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Black Comedy: cartoons in the First World War

12 November 2014

A man has been torn to shreds; an explosion reducing him to a flying mess of broken limbs. This is Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoon, ‘There Was a Young Man of Cologne’, published by The Bystander in Fragments from France (1916) and it was one of the most shocking depictions of combat to be published during the First World War. No other medium could have produced such a violent image, but the ‘comic’ nature of cartoons meant that they were able to get much closer to the reality of conflict than any other form of art or journalism.

Since newspapers were subject to government censorship, cartoons were (like other media) limited in their capacity to overtly criticise the war. At its beginning there was little desire to, as the papers shared the great popular swell of optimism, assuming the war would be won by Christmas. That tone began to shift as stalemate set in and casualties began to mount. Artists began to personally experience the nastier side of the war. Bairnsfather served on the front line and was badly wounded in France in 1915, subsequently developing shell-shock: it is, therefore, not surprising that his view of the fighting was so pessimistic.

The First World War started in the manner of a 19th-century conflict, with men marching into battle in massed ranks; but machine-guns and high explosives quickly resulted in static trench warfare. Cartoonists’ representations of the soldiers and their surroundings reflected this change, starting out colourful and heroic, but swiftly becoming increasingly messy and chaotic. Bairnsfather’s recurring character ‘Old Bill’, a scruffy, grumbling figure, typified the new style. While the cartoons were still outwardly comic in tone, ‘Old Bill’ and his kind showed their fear, in strong and significant contrast to the patterns of heroism that had predominated in the cartoons of 1914. Many also registered dissatisfaction with the leadership; one of Bairnsfather’s cartoons shows a man in a dugout, under heavy bombardment, receiving an order from headquarters to confirm whether his unit had received the correct ration of raspberry jam (‘Things that Matter‘).

Cartoons emerging from the home front tended to have a different focus, and were much more upbeat. William Kerridge Haselden in the Daily Illustrated Mirror became very popular during the war, mostly for his strips mocking the German Kaiser Wilhelm II and his son as ‘Big Willie’ and ‘Little Willie’, a pair of farcical buffoons. Punch too tended to keep up an optimistic tone, which sometimes struck an extremely jarring note; one of their responses to the disaster of the Battle of the Somme, in which hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in exchange for negligible strategic gain, was a drawing of a grinning soldier sitting in no-man’s land bandaging a minor wound with the caption ‘Well done, the New Army!’ By contrast, the prevailing mood in the ersatz newspapers the soldiers created for themselves (of which the most famous was the Wipers Times) was one of dark humour.

Cartoons like There Was a Young Man of Cologne were the soldiers’ way of extracting a form of comedy from the awful situation in which they found themselves. But they were also one of the few mechanisms through which they could hint to a wider audience about the terrible reality.

The illustration to this article was taken from Fragments from France, by Bruce Bairnsfather (published online, Project Gutenberg, 2008)