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Cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfarther remembered

PUBLISHED: 12:48 19 October 2009 | UPDATED: 16:18 20 February 2013

Bruce Bairnsfather in his Royal Warwickshire uniform

Bruce Bairnsfather in his Royal Warwickshire uniform

In memory of First World War cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, who died 50 years ago this year, Kent authors Tonie and Valmai Holt have revisited his famous depictions of life in the water-logged trenches in Flanders...

Tonie and Valmai Holt may be better known by the names under which they ran their worldwide battlefield tours from the picturesque Golden Key building in Sandwich - 'Major & Mrs Holt'.
They sold the tour company to concentrate on writing guidebooks and, still based in an old pub in Woodnesborough, also write military biographies, including that of the famous First World War cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather (BB), creator of the archetypal Tommy, 'Old Bill'.
In fact, Kent Life featured their fascinating collection of Bairnsfather originals, ephemera, pottery, postcard, playing cards and other artefacts, as long ago as 1978!
This year saw the 50th anniversary of Bairnsfather's death and to mark the occasion, the couple produced a revised reprint of their compilation of The Best of Fragments From France, by Capt Bruce Bairnsfather [BOFF].
It includes some 140 of BB's enduringly amusing cartoons, plus a section of tribute cartoons by some of the world's leading cartoonists, including Dave Chisholm who lives near Sandwich, Lisa Donnelly of The New Yorker, 'Matt' Garland, Steve Bell, Martin Rowson, Chris Riddell, Ludo Goderis of De Standaard, donated by them for a charity auction for Help for Heroes on the day of the anniversary.
The first cartoons were drawn from BB's own all-too-real experience of life in the water-logged trenches round Plugstreet Wood in Flanders in the winter of 1914-18. Published weekly in The Bystander magazine, these images of Tommy enduring the mud and the misery, the shells and the snipers, the rats and the lousy rations with stoical good humour, became such a success that the magazine produced a compilation of them called Fragments From France.
The title acknowledged the current passion for alliteration and ignored the fact that they were originally from Belgium, not France. 'Fragments From Flanders' would have been ideal, as Flanders straddled both Belgium and Northern France.
So popular did they become, both on the Home Front, where loved ones were able to glimpse the sort of hardships their soldier boys were enduring, and on the Western Front itself, where copies sent out from home were eagerly awaited, that more series had to be produced. There followed More Fragments, then Still More, then Numbers Four, Five, Six, Seven and, finally Eight.
The cartoons launched Bairnsfather on an unexpected career path as playwright, lecturer and author. He and his characters were marketed by The Bystander organisation in a way that made BB a worldwide success. From early days, a distinctive archetypal, grumbling yet loveable central character emerged - 'Old Bill'.
BB's most famous cartoon shows Bill in a trench around which all hell is breaking loose in the form of shells and machine-gun fire, growling at his complaining companion, 'Well, if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it'.
In 1999, that famous cartoon, which had already been exhibited at Yale on a tour of America and is the pride of the Holts' collection, was chosen to appear in a prestigious exhibition which was unveiled at the V&A, sponsored by British Airways and the London Press Club and entitled A Century of Britain's Cartoonists.
The exhibition finally moved to the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
Despite his universal popularity and success and the fact that he was credited by Sir Ian Hamilton as 'The Man Who won the War' for his contribution to the morale of the nation and its fighting force, Bairnsfather never received any official recognition in the form of medals or decorations.
His realistic depiction of soldiers, scruffy, battered and muddied by the conditions in which they were living and fighting, grumbling and joking at their hardships, did not endear him to 'The Establishment'.
The Times Literary Supplement wrote scathing reviews of his books Bullets and Billets and Mud to Mufti, declaring that he depicted 'a degraded type of face... the very type which the Army is anxious to suppress.' Questions were raised in the House.
The Holts have long worked to redress that omission. In 1978 they first published BOFF and in 1980 succeeded in getting a blue GLC Plaque erected on his studio at No 1 Stirling Street in Knightsbridge, which was unveiled by his daughter, Barbara Littlejohn.
In 1985 their biography, In Search of the Better 'Ole: The Life, Works and the Collectables of Bruce Bairnsfather, was published. It brought together some 15 years of research into this man whom, they say, "we had come almost to regard as a favourite member of the family." The biography was updated and reprinted in 2001 and in 2003 they sponsored and inaugurated a commemorative plaque on the rebuilt cottage in St Yvon near 'Plugstreet Wood' in which he drew his first cartoons.
BOFF has been reprinted several times, but with this current update and reprint, Tonie and Valmai hope
to fulfil two ambitions: one, to get even more recognition for Captain Bruce Bairnsfather and two, to raise money for the charity Help for Heroes. This charity, started by ex-Royal Green Jacket Bryn Parry and his wife Emma in 2007, raises much-needed funds for wounded servicemen and women It is one that BB, who cared deeply for his men, would have been 100 per cent in favour of..
Bryn Parry, who turned cartoonist when he left the Army, drew his version of BB's The Better 'Ole which forms the back cover of the Holts' book. It was among 20 'Bairnsfather homage' cartoons auctioned for the charity on 29 September, helping towards a total of £8,000 for Help for Heroes.

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