” HAVE I INSULTED THE BRITISH ARMY?
By Capt. BRUCE BAIRNSFATHER in an Interview. ( 5th August 1917)
Nothing so quickly lowers ”morale” as slovenliness and nothing is more difficult to check than the gradual degeneration due to trench life, and yet here we have an Army officer who invariably depicts his men ( to whom his book is dedicated) as the very type which the Army is anxious to suppress. Can it be wondered at that young soldiers try to look like a” Bairnsfather type?” We can all remember the ”Gibson Girl” but do we want our daughters to look like ”Eve” in another of our illustrated contemporaries? Yet ”Eve” is delightful, because she is not a degenerate, she is an impossible. Bairnsfather’s Alf and Bert are disgusting, because they are so possible. It is not with Captain Bairnsfather’s humour that we quarrel, for his situations are invariably amusing. It is because he standardises -almost visualises -a degraded type of face. We cannot but enter a a protest against so cruel a caricature of the men who endured the first winter in France. —–The Times Supplement in a review of Captain Bairnsfather’s sketches.
Old Bill; Bert, and Alf are not creations of an artist’s fanciful brain. They lived and had their being (they were mostly Cockneys and Wolverhampton and Birmingham men) in a watery slit in the ground, somewhere in the Ypres Salient in the never to be forgotten days of the first year of the war. I knew them well, because I lived and fought with them. I listened daily to their jokes and shared their joys and sorrows. They were not degraded or disgusting.
* * *
They used powerful and full-flavoured English, ’tis true, but they used it, more often than not as part of their ever-buoyant outlook on life. They saw humour while up to their waist in icy-cold water; they poked unceasing fun at everything and everybody- and especially at Fritz. The more severe the hardships, the more developed was their humour. Their vices were far and away outnumbered by their virtues.
”Old Bill” was as gentle a fighting man as ever shouldered a rifle He couldn’t possibly be dressed smartly under the conditions he under which he existed. He had been a very smart soldier before he was taken away from an Aldershot barrack room to make one of a draft of French’s ”contemptible little Army”
When we remember what he went through – the bitter hardships he bore, the makeshifts he put up with the prodigies of valour he performed at Mons and Ypres and elsewhere-is it any wonder that he cultivated a walrus moustache and wore a disreputable balaclava ”woolly” over a tattered khaki tunic?
I have invented nothing. This photograph I took in Plug-street Wood in 1914, and here you will see for the first time the originals of Old Bill, Bert and Alf as I knew them and portrayed them.
( see photo he took of Rafferty and pals in the trench and are named Old Bill, Bert and Alf)
People who say I libelled the British Army do not know the Old Army. That sent the First Expeditionary Force to France. Without in the least disparaging the fighting qualities of the New Army. It is quite obvious to anyone who knows the constitution and temperament of both the Old and the New, that the Mons men were of a type quite different from the men who are fighting so worthily today. It was in the Mons Army that Old Bill and his two pals were to be found almost exclusively.
Now, in an Army recruited from all ranks of civilian life, they are becoming more and more difficult to find. Presently you will be able to get a big price for a real ”Old Bill” in the flesh!
The old type has largely given place to a new type of soldier. The new man is just as good a fighter and just as good a comrade, but has a different outlook and temperament from the predecessor of the old days.
* * *
Comparatively speaking, those days are over; our Army now , has now all it wants , and more than it wants, Old Bill and his pals, Bert and Alf, have ”gone west” most of them. Those of his type who have come home safely through are either at home instructing the soldier of today or invalided out of the service.
Now and again you meet an ”Old Bill” in France my brother wrote recently saying he had found one in his company. I get hundreds of letters still from men at the front saying ”Old Bill says so -and -so ”or ”Bert he up and says so-and -so.” All the writers use the characters I have focused upon and made popular with the Army.
I have invented nothing; and all who knew the men of the Old Army know that Old Bill, Bert and Alf were but types of a wonderful company, the like of which will, in all probability, never be seem again.
My three characters were not in a war. They were at war.
Typed from original newspaper article The Weekly Dispatch 5th August 1917