In our post from 26 May 2017, Canadian Captain George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM, made reference to a Bruce Bairnsfather comic, “Well, If You Knows of A Better ‘Ole…”, while recounting an experience in No Man’s Land. Read it again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/raid-reconnaissance/
Bruce Bairnsfather was a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment when he was hospitalized for shell shock and hearing damage after the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. While recovering, Bairnsfather developed a cartoon character called Old Bill.
Overwhelmingly ill-tempered and surly, humourous “Old Bill” featured in his own comic series, his adventures and misfortunes depicting everyday life at the front for the regular soldier. The “Old Bill” series became a massive hit with the troops and those at home by putting a humorous spin on the war. Recognized for its effect on morale, 2nd Lt. Bairnsfather was commissioned by the War Office to continue publishing the cartoons for the duration of the war. His comics were reproduced both in print and numerous other daily items.
Below is one of the most well-known Bairnsfather comics, printed on a dinner plate, featuring Old Bill and another soldier, huddled in a shell hole while shells burst all around. The soldier has grumbled to Old Bill on the state of his shell hole, to which the veteran provides the wisdom: “Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.”
Prior to a trench raid taking place, an even smaller party of men would be tasked with the reconnaissance and gathering of intelligence on the opposing trench, wire networks, and pathways. Conducted in the dark of night, often in a party of only two or three scouts, raid reconnaissance could be a very lonely and nerve-racking experience as they crawled through the wire up to the enemy’s outposts and trenches. Indeed, there was no comforting “strength in numbers” enjoyed by the trench raiding parties.
Captain George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM was one such reconnaissance scout, of the 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment). His memoir, Scouting Thrills, provides stunning insight into the physical and emotional strain experienced by the scouts while they daily went “over the bags”. The following provides just one example of what it was like to be part of a small reconnaissance party, while stationed in the Lens Sector in the spring of 1917:
“We were making good progress…when someone caught his foot in some old wire. The sound was unmistakable – so also was the Huns’ reply to it… The volley of bombs that fell… told us that our coming was neither unexpected nor unprepared for… his S.O.S. lights went up – beautifully coloured… His artillery replied with amazing and disconcerting promptitude, and soon we were in the midst of screaming, bursting shells. We began to withdraw… when the battalion on our right… sent up a call for our artillery, and our artillery were no slackers. They promptly came down with a bang.
Imagine how happy we were! Shells in front of us, shells behind us, shells all around us! A screaming, deafening din and noise! We crawled into a shell-hole and waited. We splendidly illustrated Bairnsfather’s picture: ‘If you can find a better ‘ole, go to it!’ The sky was a blaze of light; S.O.S.’s were going up along the whole front. We could see them spreading to the right as far as Vimy, and to the left as far as Loos. On the whole length of this front both our own and the Boche artillery blazed away, and all because a scout had caught his foot in some wire!” (George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM, Scouting Thrills, p. 44-45).