The front-line funnies: cartoons and comic strips in the First World War

In this blog post, Matt Shinn looks into a major research project by Jane Chapman that is telling the story of the two World Wars through an unlikely, but important, and up to now, largely overlooked medium.

Two bristle-haired Tommies are sitting in a shell hole, while explosions fill the sky above them. We don’t know exactly what has just passed between them, but one turns to the other and says ‘Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.’

The cartoon, featuring the anti-hero Old Bill, was by the British humourist Bruce Bairnsfather. It was to become the most famous cartoon of the First World War. And work of its kind can give us an at-a-glance appreciation of what people at the time of the Great War were thinking. If it’s a comic strip that will also provide a sense of story that is a valuable record, according to Jane Chapman, Professor of Communications at Lincoln University.

Hark! Hark! The Dogs do Bark. Artist unknown. Published by G.W. Bacon 1914
Hark! Hark! The Dogs do Bark. Artist unknown. Published by G.W. Bacon 1914

The AHRC-supported project that Jane Chapman has been working on, Comics and World Wars: a Cultural Record, began with the idea that comics were an important piece of popular culture that had been overlooked by historians. ‘Many academics have been interested in the mainstream press only,’ she says. ‘And within newspapers, they’ve tended to overlook the apparently marginal things – the cartoons and the adverts, both of which can tell you a lot.’ The project is intended to bring back into public understanding the heritage of comics and cartoons produced at the time of the First World War, and to shed light on the attitudes that they demonstrate. And in some cases, to recuperate much of this material that has been forgotten – it’s mouldering away in collections, and it’s not usually been written about.

“The project is intended to bring back into public understanding the heritage of comics and cartoons produced at the time of the First World War”

Vulgar caricatures

The graphic art produced during the First World War is of many different kinds. An exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, which the AHRC has supported as part of the Comics and World Wars project, brings together over 300 images, many on loan from the Cambridge University Library War Reserve collection, the biggest store of war-related ephemera in the world. They range from humorous cartoons from newspapers and magazines, to cigarette cards and cartoon maps, and colourful comic postcards by the likes of William Heath Robinson and Donald McGill (who would go on to become the ‘king of the saucy seaside postcard’).

Fifth Gloucester Gazette, March 1918. Syndics of the University of Cambridge
Fifth Gloucester Gazette, March 1918. Syndics of the University of Cambridge

Then there are the trench publications that were produced by serving soldiers for their own entertainment, some of which featured cartoons. The ‘Comics and the World Wars’ research project has found 800 editions, with some 200-odd examples of multi-panel cartoons. Bruce Bairnsfather himself started out drawing cartoons for soldiers’ publications, and his jokey style  was copied by others as the grumbling but steadfast Old Bill became the face of the long-suffering Tommy in the trenches, and hugely popular among the men at the front. Bairnsfather’s work was criticised in Parliament as ‘vulgar caricatures of our heroes’, but the Old Bill cartoons were reproduced on plates and cards, and even inspired stage shows and films.

He looks smarter in his Khaki - but I love him best in this. Donald McGill c. 1916
He looks smarter in his Khaki – but I love him best in this. Donald McGill c. 1916

The work in the Cartoon Museum exhibition – Never Again! World War I in Cartoon and Comic Art – also covers a huge range of subjects, with depictions of life in the trenches, themes from popular songs, and air raids. Women’s war work, suffragettes and conscientious objectors all featured frequently in cartoons and comic strips of the time. And as Jane Chapman says, around the time of the First World War cartoons and comic strips weren’t always conservative in their underlying message: political organisations – including trade unions and suffrage groups – also used them to try to bring about change. ‘The Labour movement for example used the cartoon image of the gullible worker, forever being taken in by the system, and a victim of capitalism and recruitment propaganda.’

 “Women’s war work, suffragettes and conscientious objectors all featured frequently in cartoons and comic strips of the time”

Then there are the ‘hate cartoons’ that demonise the Germans, often making great play of the German spiked helmet, and showing the Hun as a spider, gorilla or monster. The Kaiser was always a popular subject – ‘how ugly, incompetent, feeble or Satanic do you want to make him?’ But there were still boundaries – one Australian cartoon of a bayoneted Kaiser was turned down for publication. And there are other depictions of the enemy, by the likes of Heath Robinson and Haselden, that acknowledge the humanity that was shared by both sides. ‘The soldiers themselves often portrayed the Germans with a degree of empathy,’ says Jane Chapman, ‘seeing them as just doing their job, as the allies were. The further from home a soldier was, and the longer they had been away, the more mellow their attitude in writing became towards the enemy.’

The serious business of the comic

The First World War marks an important point in the evolution of the comic strip. There had been strips before the war, but they were aimed at children: it was in the Great War that adults began to take an interest in the strip format. And cartoons became a hugely important publication medium during the conflict, as they weren’t subjected to the same kinds of censorship as print. At the same time, the adult market for cartoons was developing because of the need for propaganda, and simple forms of communication and entertainment. The recognisable idiom of the comic strip, including many of its conventions (such as speech bubbles), was being formed.

Young man, I hope you came by all those things honestly? Donald McGill, 1917
Young man, I hope you came by all those things honestly? Donald McGill, 1917

The cartoons from the First World War also give visual form to important aspects of the conflict. Among soldiers themselves, for example, the figure of the anti-hero was very popular, but this could contrast sharply with depictions in the British press of soldiers as heroes, further reinforcing the belief among many at the front that people at home didn’t understand the reality of the war.

“A hundred years after the First World War, cartoons can also provide a means of reaching out to a more general audience, and interesting them in the history of the conflict.”

Finally, a hundred years after the First World War, cartoons can also provide a means of reaching out to a more general audience, and interesting them in the history of the conflict. As Cartoon Museum curator Anita O’Brien puts it, ‘cartoons and comic strips give us a different way of approaching the war, and the feelings that people had about it. We’re like a bridge between the knowledge that academics have and a public who may not be easy to reach: many of the people who come to the Cartoon Museum would not go to other museums. Cartoons and comic strips are a marginal artform – they’re never seen as high art – but they have tendrils that reach out to a lot of aspects of the period. They can introduce subjects visually that people might not initially want to read about: they’re a great way in.’

You can find out further information from the University of Lincoln.

Watch an AHRC film on the project

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