Tonie & Valmai Holt write about their long fascination with the finest Great War cartoonist, and their plans for the unveiling of a memorial plaque during the weekend of 13 December 2003
IN THE BEGINNING....
In 1975 we started collecting old picture postcards and soon found that we were accumulating quite a few comic cards of the First World War War by an artist called Bruce Bairnsfather. Fascinated by the eternal nature of their humour we went on to complete 9 sets of 6 cards in a series called Fragments From France.
By this time we had included details of his cards in three of our books, Picture Postcards of the Golden Age, Till the Boys Come Home (The Picture Postcards of the First World War) and several editions of the Stanley Gibbons Postcard Catalogue. We were beginning to want to find out more about this man who so caught the spirit of the WWI Tommy - his dogged determination not to be 'downhearted' and his humour. So began a quest which culminated, ten years later, in our biography, In Search of the Better 'Ole and reprints of some of his most enduring cartoons with modern-day explanations, in The Best of Fragments From France. We also produced reproductions of his famous Old Bill car mascot. In 2001 Pen & Sword Books printed an updated edition of In Search of the Better 'Ole.
We found our subject increasingly fascinating yet elusive to get to know. During our years of researching and collecting the many items that were manufactured following the fame that he achieved in and after the Great War, however, we came to love this true 'gentleman' and to yearn to get him the official recognition that seemed so lacking from the Establishment.
FAME - BUT NO OFFICIAL RECOGNITION
For although Bairnsfather was created the first 'Officer Cartoonist' of the British Army; worked for Ml7; was used by the French, Italian and American Forces to boost their morale as he had done for the British; although his creations 'Old Bill' of the walrus moustache and his immortal situation, The Better 'Ole, made him world famous, with plays, films, books,lecture tours, all manner of pottery and other collectable items; although General Sir Ian Hamilton called him 'The Man Who Won the War', he never received any honours or awards from his country. Up to this day the Imperial War Museum has consistently refused to mount a Bairnsfather exhibition. Yet he was the most popular and best-known cartoonist of his age.
ATTEMPTS TO GET THAT RECOGNITION
Over the years we have tried to redress the situation, with the erection of a Blue GLC plaque on one of his London studios, lectures in the V&A, the National Army Museum, the Historial Museum in Péronne, at many WFA Branches, in the Cloth Hall in Ypres etc, by showing our collection of Bairnsfatherware on many TV programmes, by mounting an exhibition at Phillips the Auctioneers and the Dudley Museum, by renewing his plaque at the Crematorium in Cheltenham etc etc. We lent our original of his immortal cartoon, The Better 'Ole, to a travelling exhibition that started at the V&A and toured North America and also to a touring Millenium Exhibition of The Century's Hundred Greatest Cartoons.
A LASTING MEMORIAL
Now we have devised a tangible way of making sure that he is remembered. Last year we located the cottage which is on the precise site of the ruin in which he created his very first Fragment From France, in the hamlet of St Yvon, near Ieper in Belgium. The owner was delighted to agree to us erecting a bronze plaque on the cottage and the idea was then enthusiastically supported by the Burgomaster and the Historical Society of Comines-Warneton near the infamous 'Plugstreet Wood'. We then approached the authorities in the In Flanders Fields Museum and the Archives in Ieper who also added their wholehearted support and between us all we have devised the following draft programme:
THE DRAFT PROGRAMME
From 31 October 2003: Exhibitions from our extensive Bairnsfather collection of original drawings, artefacts etc in the In Flanders Museum, Ieper, and in the Documentation Centre of the Historical Society at the Town Hall, Warneton
13 December: 1030 hours. The Khaki Chums will re-dedicate their cross to the Christmas Truce.
1100 hours. Unveiling of the plaque on the cottage at St Yvon. Ceremony including short addresses by T & V Holt and a representative of Warneton Council, the Last Post Buglers who play each month at the Ploegsteert Memorial, the Regimental Mascot and other Regimental representation of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (the descendants of the R Warwickshires) Association, a blessing by the Revd Ray Jones of St Georges Church, the laying of wreaths.
It is hoped that there will be participation from the WWI re-enactment groups The Khaki Chums and the Birmingham Pals (who wear the R Warwickshire cap badge).
Parking will be at the Ploegsteert Memorial and a shuttle bus (we are trying to get the red double-decker 'Young Bill' bus to ferry people from Ieper to Plugstreet) will take people to the ceremony. Reception courtesy of Warneton Council and M Jean-Claude Walle at the Auberge at Ploegsteert after the ceremony.
Later in the day there will be re-enactments of the Christmas Truce, courtesy of Anglia Battlefield Tours, and tours of the Plugstreet Wood area.
1800 hours. Lecture by Tonie and Valmai Holt on Bairnsfather in The Cloth Hall
2000 hours. Special Last Post at The Menen Gate, Ieper.
During the weekend Bairnsfather's epic WWI film Carry on Sergeant! shown in Ieper.
TOURS TO COVER THE EVENT
Anglia Battlefield Tours, Brick House Farm, Ongar Road, Margaret Roding, Essex, CM6 1QR. Tel: 01245 231991. Fax: 01245 231771. email: . Contact Alain Chissel for more details.
The War Research Society Battlefield Tours, 27 Courtway Avenue, Maypole, Birmingham B14 4PP. Tel: 0121 430 5348. Fax: 0121 436 7401. email: . Contact lan Alexander (and it is to be hoped that he will bring his bagpipes)for more details.
The programme will obviously be more refined as we get nearer the date but we do hope that you can support us in our mission to make sure that Captain Bruce Bairnsfather will be honoured in style by publicising and/or attending the event. If you would like to know more, please ring Tonie or Valmai Holt on Tel/Fax: 01304614123, email: