenches.
In 1916, Bairnsfather’s first collection of cartoons was published by The Bystander magazine, to instant success. At first, military officials worried that the images’ sarcastic view of war might slow recruitment efforts—but they soon recognized the value of humour in keeping up troops’ morale.
Bairnsfather was promoted to officer-cartoonist and spent the next three years turning tragedy into laughter. His cartoons became a common language for soldiers across the Western Front and a way to share, with loved ones at home, a war that could not be put into words.
The most beloved of Bairnsfather’s characters was “Old Bill” Busby, a seasoned, grumbling soldier with a famously bushy moustache. With his pals Bert and Alf, Old Bill was an anti-hero next to the brave, patriotic figures shown in home front propaganda. He embodied the “everyman” soldier: his fears, stresses and nostalgia for home—but also his determination to carry on. As the Lethbridge Herald commented in 1920, “He is a type that took things as they found them, and made the best of them. It was the spirit of the ‘Old Bills’ that won the war.”
Between 1920 and 1950, Bairnsfather made 11 tours across Canada and the United States. He gave an illustrated lecture in Lethbridge in November 1920 and returned at least twice. These visits speak to Bairnsfather’s broad impact across the English-speaking world—but also, amidst people’s desire to forget the horrors of war, an ongoing need to make sense of it all.
You can learn more about Bairnsfather’s work and impact in the new exhibit now on display at the Galt Museum & Archives, Bruce Bairnsfather: Voice of the Soldiers.