The Birth of Fragments from France
Within a few weeks of joining the 1st Battalion the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the trenches around Plugstreet Wood at the end of November 1914, twenty-seven year old 2nd Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather began to turn to his “only and most treasured hobby” - drawing — to relieve the monotony of trench life. His letters to friends back home were full of sketches. A kindly lady sent the 1st Battalion several cakes towards the end of December, and BB responded with a series of illustrated rhymes, thanking their generous benefactor back in Birmingham. He also drew a Christmas card from the trenches and no doubt festive sketches by him adorned many dug-outs that year.
On 1st January 1915 the 1st Battalion put some men into the deserted village of St Yves, and shortly afterwards Lieutenant Bairnsfather moved into a ruined cottage in the village, which was occupied by a friend. The cottage stood about five yards back from the road. “The front room had been blown away, leaving a back room and a couple of lean-to’s which opened out from it. An attic under the thatched roof with all one end knocked out completed the outfit.”
During the daytime they had to lay low so as not to be seen by the enemy. “We both sat and talked and read a bit, sometimes slept.” And Bairnsfather took to drawing. He began “by making a few pencil scribbles with a joke attached, and pinned them up in our cracked shell of a room. Jokes at the expense of our miserable surroundings they were, and these were the first Fragments. Several men in the local platoon collared these spasms, and soon after I came across them, muddy and battered, in various dug-outs near by.”
These sketches were soon followed by larger efforts, on the walls of the cottage: “With some bits of charcoal, I made a mess on the four walls of our back room. There was a large circular gash, made by a stray bullet I fancy, on one of the walls, and by making it appear as though this mark was the centre point of a large explosion, I gave an apparent velocity to the figure of a German, which I drew above….the next ‘masterpiece’ was the figure of a soldier (afterwards Private Blobs, of Fragments) sitting up a tree staring straight in front of him into the future, whilst a party of corpulent Boches are stalking towards him through the long grass and barbed wire. He knows there’s something not quite right going on, but doesn’t like to look down. This was called ‘The Listening Post,’ and the sensation described was so familiar that this again was apparently a success.”
On 7th March, St Yves came under heavy fire, and BB and his companions were forced to vacate their cottage for the relative safety of a nearby ditch. “After a while we returned into the house—a trifle prematurely, I’m afraid—as presently a pretty large line in explosive drainpipes landed close outside, and as we afterwards discovered, blew out a fair-sized duck pond in the road. We were all inside, and I think nearly every one said a sentence which gave me my first idea for a Fragment from France. A sentence which must have been said countless times in this war, ie, ‘Where did that one go?’
“We were all inside the cottage now, with intent, staring faces, looking through the battered doorway. There was something in the whole
situation which struck me as so pathetically amusing, that when the ardour of the Boches had calmed down a bit, I proceeded to make a pencil sketch of the situation. When I got back to billets the next time I determined to make a finished wash drawing of the scene.”
On 9th March 1915 the 1st Battalion returned to their regular billets at La Creche, and BB wasted no time. The next morning, “sitting at a circular table in one of the rooms at the farm” and “occasionally looking through the window on to a mountain of manure outside for inspiration” BB completed a finished drawing of “Where did that one go?”
Various magazines sent out to members of the battalion were lying around the place, including a copy of The Bystander. BB “turned over the pages” and having decided his illustrated joke was “in their line” packed the drawing up and put it out to be mailed to the magazine at the next opportunity, enclosing a short note of explanation: “I have drawn it as well as I can under somewhat difficult circumstances, and I may say, from first-hand impressions."
On 20th March, after two days back in their old billets at Neuve Eglise, BB was called to his CO’s HQ, and told that the battalion was to take over a “new line of trenches” at Wulverghem, to the left of Plugstreet.” Later that night the Colonel and all his Company Commanders (including Lieutenant Bairnsfather) undertook a tour of inspection of the area. Returning to Neuve Eglise after this expedition, the Lieutenant discovered that the post had arrived while he was out. “Thinking there might be something for me, I went into the back room where they sorted the letters, to get any there might be before going off to my own billets. ‘There’s only one for you, sir, tonight,’ said the corporal who looked after the letters. He handed me an envelope. I opened it. Inside, a short note and a cheque: ‘We shall be very glad to accept your sketch, ‘Where did that one go to?’ From The Bystander.’“
“Where did that one go?” was published in The Bystander on 31st March 1915.
At the request of his Colonel, Lieutenant Bairnsfather was billeted at La Plus Dove Farm, a short distance from Wulverghem, where he was asked to decorate the walls with sketches. He noted though, that he was “not the first to draw on the walls...someone in a previous battalion had already put three or four sketches on various parts of the fireplace.” There was still plenty of room for Bairnsfathers work, though, and after various attempts at finding the right medium in which to draw, he began, his materials for the job comprising of “a bottle of Indian ink, a couple of brushes, about a hundredweight of useless charcoal, and a G.S. blue and red pencil.”
Opening off the main room used by the men at mealtimes, was a smaller room previously used as an apple or potato store. On one whole wall in this room, BB drew a sketch titled “My Dream for years to come” - a version of which would later be published in The Bystander and become one of his most well-known Fragments from France.
Another of the drawings done by Bairnsfather at La Plus Douve Farm was “They’ve evidently seen me” - the idea for which had first come to him back in St Yves, and which he had later redrawn for a Major Lancaster. Now, it struck him again, this time with the right setting for the joke.
As a break from drawing, BB took a stroll around the farm buildings, ending up in a loft “over a barn at the end of the farm nearest the trenches. I looked out through a hole in the tiles just in time to hear a shell come over from away back amongst the Germans somewhere, and land about five hundred yards to the left. The sentence, ‘They’ve evidently seen me,’ came flashing across my mind again, and I now saw the correct setting in my mind: ie, the enthusiastic observer looking out over the top of a narrow chimney, whilst a remarkably well-aimed shell leads ‘him of the binoculars’ to suppose that they have seen him.”
BB made a pencil sketch of the idea as it now appeared to him, and before many days had passed made a finished wash drawing of it,
which he sent to The Bystander on 9th April, with another note: “I herewith enclose you another black-and-white sketch entitled ‘They’ve evidently seen me.’ I hope it will meet with your approval. Although I do not observe from a chimney myself, yet at the present time I happen to ‘live’ in a house. By ‘live’ I mean waiting for the next shell to come through the roof.”
“They’ve evidently seen me,” BB’s second Fragment from France, was published in The Bystander on 21st April 1915.
Around the end of March 1915 BB moved billets, to La Petite Munque Farm about five miles from Bailleul. Here he lived with five fellow officers of A Company, “a jolly pleasant crew.” He began to draw more and more, and became well known, “not only in our battalion but in several others” for his “trench pictures” which were requested four or five at a time by various Headquarters. Among his commissions was a request from Colonel Loveband of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who wanted some “Colonel pictures” in his room, and he also received twenty francs apiece for six sketches to decorate an officers’ mess.
BB’s drawings even caught the attention of the top brass, and “the Brigadier-General of our brigade…” (Brig-Gen A. Hull) “...took a particular fancy to one which he got from me. The divisional headquarters had half a dozen; whilst I did two sets of four each for two officers in the regiment.”