On our battlefield tours, The Forgotten Front and Ypres Armistice Day Tour, we visit Plugstreet Wood where the character, Old Bill was created by Bruce Bairnsfather. We also see the cottage which has been built over the dug-out where Old Bill was created, not far from the site of The Christmas Truce.
His humour and skills as a cartoonist caught the imagination of the men at the front and the people back home. Alongside the rum rations, concert parties and the letters from home, Old Bill and his dry comments raised the morale of the troops. Bairnsfather became a household name and volumes of his cartoons, called ‘Fragments from France’ sold over a million copies. In 1916 he was transferred to the Intelligence Department of the War Office and was appointed ‘Officer Cartoonist’. Bruce Bairnsfather had been a regular soldier before the war and rejoined the army on the outbreak of war in August 1914. Posted to 1st Battalion Royal Warwickshires, he arrived in France on 29 November 1914 and reached Plugstreet Wood, Ypres, soon after this.
Captain Bairnsfather became known as ‘the man who won the war’ as his cartoons raised the spirits of the men at the front during the four years of The Great War. He died at the age of 72, on 29 September 1959. More than 50 years later, his cartoons still make people smile. During this centenary year of the outbreak of The First World War, there are exhibitions of his work at both Stonehenge and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until March. Its new play, Phil Porter’s ‘The Christmas Truce’, opens on 29 November. It has been inspired by some of the events experienced by the Warwickshire regiment 100 years ago and features characters based on Captain Bairnsfather and Old Bill.