From the misfortunes of war to a medieval message

16th February 2007 at 00:00
World War I in Cartoons. By Mark Bryant. Grub Street. pound;15.99

Lord Kitchener, as Mrs Asquith put it, may not have been a great man but he was certainly a great poster. Here he is alongside old friends such as Punch's Bravo Belgium!, What did you do in the war, daddy?, the American anti-militaristic poster Destroy this mad brute!, even Tenniel's Dropping the pilot, as well as a rich collection of less well known cartoons.

The Russian genius was for grotesque caricature, portraying Germans as evil hyena-like creatures, while the brilliant cartoonists of the German satirical magazine Simplicissimus turned their own searing contempt on British and American arrogance and hypocrisy. Meanwhile Mark Bryant shows how the pre-war British stereotype of the friendly, avuncular German with a Bavarian pipe was quickly turned into a contemptible hypocrite driven by all-consuming hate.

In contrast to the dark cynicism of the war poets, the war cartoonists largely seem to have kept the patriotic message going: the mood of cynicism Bryant detects in 1916 after Verdun and the Somme is pretty mild.

The cartoonists' answer to Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon is Bruce Bairnsfather, a front-line officer like them, but whose celebrated trench philosopher "Ole' Bill" shows him in touch with the ordinary soldier. His famous picture of Ole' Bill telling an over-fastidious Tommy in a shellhole that "If you knows a better 'ole, go to it!" can still raise a laugh nearly 100 years later and is probably a better clue to how the men survived the trenches than anything the poets wrote. Wonderful.

Sean Lang is honorary secretary of the Historical Association and a research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University

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