The Better 'Ole – 100 Years On

Posted on Tuesday 17th November 2015

On the 100th birthday of the drawing and publication of The Better 'Ole, Captain Bruce Bairnsfather's most famous cartoon, his biographers Major and Mrs Holt look back on the cartoon's journey and how it came to be their most treasured possession.

the first world war's most viewed image
Captain Bruce Bairnsfather was the most famous cartoonist of the First World War and The Better ‘Ole was his most famous cartoon. It depicts two British Tommies in a crater with shells whizzing around their heads and the older one (who is obviously Bairnsfather’s most enduring character, “Old Bill”) is saying, sarcastically, to his young companion, “Well if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it”.

It is a situation which has become so iconic that it has been used many, many times by modern-day national cartoonists (such as Garland, Steve Bell and Matt), often by putting opposing politicians in the ‘ole.

enter old bill
The cartoon is based on Bairnsfather’s own experiences with the Royal Warwicks in Plugstreet Wood (where he started to draw cartons to keep his and his soldiers’ spirits up) and then at Wieltje near Ypres from December ’14-April ’15, where he was blown up by a shell, and sent home to recover – his nerves as well as his body.

Once declared fit for light duties, he was posted to the Isle of Wight to train other ‘light duties’ men who had already served, who grumbled and ‘slacked’, yet were full of soldiers’ humour. Bairnsfather put them into the cartoons he continued to draw and was asked by a fellow officer ‘who was the soldier you keep putting in your drawings?’ Without thinking, he answered ’That’s Old Bill’ – and so the loveable old scamp was christened.

Bairnsfather’s next posting was to Salisbury Plain, the huge training ground. There at Sutton Veny he was appointed divisional machine gun training officer to 34th Division. He enjoyed the enthusiasm of the new recruits he was training and it was also a very prolific time for cartooning. It was here, in October 1915, that he drew the cartoon whose title became part of the English language and a popular catch phrase and which guaranteed his future international fame – The Better ‘Ole, which now is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The drawing appeared in the Christmas edition of The Bystander magazine and was an instant success – the magazine quickly sold out. Bairnsfather’s career path was mapped out for him.

but what happened to the original drawing?
The original cartoon has had an interesting life. It was reproduced in the Fragments From France series of compilations of Bairnsfather’s cartoons, as postcards, cigarette cards, on pottery, as the title of a West End show which went on to tour around the world, as the title of a Warner Bros film… It was known and loved world-wide.
So what is our interest in this unforgettable cartoon? We had been researching Bairnsfather’s life and works since 1970 when we had published what we called The Best of Fragments of France – a compilation of his best-loved cartoons with our own explanatory historical captions. Then, in the 1980s, when we started our research for the first (and still only) biography of Bairnsfather, in which we included examples of many of the collectables which bore his cartoons, we started to acquire a huge collection ourselves.

the search
Our main source of items was via a small weekly advert in the collectors’ magazine Exchange and Mart. This produced a few gems but we had many a wild goose chase, far afield, to see what was described as ‘an original Bairnsfather’, only to find a poor print. At the time we were living in Edgware and when we received an answer from an address in Watford, purporting to have an original Bairnsfather cartoon, we thought ‘Oh dear, another print. Shall we bother?’ But in the end we decided it was not that far so made an appointment. Arriving at our destination we were greeted by a delightful whisky-jar enthusiast, who insisted on showing us his entire, vast array of bottles and jugs in various materials before we were allowed to glimpse the picture.
is it or isn't it?
Finally it was brought to show us. It was The Better ‘Ole, framed in the same original brown wood frame as several other originals we had found over the years and with a sticker of the Grafton Gallery where we knew it had first been exhibited. By this time we were familiar with BB’s distinctive signature and it looked good. We held our breath and turned the picture over. And there were the magic words, in his hand writing, “Bruce Bairnsfather, 34th Division, Sutton Veney. Xmas No. 9 am Sat.” We daren’t look at each other for fear of bursting into tears, or song, or a Highland jig in our excitement. Calmly we asked how it had come into the whisky jar collector’s possession. He told us that it was at an auction in Scotland, the property, it was said, of a Scottish General. This rang true to all we had found out about the picture’s original purchase. Then the delicate question, ‘How much do you want for it?’

At this time, it has to be said, we were fairly impoverished, Tonie having resigned from the Army, our tours still in an embryonic and unprofitable stage. Finally he agreed a sum that we could just about afford (provided we didn’t eat for the next few weeks) and with which he was perfectly happy. Arriving safely home with what has become our most treasured possession we could not believe the serendipitous fact that it had made its way to us, the two people to whom it meant so very much.

the original on the move
Since being in our possession the precious picture has had many adventures. Notably in 1984 the V and A Museum mounted a significant exhibition, ‘English Caricature, 1620 to the Present’. The Better ‘Ole was chosen to feature alongside such greats as Rowlandson, Hogarth, Gillray and Tenniel. It then moved on to the Yale University Centre for British Art, the Library of Congress in Washington and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

In 1987 the cartoon featured in an exhibition of our collection held in Phillips the Auctioneers and in 1999 another exciting exhibition was inaugurated in the V and A, sponsored by British Airways and the Press Club – ‘A Century of Britain’s Cartoonists’, in anticipation of the Millenium. The Better ‘Ole hung alongside Belcher, Giles, Illingworth, Low, McGill et al. The exhibition then moved on to the Press Club, to the Cartoon Art Museum and the Cartoon Centre at the University of Canterbury. Later to astonishing interest on the part of the locals, it was shown in the Cloth Hall Museum in Ypres.

The Centenary of the outbreak of the Great War in 2014 and the following year, however, marked a very busy and mobile year for the cartoon. We loaned BB items from our collection (highlight of course being The Better ‘Ole) to exhibitions (and gave illustrated talks at most of them) in the old Royal Warwickshire Museum, the Cartoon Art Museum, the new Information Centre at Plugstreet in Ypres and, perhaps most appropriately, to the WW1 exhibition in the New Visitor Centre at Stonehenge – its birth place.

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather's The Better 'Ole.

The reverse of the cartoon, featuring Bairnsfather's own handwriting.

our petition for recognition for bairnsfather's importance to morale – lord faulkner of worcester joins in
We also mounted a petition to get national recognition for this man who did so much to raise morale during the ’14-’18 War (he was used by the Secret Service and created, uniquely, Official Cartoonist). He inspired troops on the Western Front, the Home Front, the French, Italian and American sectors, which earned him the popular soubriquet, ‘The Man Who Won the War’ and praise from such important personalities as General Sir Ian Hamilton. Yet, because he depicted the soldiers as they really were – muddy, somewhat scruffy, but always loyal and humorous – he was never accepted by ‘The Establishment’, never awarded any national recognition. We hoped to at least trigger a statement of thanks from the nation, in the Houses of Parliament.

Thanks to the enthusiastic support of the cause by Lord Faulkner of Worcester, Lord Astor of Hever, Representative in the House of Lords for the MOD, wrote a letter in which he referred to BB as ‘this great cartoonist’ and stated, ‘I have no doubt about the contributions Bruce Bairnsfather’s work made to the war effort a hundred years ago… I am pleased to offer my own recognition to the contribution that Bruce Bairnsfather made by his work.’
But perhaps now, on the 100th birthday of his most famous cartoon, The Better ‘Ole, the nation should make another positive and concrete gesture of thanks and recognition of this remarkable man and his remarkable cartoon.

Further Reading

The Biography of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather
(Paperback - 288 pages)
ISBN: 9781473827233

by Major and Mrs Holt
Only £14.99

Bruce Bairnsfather created one of the best-known cartoon characters of the First World War - 'Old Bill' and he drew what many consider to be the most enduring cartoon of all time - the 'Better Ole'.
Reprinted due to popular demand this biography was the first to be published about the man and his work

During the First World War the contribution of Bairnsfather's work to the morale of the Nation, through laughter, is without question. Indeed there were those who thought he was…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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