Bullets & Billets Limited Edition

One of the rarest of all Bruce Bairnsfather's published works has to be the Limited Edition of Bullets & Billets, of which only 100 copies were issued. Published by Grant Richards in 1917, with plain board covers and a larger format to the standard edition, each copy was individually numbered and had uncut pages, and included an original signed frontispiece drawing signed by Bairnsfather depicting either Old Bill, Bert or Alf. 

Even before the standard (5/-) edition of Bullets & Billets had been published, Grant Richards had discussed the possibility of a Limited Edition with Bairnsfather. At the end of October Richards wrote to Bairnsfather to confirm he was still agreeable to the idea, and outlined some details about the proposed format. It would be "printed on better paper, with better binding, all copies numbered and signed by you and having a small original drawing by you in pencil, in addition to the signature."

By the middle of January 1917, with the 5s edition of the book selling well, Grant Richards was keen to progress getting the de luxe edition out. He tried to pin Bairnsfather down to do the drawings to be used as the frontispiece in the books, but was still unsure about how many copies he intended to produce. Writing to the cartoonist he said "I think it would be unwise to put any limit at present on the number of copies to be sold...although in my own mind I do not think we should try to sell more than 200, and I think we should be lucky if we sold that number." He requested an initial 20 drawings from Bairnsfather, who was to receive a royalty of £1 on each copy sold.

At the end of April 1917 Grant Richards was still concerned he would not have enough original drawings for the books. He had received 10 drawings at the beginning of February, and had requested 20 to 30 more, but still only had 15 in total. He urged the cartoonist to let him have at least another two dozen before leaving for Europe, where he would be "out of reach" of his publisher.

Undoubtedly Bairnsfather's War Office work and Bystander cartoons kept him very busy, and led to him neglecting his obligation to Grant Richards over the de luxe book. In May 1917, with only 25 drawings in hand, the publisher wrote to the cartoonist again. He was adamant he must have the same number of drawings again, and ideally "another fifty on top of that." The sketches for the Limited Edition were drawn on special paper, and Richards promised to send Bairnsfather a new supply if he was running low.

The Limited Edition of Bullets & Billets was finally published in June 1917. A total of 110 copies were actually printed, but they could not all be bound, as there was still a considerable number of drawings missing. That month, and again in August and September, further requests for the frontispiece sketches were made, but none appeared. An exasperated Grant Richards wrote to Bairnsfather's agent on 11 November 1917: "I shall be greatly obliged if you will ask Captain Bairnsfather to send me some more drawings for the edition de luxe of Bullets and Billets. He has only done twenty five. There are seventy five due to us. Unless we can get these within a very few days there is little chance of our being able to get the book bound and ready for the Christmas trade, when we should no doubt sell the edition out. Captain Bairnsfather wrote to me many months ago promising the drawings."

Despite this pressing plea, Christmas 1917 came and went. It was not until March 1918 that the publisher received another supply of original sketches, and then only 12. In April 1918 a further 25 drawings were sent, and in May the publisher sent Bairnsfather a further supply of the special paper. At the beginning of June - almost a year and a half after first requesting them - Grant Richards finally received the last batch of drawings from the cartoonist.

The sales of the Limited Edition of Bullets & Billets were evidently not as high as anticipated by the publisher - circumstances no doubt affected by a) Bairnsfather's prolonged delay in providing sufficient numbers of original drawings, and b) a decline in interest among the public in books about the war, in the immediate period after hostilities ceased in November 1918. The sale of the first copy was recorded as early as December 1916, six months before the book was even printed! There were 23 copies sold, in 1917, and only 1 copy the following year. By the end of 1919, 64 copies remained unsold. The last sale recorded by the publisher was 7 copies (at a reduced price) in 1922. Four years later 53 copies were still held in the publishers stock. 

Bearing in mind only 100 copies of this edition of Bullets & Billets were produced for sale, they are quite scarce today. The high number of stock copies held by the publisher in 1926 poses the question, did these last 53 copies ever sell, or just end up collecting dust on the publishers shelves? The individual numbers allocated to the known copies of the book range from very low to very high, which would suggest that all 100 copies were eventually sold (assuming they were sold in number order). However, as Grant Richards was already selling the books at a discounted price in 1922, and judging by the decline in interest in this edition of the book, it may have taken until well into the 1930's to dispose of the remaining stock.

If you have a copy of the Limited Edition of Bullets & Billets  I would be pleased to receive details of your particular copy, and if possible an image of the original frontispiece drawing.  Contact me here.