Book review of Mark Bryant’s "World War I in Cartoons" for British Journalism Review / by Rich Hobbs

Despite periodic outbursts of renewed interest and fascination with the First

World War, like last year’s 90th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of

the Somme, there seems to be a strange sense of disconnection from it in

ways which go far beyond the simple passage of time. I suspect this is

because we can’t quite comprehend the scale of it, and we still haven’t really

come to terms with the trauma it wrought. Even forty years ago, when many,

if not most, people then living had had personal experience of the War, it all

seemed impossibly distant, unlike the Second World War, which still seems

far more recent, and certainly by more than just a couple of decades. Partly, I

suppose, this is because World War II not only cast an enormous shadow over

the second half of the 20th century, but also largely overshadowed its first half

too. But it’s also to do with the way our knowledge of those two wars comes

through the media which reported them. World War II inhabits a media age

we can immediately recognise, thanks to film and radio. The First World War

doesn’t, and even though its reality and the propaganda and drama that flowed

from it were recorded on film, it’s the wrong kind of film: it’s too jerky, or too

fast, and most of all it has no sound. The only noises from the First World War

we tend to hear now - and for that matter could ever hear through the media -

aren’t the speeches of Lloyd George or Clemenceau or even the Kaiser, or the

cacophonous carnage of Passchendaele or the Somme, but a scratchy record of

someone singing "It’s a Long Way to Tipperrary".

All of this is a bit weird, because in many ways the First World War was a

thoroughly modern media war, using cutting edge media technology to

advance the war effort on all sides. That included film, but also newspapers,

which by then, give or take advances in lay out, were clearly recognisable in

the form we all know today. And in the newspapers, they used another

medium, much much older but still familiar to us now, and that was cartoons.

In "World War I in Cartoons" (Grub Street, £15.99), Mark Bryant follows up

his magisterial "World War II in Cartoons" by using the same template to tell

the story of the Great War through the work of cartoonists of the combatant

and neutral nations. And, like its predecessor, it is both brilliantly realised and

often revelatory.

The depths to which the propagandists on both sides in the War sunk are

notorious, and are said to have seriously compromised attempts to alert the

World to the crimes of the Nazis because many people in England simply

didn’t believe true reports of German atrocities, having been caught out 20

years before by false reports in the previous war. That said, this book has its

fair share of brutal propaganda, with the standard voodoo of depicting the

enemy as bestial, mad and murderous.

But between the cartoons of simian monsters eating babies (and there’s a lot

of those) there is also some surprisingly light-hearted and even affectionate

material. A lot of this is just plain silly, like William Heath Robinson’s "First

lessons in the Goose Step" from 1915, showing a brigade of portly German

recruits being instructed in how to march by being chained to a gosling, or a

1914 Townsend cartoon for the Punch Almanack for 1915 showing the horrors

of life in London under the Kaiser (sausages and beer at the renamed

"Saveloy", choruses of fat frauleins raising foaming steins of lager at the

Opera). Even much later in the War, when no one could be ignorant of the

horrors of the Western Front, H.M. Bateman was producing fundamentally

silly cartoons speculating on the Kaiser’s future after the war (playing golf,

selling moustache medicine or becoming a Robey-esque Music Hall turn). Nor

is this startling joviality limited to British cartoonists, but is seen in cartoons

from every combatant nation.

Another revelation is the eclecticism of style, which again crosses front lines

with insouciance. Cartoons published more or less simultaneously span the

spectrum from over-wrought, over cross-hatched stuff that wouldn’t have

looked out of place 70 years previously, to images on the cusp of every strand

of European Modernism you can think of. In retrospect, it now seems rather

odd that most of these are German, drawn for Simplicissimus.

Although that fact alone underlines how artificial the kutlurkampf these

cartoons illustrate actually was, it also reinforces that sense of detachment

from the Great War I mentioned at the beginning of this review. What is really

surprising about "World War I in Cartoons" is just how few genuinely iconic

cartoons the war inspired. Part of our understanding of World War II comes

from the cartoons we remember from it, whether it’s Low or Zec’s political

cartoons or Fougasse’s posters for the Ministry of Information. But World

War II was by no means unique in its capacity to inspire cartoonists into

producing images which took on an immortality of their own. Just think of

Gillray’s "The Plum Pudding in Danger" or Tenniel’s "Dropping the Pilot".

And yet (and this is no fault of Mark Bryant’s) I can think of only two

cartoonists from the Great War who’ve succeeded in entering our collective

consciousness in anything approaching the same way. The first in Bruce

Bainsfather, whose Old Bill cartoons put a humourous gloss on life for the

average tommy in the trenches. His "If you know a better ‘ole, go to it" is

rightly and enduringly celebrated as one of the defining cartoons of the

conflict, brilliantly doing the job cartoons do best, which is to subvert horror

with sardonic bathos. But the best cartoon of the war, which, significantly,

Will Dyson produced for the Daily Herald 6 months after the Armistice, is

"Peace and Future Canon Fodder", depicting Clemenceau, Wilson, Lloyd

George and Orlando of Italy coming out of the Versailles Peace Conference,

with Clemenceau saying, "Curious! I seem to hear a child weeping." Behind a

pillar, a naked child is weeping over the Peace Treaty, with the words "1940

Class" above its head. Appropriately enough, this is very last cartoon

reproduced in this brilliant book.