Cartoons of World War I

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 10.15.44 AMMost everybody knows Bill Mauldin’s excellent cartoons and likes them, apart from George Patton, who was outraged that Mauldin’s Willie and Joe were unkempt while in the line. Patton tried to have Mauldin, who was mercifully not under his chain of command, court-martialed; Mauldin retorted with a cartoon mocking Patton’s habit of imposing fines on soldiers not wearing the more impractical parts of the Army uniform (it was 25¢ for being caught in the 3rd Army area without your tie, a fashion accessory whose relation to combat only Patton could explain).

But men have always gone to war with a sense of humor, and it’s often been expressed by cartoons. In World War I, the now little-remembered 77th Division, AEF, had its own soldier-cartoonist, Captain P.L. Crosby. (Mauldin, also, came from a unit that is undeservedly little-remembered today, the 45th “Thunderbird” Infantry Division, a unit with a lot of real cowboys and Indians in it). Here are a couple of examples of Crosby’s art, most of which address the normal vagaries of Army life — scarcely changed in the nearly 100 years between the AEF and OEF.

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 10.15.15 AMGI’s of the last century wanted souvenirs, too, but in those days the command let them have them. Of course, the Army’s blood hadn’t been sapped by the bites of a thousand bloodsucking parasites, also known as staff judge advocates.

Crosby’s Everyman is Private Dubb, who isn’t in every cartoon. (At right, he recovers his souvenir G98a from a “buddy”). Unlike the world-weary Willie and Joe, who might well have been a cowboy and an Indian themselves, Dubb is a permanent kid, endearingly naive as he, and his little dog, endure the usual embuggerments of Army life, and the unusual ones, like going to hospital with a wound, or trying to compliment a French girl.

A few of Crosby’s cartoons do cover combat, treating it in a humorous way, and there’s at least one that is heartwrenchingly sentimental — “The Letter that Came too Late” assures a doughboy, “John Smith,” that she hasn’t forgotten him, she’s just busy; and its envelope is stamped, “MISSING,” presumably the fate of Smith, unaware of the letter.

We can be grateful to the library at Brigham Young University for putting Crosby’s book of cartoons online in PDF format.

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 10.34.10 AMThe British equivalent was Captain Bruce Bairnsfather. (We guess that would translate from the Scots as Baby Daddy). Unlike Crosby’s somewhat limited output, at least as can be seen online, Bairnsfather’s output was prodigious — perhaps because the US stint on the front was short and sharp, but for the Britons, it dragged on for over four bloody (in both the “sanguinary” and “British expletive” senses) years.

It’s interesting to consider that Mauldin was a low-ranking enlisted man and NCO, but the cartoonists we’ve seen from the Great War were both company-grade officers. The reason may be that the sort of literate social class that would find expression in cartoons was, in 1914-18, the same social class that would be commissioned readily. It was not until the years after the war that literary genres we know so well now, the memoir of the combat rifleman, and the novel written by the surviving rifleman, became common. (There are some examples after the Napoleonic wars, and more-egalitarian America always had a tradition of common-man war memoirs as far back as the French and Indian War. But there was nothing like the explosion of trench tales that came about in the 1920s and 30s).

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 10.36.50 AMThese cartoons are, in our opinion, very close to the spirit of the troops, closer perhaps than less ephemeral and more considered works of literature. Like Mauldin and Crosby, Bairnsfather had distinct characters: mustachioed and dyspeptic Bill, Bert and Alf. After the war, Old Bill is seen (in the second No. 5) with luggage labeled W. Busby, and Dr. Middleton, who apparently donated these to the University of Wisconsin, reported that Old Bill was modeled on “a character in the Warwicks,” and also that “he became so insufferably conceited that [the Tommies] could not live with hims” — although it’s not clear whether “he” is the prototype of Old Bill, or Bairnsfather himself.  Like Crosby, who draws a pretty accurate M1903, Bairnsfather rendered his weapons accurately enough for his subjects to recognize, as in the Maxim cartoon on the right, one of two “Maxim maxims” from his first of at least five volumes of cartoons.

Bairnsfather has been anthologized online by the University of Wisconsin. They did it in a somewhat complicated way, with each of his books, which were published by The Bystander magazine (which ran a cartoon of his in each weekly issue), broken down into sections. It will take a lot of right-clicking and saving (option clicking for you Mac tifosi) to collect the set. As the Maxim cartoon suggests, your efforts will be well rewarded.

  1. The Bystander’s Fragments from France
  2. More Fragments from France (Volume II).
  3. Still More Fragments from France (Volume III).
  4. Fragments from France, Volume IV.
  5. Fragments from France, Volume V.
  6. Fragments from The Bystander, No. 5. (This is just postwar, and contains both cartoons and prose pieces, one of which is on Lenin. The cartoons are end-of-war scenes).

BYU has a list of World War I related documents that has many other interesting items on it, but any other cartoons or caricatures appear to be war propaganda — some of it very well done, some of it cartoonish, but all propaganda.

7 thoughts on “Cartoons of World War I

  1. Tam

    Have you ever been to the El Paragua restaurant in Espanol, NM?

    There’s an empty frame there on a piece of stucco wall, near the bathrooms and the stairs to the second floor dining area. The frame is around the pencil sketch of Joe that Mauldin did there right on the stucco… I have a picture around here someplace if you want it. :)

    1. Hognose Post author

      I have not heard of the restaurant or the city, Tam. Sounds like I now have the flimsy excuse required for travel!

      I loved Willie and Joe but could never keep ’em straight… Is Joe the Indian one?

      1. Tam

        Willie is the Indian; Joe is the button-nosed cowboy. (Had to double check, myself. :) )

        I found the pic on my cell phone; I’ll post it up.

  2. Sando

    He’s no cartoonist but John Thomason, USMC is my favorite artist from WW1.
    I think photography has replaced sketching.
    Do cartoons connect with today’s soldier?

      1. Sando

        I’ve never heard of either but I can see why they are popular.

        I see Michael Yon as a cross between Ernie Pyle, tell-it-like-it-is reporting, and Bill Mauldin, biting commentary that a serving soldier couldn’t/wouldn’t say.

Comments are closed.