The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Drawing on Class, Mobilizing Consent: British Humorous Cartoons of the First World War

Tammy Clewell
Kent State University

This article explores how humorous First World War cartoons published in three exceedingly popular illustrated magazines targeting privileged segments of the British population played to class distinctions and antagonisms to mobilize support for the war. While cartoons appearing in the Tatler, The Sketch, and The Bystander similarly sought to marshal pro-war sentiment among readers, they did so in various ways—namely, by appealing to the distinct class identities of their readers. Cartoons in the Tatler indulged their upper-class readers’ disdain for the working classes, those in The Sketch sought to alleviate wartime anxieties about home-front danger and deprivation among their middle-class readers, and the cartoons in The Bystander appealed to the apparent intellectual powers of discernment among their targeted readership to muster continued support for the war. 

Keywords  First World War / Cartoons / Class / Britain/British / illustrated magazines

The First World War elicited an outpouring of cartoons by British artists, illustrators, and cartoonists, who frequently published their work in any one of a number of popular illustrated magazines.1 Unlike editorial cartoons of dehumanized and often atrocity-committing “Huns” intended to promote support for the war, illustrated magazines ran cartoons that used humor to represent everyday realities of wartime life. This work drew on a rich history of British illustration and caricature, as well as on a tradition of cartooning epitomized by the well-known Punch.2 Home-front cartoonists employed satire, parody, joke telling, and anecdote to picture both combatants and civilians shouldering varying degrees of burden imposed by the war without ever losing sight of the potential to find wry amusement in times of deprivation and even the most life-threatening situations. These cartoons may not have shared with British First World War visual propaganda the goal of fomenting hatred toward the enemy, but this voluminous body of work nevertheless served to mobilize support for the war by conveying a collectively shared experience, by assuaging the anxieties of living through the special horrors of modern war, and by shaping pro-war opinion on a range of war-related issues.

Although humorous war cartoons have received scant scholarly attention, the few critics who have addressed this work have rightly emphasized their morale-boosting function, demonstrating how cartoons encouraged civilians to do their bit by helping them picture their lives in the context of the war, endure deprivations with a modicum of cheer, and sustain their commitment to the cause. These encouragements functioned to bolster morale crucial to a nation waging total war—total in the sense that the conflict extended beyond the military to encompass the civilian population and national economy.3 What has yet to be fully appreciated, however, and will thus be the focus in what follows, is how British First World War humorous cartoons—in line with the light-hearted illustrated magazines that published them—played on class differences among a range of economically fortunate readers to which they were marketed. Beyond the necessity to adhere to the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA),4 these cartoons fostered a specifically class-based form of communal identity to promote pro-war sentiment. Considered as a whole, these cartoons suggest the important role that class identification—rather than cross-class unity—played in mobilizing support for the war.

I have addressed elsewhere how three successful illustrated magazines targeting privileged segments of the population, especially those who lived in London, drew on  pre-war class and class-inflected gender differences to police conduct, to shape public opinion, and to predispose readers to support the war (Clewell 3). Specifically, the Tatler (launched in 1901), The Sketch (1893), and The Bystander (1903)—friendly rivals read by thousands of Britons each week5—published similar content: photographs of royalty, celebrities, and high society, along with features on arts, literature, sports, fashion, and motoring. These magazines, according to Gerry Beegan, offered readers “visual representations of the pleasures of the contemporary metropolis” in ways that “signified modernity” (100). And while they appealed to a range of middle- and upper-class women and men, including servicemen at the front, they neither targeted the same audience nor spoke to readers in a single voice. Rather, as evidenced in particular by a similar epistolary column published in each, these magazines drew on subtle but unmistakable class differences among the well-heeled, offering competing advice to a range of Britons, especially women, regarding the social proprieties of dressing, eating out, and enjoying stage productions when British soldiers were suffering and dying for the cause.

This competing advice appealed to a nuanced sense of class distinction as a means of garnering support for the war. The Tatler, for instance, advertised itself as the unofficial organ of the upper classes, including those from the landed aristocracy and business professions. The magazine often ridiculed middle- and working-class contributions to the war effort, promoted a “business as usual” approach, and recommended continued consumption of seemingly frivolous pursuits in high fashion and entertainments for its upper-class female readers, whose spending, it claimed, was crucial in keeping luxury businesses afloat. At the lower end of the privileged class spectrum, The Sketch, which appealed to a middle-class readership, lampooned the parasitic excesses of the aristocracy and other exceedingly wealthy Britons, many of whom might well have read the Tatler. At the same time, The Sketch supported the buying of clothes and theater tickets for its middle-class female readers. The magazine justified this position not on the basis of economic need, but on an ideological position: because many of these women had answered the call and found wartime jobs, thus enjoying for the first time an expendable income, they should be able to spend this money as they liked, including on frivolities. In contrast, The Bystander, which hailed an astute and critically-minded range of middle- and upper-middle-class readers, encouraged its audience to regard the wartime consumption of luxuries as nothing less than an unconscionable drain on national resources. The Bystander went so far as to cajole its female readers into seeing their consuming interests in fashion and fun as actually working against the possibility of sweeping gender reform in the postwar era.

What I focus on here is how the cartoons in the Tatler, The Sketch, and The Bystander function in a similar manner, playing to social stratification in ways that enlist pre-war class prejudice in shaping pro-war public opinion. By examining the cartoons in each of these magazines, I demonstrate how these typically full-page works, occasionally printed in color, did not merely contribute to the success of these periodicals, but, crucially, marshaled a specifically class-based form of war support by appealing less to a sense of national unity formed in response to a common enemy and more to pre-war social divisions. Scholarship on the British class system in the context of the First World War has traditionally focused on the working classes: a number of historians argue that wartime hierarchies were to some extent broken down and better living conditions established for the least well-off, while others emphasize that postwar labor unrest and industrial conflict reflect the limited impact the war had on creating a more equitable society.6 More recently, however, scholars have expanded the question of social stratification to include all classes. For example, Janet Watson points out that class “as a category of analysis has been out of favor of late in studies of the First World War, partly because most scholars have focused on specific relatively homogenous populations. . . ” (4). In contrast, Watson argues that class “played a fundamentally important role in how many English people saw themselves, and their part in the war effort” (4). The cartoons published in the Tatler, The Sketch, and The Bystander, I argue, offer further evidence of the crucial role that class played in mobilizing readers’ support for the war.

Picturing Upper-Class Solidarity in the Tatler’s Cartoons

By targeting not an otherwise stratified citizenry united by a common cause, but a group of specifically upper-class readers, the Tatler’s wartime cartoons demonstrate how humor functions to promote intragroup identification—how humor helps us, that is, “test or figure out,” as Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai have suggested, “what it means to say ‘us’” (235). According to Brian Boyd, humor functions in just this way: it can either serve as a “balm, a socially binding force,” or it can also work as a “barb,” grounding “in-group amity” in “out-group enmity” (14). In situating humor in the context of an evolutionary understanding of play—that is, a range of typically ritualized behaviors wherein primates and other mammals engage in nonserious and playful interactions—Boyd argues that our amusement arises from unexpected events that manage to reveal the expectations we share with others. In this way, humor highlights and reinforces our social bond. Humor, Boyd adds, may also increase “our sense of solidarity” by casting aspersions on those who diverge from our shared expectations (16).

Boyd’s account of the profoundly social nature of humor, whether in its cooperative or competitive form, provides a useful approach to the Tatler’s wartime cartoons. Indeed, they break down into precisely these categories, uniting a target audience of elite readers sometimes by enabling them to humorously recognize themselves and other times by ridiculing outsiders, especially those in the working class who appear to violate upper-class expectations. Consider, for example, “Palpably,” by Alfred Leete—who is remembered today largely for his well-known “Kitchener Wants You” recruitment poster—which demonstrates how humor reinforces shared expectations to encourage upper-class readers to prepare for the unexpected realities of wartime life (fig. 1).Appearing roughly two months after Britain declared war on Germany, the cartoon depicts a scene in a department store with two exceedingly wealthy women, presumably mother and daughter, clad in sumptuous furs and feather-adorned hats, along with the family’s patriarch, who sports a walrus mustache and carries a bird-handled umbrella. Also included are his two sailor-costumed grandsons, one with an elephant pull-toy and a cap that reads “lion” and the other with a stuffed bear and “panther” hat. The cartoon’s display of the family’s furs and other animal-derived possessions, palpable markers of the reach of their power, wealth, and status, invites the magazine’s wealthiest readers to see reflected their own styles of dress, thus reinforcing upper-class identity and in-group solidarity. At the same time, the caption, “Papa to Shopwalker: Oh—er—I want a Noah’s Ark,” from which the humor arises, expresses the need for some sort of conveyance capable of saving him and his family from an impending deluge. The cartoon invites the magazine’s affluent readers to prepare for wartime difficulties, fortifying themselves against looming hardship, while also managing to reassure them that their wealth could surmount any threat or hardship imposed by the war.

If “Palpably” and similar cartoons mobilized upper-class readers by depicting their lives in the context of the war, another type of cartoon, though appearing less frequently, encouraged such readers to support the war in more direct ways—namely, by contributing a share of their vast financial resources and by curbing their consumption of luxury items. Withholding resources or indulging in frivolities might perpetuate and even intensify what David Cannadine has described as widespread animosity toward the upper classes “for their unearned incomes and unearned increments, for their reactionary attitudes to social reform, for their anachronistic possession of hereditary political power, and for their leisured lifestyle and parasitic idleness” (73). Although the upper classes typically responded with generosity to the nation’s wartime needs, as Cannadine points out (74), the Tatler’s cartoons also demonstrate that comic forms of persuasion were employed to cajole the elite into making necessary adjustments to their otherwise fashionable lives, lest their selfishness while others were fighting and dying be construed as an unequal economy of sacrifice.

An example of humor’s potential to coax readers into this kind of compliance may be seen in “A Weak Link” (fig. 2), drawn by the famed H. M. Bateman, noted for his postwar “The Man Who” cartoon series. In this Bateman cartoon, the sequence proceeds through thirteen images of a top-hatted gentleman refraining from a number of wartime extravagances, including drinking alcohol, card playing, horse racing, gambling, dancing, revue going, golfing, billiards, pleasure reading, romance, tobacco, motoring, and all other forms of devilment. The weak link in his sacrifices is shown in the final image, where his tax bill appears incommensurate with this income. The Bateman cartoon, published in August 1916, appeared when taxes had been levied on more Britons, raised across the board, and proportionally increased at a higher rate for the rich. This proportional increase, according to Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage, meant that the British “conscription of wealth in the form of progressive taxation constituted part of a new social compact in which the mass of citizens agreed to fight while the rich agreed to bear a higher tax burden” (530). Understood in these terms, the Bateman cartoon urges upper-class readers to refrain from the consumption of luxuries and to accept higher rates of taxation as a just and equitable wartime necessity.

Of all the cartoons that ran in the Tatler during the war years, however, the most frequent type asserted upper-class superiority in response to the perceived shabbiness, social ineptitude, and stupidity of the working class. If the upper classes, particularly those who owned land, shared what Cannadine characterizes as a “sense of being socially distinguished from the commonality” and a “collective awareness of inherited and unworked-for superiority” (24), then an array of cultural representations, including cartoons, reflected and bolstered their sense of incomparable worth to the nation, particularly during wartime. Indeed, Tatler cartoons enabled upper-class readers to distinguish themselves from the lower ranks, whom they openly disdained, distrusted, and, at least on occasion, blatantly laughed at. Liberal Party politician, writer, and wartime head of the British War Propaganda Bureau, C. F. G. Masterman put it quite plainly when he observed in 1909 that “the rich despise the Working People” (71).

“Overheard,” by George Belcher, a British cartoonist largely forgotten today, expresses just such overt class-based opprobrium. By doing so the Belcher cartoon engages what Thomas Hobbes, in articulating the superiority theory of humor, defined as the “sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others” (fig. 3; qtd. in Boyd 4). The cartoon image depicts a man and woman—presumably a butler and maid, to gauge by their clothes, decorated surroundings, and the fact that their conversation, as reflected by the cartoon’s title, is overheard and reported by someone who views them as socially inferior. The image highlights the coarseness of their table manners: the man appears to speak with food in his mouth and the woman, elbows on the table, drinks tea from her saucer, a practice that the upper classes had largely abandoned by the mid-nineteenth century. It is the caption, though, that unleashes the cartoon’s abrasive humor, mocking the man’s apparent stupidity. He reports overhearing “some of these ‘ere Belgiums,” a reference, no doubt, to the roughly 250,000 refugees who fled after Germany invaded. The cartoon provokes upper-class laughter when the man observes of the Belgians, “They’re a funny speakin’ people; some on ‘em yer can’t understand what they say.” The man’s failure to realize that the refugees are speaking a foreign language triggers one level of amusement. The joke, however, turns on the way his description of Belgian linguistic inferiority reflects what upper-class readers would have recognized as aptly capturing his own language skills—that is, a working-class bastardization of English.

As a number of historians have observed, when hostilities broke out in August 1914, many among the British elite doubted the willingness and capacity of the working class to fight a war.7 These doubts arose from the industrial unrest and burgeoning trade union movement in the years leading up to the war and, most disturbingly, from the poor physical health of the working class. Due to poverty and inadequate nutrition, only 36 percent of the 2.5 million recruits in 1917-1918 “were passed as fit for full military service” (Robb 43). Such reservations about the working class’s ideological commitment to the nation and their physical capacity to fight appear time and again in the Belcher cartoons—and others like them—that ran in virtually every wartime issue of the weekly magazine. These belittling cartoons depict the ignorance of working people, lampooning their lack of knowledge of English vocabulary, art, culture, military protocol, and the geographical locations of the fighting. Tatler cartoons even treated humorously what the upper classes saw as the excessive drinking habits and tendency toward domestic violence among working-class populations. The magazine’s elite readers, in fact, seem never to have tired of this form of self-reinforcing humor, finding ways to strengthen their own sense of worth by denigrating what they saw as the baseness of the underprivileged. This derogatory humor, to generalize from the Tatler’s cartoon output, changed very little over the course of the war, even though impressive numbers of working-class men, according to Cannadine, volunteered to fight and, beginning January 1916, agreed to be conscripted (35). Far from diluting class antagonisms, then, countless Tatler cartoons enabled upper-class readers to ridicule less fortunate segments of British society, thus priming them to support the war by reinforcing their sense of class superiority.

Laughing Off Middle-Class Anxieties in The Sketch’s Cartoons

“Some historians,” as Alan Kidd and David Nicholls pointed out in 1998, “have been inclined to despair at reaching any satisfactory definition of the middle class. How can millionaire financiers, millocrats, farmers, shopkeepers and the like possibly be lumped together in one social category?” (xxvii). In response to this conundrum, Kidd and Nicholls argue that British middle-class identity must be understood as emerging in a “dialectic relationship with other social classes,” thereby reflecting the need to evaluate “‘objective’ data relating to wealth, property, income, occupation, and so forth” not in isolation but in connection with “‘subjective’ aspects of social life, such as culture, ideology and politics” (xxvii). Later scholars working on wartime social stratification have agreed that the middle class must be analyzed in relation to forces of opposition with other classes. Laura Ugolini, for instance, asserts that middle-class men on the home front “would have felt a kinship with each other not simply on the basis of comparable (if by no means identical) economic, education and social backgrounds” but also because of a shared “awareness that they were separate and different from ‘others,’ both the upper class, and, increasingly importantly as the war dragged on, the working class” (8). Sketch cartoons played precisely to this sense of distinction among a range of middle-class readers.

“A Moving Story,” by the talented illustrator, cartoonist, and commercial artist Will Owen, might be construed as allegorizing the dialectical relationship that middle-class identity has to both the upper and the working classes (fig. 4). The cartoon, which appeared in The Sketch in April 1917, depicts a rich woman clad in all the trappings of her class—fur stole and muff, ornate feather hat, leather gloves, and lorgnette—who has volunteered her time for the cause by escorting a small group of convalescing working-class soldiers to an art museum. The joke, as revealed by the caption, arises from a class-based linguistic misunderstanding. One of the convalescent Tommys, arm in a sling, confesses his confusion on finding himself in an art gallery rather than a cinema since his host had promised to take the wounded men “to see the pictures.” “A Moving Story” thus places The Sketch’s targeted middle-class reader in the superior position of the one who knows, realizing that while most upper-class men and women would not have considered frequenting what they saw as lowbrow movie palaces, working-class soldiers would by and large have felt bored or out of place in art galleries. Indeed, middle-class readers of The Sketch were encouraged by the magazine’s content, including cartoons like this one, to see their class identity as unified in its unmistakable difference from both the upper and the working classes.

Although the middle class, at least at the war’s start, was closer economically and culturally to the nation’s elite, “the upper classes,” Ugolini points out, “were not always above middle-class criticism” (103). Such criticism occurs in a number of Sketch cartoons in ways that reinforce middle-class identity as embodying, in distinction from the upper class, the steadfast character, unpretentious resolve, and earnest conviction widely regarded as crucial to winning the war. While some cartoons ridicule upper-class reluctance to sacrifice for the wartime common good,8 others, like “A Slight Misunderstanding,” invite The Sketch’s middle-class readers to see themselves as epitomizing the best of Britishness by holding up to humorous censure a certain moral turpitude ascribed to the upper echelon (fig. 5). This cartoon depicts an upper-class man dressed in tuxedo and top hat, showing a similarly outfitted acquaintance a ribbon-tied box, which, he explains, “is a present for the wife.” The cartoon’s dry humor is released when the gift-giver unashamedly reveals that the present is for his paramour, who is, in fact, “the wife” of another man. Moreover, the distinctively stylized drawing—reminiscent of Vorticism, given its fragmented reality and hard-edged lines—serves, in the context of this illustrated magazine, which generally expressed antipathy toward early modernist movements in the arts, to underscore the debased frivolity and sordid cynicism of the nation’s elite.

If the middle class defined itself in dialectic opposition to the moneyed class, enabling them to see their contributions to the war effort as superior to that of their elite compatriots, they used similar strategies to distinguish themselves from those in the lower echelons. However, in contrast to denigrating Tatler cartoons that express aversion and distrust, those appearing in The Sketch doubt neither the working class’s willingness nor their intellectual capacity to support and fight the war. Distinctions between the two groups continue to be visible, as these cartoons reflect, though the war seems to have quelled some of the antagonisms that existed before—and that would return after—the Armistice.9  

A spirit of cooperation within a society otherwise riven by class division was already apparent in The Sketch’s inaugural issue, published 1 February 1893, in which the magazine promised not only to cover the “opinions of distinguished persons,” but also to “embrace the whole democracy” by publishing interviews with working-class Britons (3). These working people included the “neglected toilers, victims of prejudice and contumely,” such as the “shoe-black,” who “has a personal interest in the tread of time,” and the “laundress,” who “finds a philosophy in starch which may penetrate the heart of things in the external problem of the crumpled shirt” (1 February 1893, 3). By the war’s outbreak, The Sketch’s promise to portray “the humblest units of the social system” (3) had given way to an emphasis on middle-class interests in royalty and stage personalities, in addition to fashion, arts, sports, and entertainment. But its wartime cartoons featuring working-class men and women do reflect a degree of recognition and respect for those from the humblest of social backgrounds, even as they encourage middle-class readers to understand, through comparison, their own unique worth to a nation at war.

“One to Jock,” published in January 1917, offers a case in point, depicting a working-class Scottish porter scoring one against an irate upper-class passenger, whose first-class train compartment and specialized luggage reflect his privileged status (fig. 6).
When the passenger yells to the porter, whom he calls a “blithering old ass,” demanding to know why he did not put his luggage on the train, the porter’s response, spoken in Scots tongue, produces the cartoon’s humor: “There’s mair sense in yer trunk than there is in yer heid, mon. It’s you that’s in the wrang train!” If “One to Jock” engages the identity of the middle-class reader in dialectic opposition to the other social classes, it releases its humorous barb not on the working-class porter but on the elite passenger. Although only a small number of Sketch cartoons featured working-class figures, when they did so, they highlighted not the stupidity ascribed to working people in Tatler cartoons, but rather a certain homespun wit and practical intelligence, thereby acknowledging the working class as an integral part of the wartime social fabric.

Perhaps more than any other material or cultural difference with the upper and working classes, middle-class identity during the war years was founded on a perceived uniqueness of shared sacrifice and hardship. As Gerald DeGroot argues, “a class solidarity that had not existed before” among middle-class men and women was cultivated by charity organizations that sprung up during the war, including the Professional Classes War Relief Committee and the Professional Classes Special Aid Society (373). This middle-class consciousness encompassed the “New Poor,” including landlords and some small businessmen who found themselves financially squeezed in the wartime economy and could no longer afford domestic servants or buy new clothes. But, importantly, this “sense of adversity,” DeGroot adds, also “fostered a middle-class consciousness even among those who did not suffer” (373), such as lawyers and some shopkeepers. A unified middle class thus coalesced around a shared sense of material hardships and anxieties, culminating in a common mentality that was, DeGroot concludes, “both anti-labor and anti-capitalist” (373).

The overwhelming majority of cartoons published in The Sketch between 1914 and 1918 evoke and bolster the identity of the magazine’s middle-class readers by speaking directly to their fears and hardships. These cartoons, in picturing all manner of middle-class adversity, also release anxiety through humor as a means of encouraging these readers to face wartime distress, deprivation, and despondency with cheerful aplomb.10 The potential of humorous cartoons to function as such morale boosters was already recognized by H. Pearl Adam, a wartime Paris correspondent who edited the 1916 volume International Cartoons of the War. In distinguishing what she saw as the “good humour” characteristic of British war cartoons from the “hatred, scorn, and anger” of German examples and from the “determined endurance” frequently depicted in French cartoons (x), Adam suggested that winning the war depended on the capacity of her fellow citizens to sustain a paradigmatically British sense of humor and the resilience it afforded.

Early war Sketch cartoons, such as those created by the well-known and incomparable Heath Robinson, function in exactly this way: humor assuages fears and keeps stiff the proverbial British upper lip. Robinson’s “Laughing-Gassing the British Before an Advance in Close Formation” (The Sketch, August 1915), combats the negative effects of German propaganda postcards of nightmarish new weapons (fig. 7; Day 155). Part of a series titled “Hague Convention Defied,” this cartoon refers to the banning of chemical weapons by the Hague Convention of 1907. Offering a prescient depiction of the wartime use of mustard gas, which the Germans introduced in 1917, this delightful cartoon encourages the magazine’s middle-class readers to laugh off the frightful possibility of fighting an enemy with such fiendish capabilities by rendering the poisonous agent as nothing more lethal than laughing gas. Such “Frightfulness”—which, as James Hamilton points out, was “a recognized quality, tactic even, of the German army in the First World War”—is also humorously depicted in other cartoons in the series as a means of “defusing the effect of the German terror through laughter” (63). Robinson himself recognized the benefits of his work and that of other humorists, noting in his autobiography that the “sense of humour” with which cartoonists treated the difficulties and dangers of wartime “played a greater part than we were always aware of in saving us from despair during those days of trial” (150).

The gnawing worry for loved ones at the front, the munitions crisis, submarine attacks, air raids at home, shortages of paper, fuel, labor, and especially food, military medical exams, the move to conscription, increased taxation, and changing gender norms, especially for women: these and other sources of anxiety were humorously treated again and again in Sketch cartoons, helping to make the harsh realities of wartime life that much easier to bear. Furthermore, by enabling middle-class readers to recognize their suffering as collectively shared by others like them, these cartoons also promoted the continued resolve necessary for seeing the long war through to an Allied victory. This type of morale boosting, as shown in “Back to the Land—And What It Feels Like!” by the uniquely talented George Studdy, best remembered today for his 1920s Bonzo the dog cartoons, became increasingly important in the later war years, given the mounting causalities, military failures, economic strain, and food shortages that resulted in war-weariness and “the widespread sense of gloom” of the British people in 1917 (fig. 8, Gregory 213). This visually innovative cartoon, published in June 1917, depicts a middle-class man engaged in the back-breaking work of farming his rented allotment, thus encouraging others like him to grow their own vegetables and ease the mounting food crisis.11 Another cartoon in the same vein, “Are We Uprooted? No!,” by British artist and frequent Punch contributor G. L. Stampa, depicts three identical middle-class flats in an apartment building under fire during an air raid (fig. 9). When an exploding bomb sends one of a group of card-playing men in the top apartment flying toward the ceiling with card table still in hand, he and the other men remain unflustered. The caption, “British Phlegm,” also describes the middle-class Britons shown in the flats below. By humorously depicting the all-too-real and terrifying events of the war, the cartoon invites The Sketch’s middle-class readers to see themselves in the depictions of these Britons and to maintain a similar unflappability in the face of hardships, anxieties, and physical danger.

Shaping Upper-Middle-Class Opinion through The Bystander’s Cartoons

A cartoon published in The Bystander in March 1917 imagines a humorous solution to the wartime scarcity of paper by depicting a new accordion-fold format that allows one copy of the magazine to be shared by a group of five people (fig. 10).12 While doing so, the cartoon visually represents The Bystander’s understanding of its readership: men and women, including both civilians and combatants, from the more economically privileged segments of the upper-middle class. The hats, fur neck wraps, and tailored clothes shown in the image could easily be mistaken by readers today as markers of the British elite, the targeted audience of the Tatler. However, while a certain economic overlap existed between readers of both magazines, The Bystander explicitly distinguished its intended reader from the Tatler’s. The magazine, for instance, expressed its disdain for what it saw as the parasitically wealthy. In an editorial published soon after the war’s outbreak, the magazine celebrated the fact that “during the war the Smart Set, that collection of rich, unimportant, and rather vulgar people who monopolise the illustrated papers in times of peace, vanishes into the air” (9 September 1914, 518). In contrast as well to The Sketch’s targeting of a range of middle-class readers, especially those at the lower end of the privileged class spectrum, The Bystander appealed to a solidly middle- and especially upper-middle-class readership. Equally important, in promising to differentiate itself from its friendly rivals, The Bystander declared in its inaugural issue that it “shall not be glanced through and then thrown away, but read as well” (9 December 1903, 3; emphasis in original). In promising to cover not merely frivolities but, importantly, politics and war news, the magazine hailed an astute and critically minded reader among the upper-middle-class.

Departing from the editorial practices of the competition, The Bystander included both humorous and editorial cartoons, which offered commentary that reinforced its readers’ identity as a particularly smart and shrewd segment of the upper-middle class uniquely poised to contribute to the nation’s chances for victory. Bystander cartoons of both the humorous and the editorial variety drew out lines of contention and disagreement on a number of fronts, sometimes attacking, in conservative fashion, pre-war experimental and radical movements in art, culture, and society, and other times challenging, in more far-reaching ways, the manner in which the government prosecuted total war. Pushing beyond the conventional limits and commercial function of illustrated magazines, Bystander cartoons sought to engage readers intellectually in debates about the practices and policies of wartime British society.

Bystander cartoons rarely engaged in the lampooning of class hierarchy typical of Tatler cartoons and only infrequently offered the anxiety-relieving levity seen so often in Sketch examples. Rather, these cartoons by and large appealed to their readers’ capacity to adjudicate the finer points of wartime social discourses in order to encourage men to serve on the fighting fronts and to persuade its civilian readership, including women, to perform all manner of war work at home. “A Friend at Last,” for instance, by Hungarian-born British illustrator Vera Willoughby, encourages readers to think realistically about the need for social stability and manpower at the front by mounting an assault on attitudes informed by pre-war avant-garde movements. The cartoon, published in September 1915, depicts a stylishly dressed British man thanked by a mounted German soldier for his refusal to serve (fig. 11). The vaguely modernist style of the image, reminiscent of the cubist and Art Deco elements generally characteristic of Willoughby’s work, communicates disdain for a foppish young man’s unwillingness to serve, equating refusal to fight for Britain with de facto support for Germany. Indeed, at the war’s outbreak, The Bystander—to be sure, no modernist little magazine championing the experimental and the radical—declared it had “no time” for “Decadents, Sexuologists [sic], Futurists, or Perverse Triflers of any kind” (2 September 1914, 476).13 Reflecting the call to the magazine’s humorists “to kill the national enemies without and within,” as the magazine’s editor put it, Bystander cartoons frequently unleashed the full force of satiric humor upon conscientious objectors and pacifists, including George Bernard Shaw, whose vocal opposition to the war singled him out for special ridicule.14

Bystander cartoons, like the magazine’s prose features more generally, mobilized its readership, then, not by vilifying the Kaiser, lampooning the German people, or engaging in jingoistic posturing, but by reinforcing the identity of its upper-middle-class readers as a thoughtful class of pro-war Britons capable of intervening in war policy debates. Consider, in this context, “What to Do with Our War Posters,” published September 1915, just one of many cartoons critical of British recruitment methods in general and volunteerism in particular (fig. 12). By humorously imagining postwar uses for these posters, the cartoon depicts the nation’s recruitment drive as little more than a form of coercive advertising: A Union Jack recruitment poster, displayed on the lower left, is repurposed to sell flags and patriotic bunting; a new recruit poster, shown on the upper right, now markets a postwar lunchtime eatery promising the kind happiness and satisfaction previously promised when joining the army. This critique of the nation’s recruitment effort was reinforced in an early editorial “The Vulgarity of Voluntarism,” which describes the “second lot” of volunteers, following the initial wave of some half million enlistments, as having been “recruited as a result of pressure by squires, parsons, retired officers, employers, school masters, leader-writers, politicians, cartoonists, poets, music-hall singers, and old women of all sexes” (9 December 1914, 352). The editorial invites the discerning Bystander reader to recognize that voluntarism exists in name only, since these men “are not volunteers” but rather “conscripts” who were “conscripted by the wrong people in the wrong way” (9 December 1914, 352). The piece presented its readers with facts to consider: namely, that France, Russia, Germany, and Austria had already drafted men into service; that conscription would enable the government to efficiently manage wartime labor needs both at home and at the front; and that the nation already faced an increasing shortage of volunteers. Consequently, the editorial sought to incline its upper-middle-class readers who saw themselves as thoughtful, intelligent citizens to support conscription as a necessary measure to win the war.

The editorial strengthened its case against voluntarism by engaging in what might be called the cartoon wars—that is, the practice of reprinting cartoons from German magazines and periodicals (as the Tatler and The Sketch did as well). This practice was meant to mobilize British readers by showing German perceptions of its own military superiority or, as with the small cartoon accompanying the editorial, British weakness (fig. 13). This German cartoon depicts a mounted Kitchener, Secretary of State for War from 1914 to 1916, leading a bomb-carrying mob of suffragettes, who have been recruited since men have ceased to volunteer in sufficient numbers. Given the animosity the magazine frequently expressed against the suffrage movement, especially its combative and sometimes violent methods, this cartoon encourages readers to follow rational argumentation and adopt a pro-conscription attitude. Like many other cartoons, including those that focus on contested issues regarding the alarmist press, censorship, propaganda, the temperance movement, and the financial consequences of the war for the middle classes, this reprinted German cartoon appeals to the reader’s capacity for intelligent discernment—and their presumed anti-suffragette sentiment—to mobilize consent for the cause.

David Englander, writing in the early 1990s, challenged one of the most ingrained myths of the First World War: namely, that the brutal experience of the trenches and other combat zones resulted in an unbridgeable chasm between combatants, who witnessed unimaginable slaughter, and those at home, who ignored or could not understand their difficult and sometimes traumatizing experiences (315). More recent scholars have moved beyond the texts of some of best-known war poets and memoirists from which the myth of widespread soldier-civilian alienation largely derives. Helen McCartney and Joanna Bourke have demonstrated how soldiers remained connected to their pre-war civilian identities, while Susan Grayzel and Michael Roper, in turn, discuss how civilians sustained relations with servicemen to whom they were related. This scholarly reassessment, often based on a variety of exchanges between soldiers and their family and friends, including leave-time conversations recorded in diaries as well as the millions of letters sent to and from frontline servicemen—and to which I would add an additional category that includes the exchange of home-front illustrated magazines and soldier-produced trench journals15—has established interaction and communication rather than alienation as the dominant mode of relation between combatants and civilians. This reassessment has also managed to clarify, as Englander puts it, how “important to civilian morale” was the “role of servicemen as opinion leaders” (316).

The Bystander understood quite well the importance of soldier perspectives for both attracting and mobilizing its readership. The magazine advertised its desire to publish cartoons by active-duty servicemen, and, crucially, it secured an exclusive contract with Bruce Bairnsfather, easily the single most popular soldier-cartoonist of the war. Bairnsfather and other soldier cartoonists enabled the magazine to mobilize its critically minded readers by offering reliable images drawn by combatants with frontline experience. For example, the 1915 cartoon “One of Our Minor Wars” (fig. 14)—which, according to Lucinda Gosling, “was an instant hit with its readers both at home and at the front,” and which “sealed Bairnsfather’s status as the magazine’s headline act” (17)—encouraged pro-war sentiment among the magazine’s readers by giving a humorously dark twist to the harsh conditions of trench life. If the magazine’s civilian readers were indeed skeptical of what Gregory has described as the idealized and romanticized accounts of frontline conditions covered in the press (133), then this cartoon offered discerning readers a combatant’s hand-drawn, eyewitness portrayal of the most dire of wartime circumstances. The cartoon pictured Old Bill, a grouchy soldier with his iconic walrus mustache, along with another ordinary serviceman, stranded in a shell crater during an artillery fire attack. The cartoon’s caption, "Well, if you knows a better ‘ole, go to it,”—so well known, in fact, that the phrase "a better 'ole" has entered British parlance—captures the dry humor and resolve that many increasingly came to see as characteristic of the British Tommy.

The work that Bairnsfather published in The Bystander during and immediately after the war encouraged pro-war sentiment among the magazine’s upper-middle-class readers at home and active-duty servicemen at the front by employing humor to represent even the harshest realities of trench life, including cartoons such as “War” that feature bloody battle scenes (fig. 15).The top panel depicts a view of no man’s land from the perspective of a British soldier in an entrenched position, while the caption—“This interesting view for 6 months . . . or”—echoes the long stretches of tedium and boredom typically experienced by soldiers when not engaged in active fighting. In stark contrast, the bottom panel depicts a scene of horrific butchery perpetrated by ordinary men on both sides as they fight for their lives against bayonets and exploding shells. And although the causalities shown in the image appear to be exclusively German, the cartoon presents in unsanitized fashion the difficult but undeniable truth that appealed to the magazine’s judicious readers, namely, that war kills. The juxtaposition of the two contrasting scenes, moreover, conjures up dry amusement, as did countless humorous war cartoons, to encourage readers to carry on through to the war’s end.

J. M. Bourne has argued that the romanticized discourses of combatant motivation, including those that equated fighting with “crusading ardour,” did not survive the four long and exceptionally brutal years of the war. Rather, “the mood,” as he puts it, “became one of stoical resignation and dogged determination, best captured by the war’s most faithful interpreter”—Bairnsfather (219). Far from simply capturing a pre-existing mood, however, the humorous cartoons of Bairnsfather played a significant role in evoking, sustaining, and even extending this mood to civilian readers. His cartoons, published week after week in The Bystander, circulated images of British Tommys who fought the war not out of an idealized sense of chivalric mission or a righteous indignation toward the enemy but rather, and more simply, because they were called upon to do so. And while these caricatures of the common British soldier sparked objections from politicians and some of the nation’s opinion makers,16 Bairnsfather also interpellated The Bystander’s upper-middle-class readers as astute enough to support the war out of a similar sense of tenacious, reasoned resolve.

“Valuable Fragments from Flanders,” for instance, published in April 1916, when unquestioned support for the war had begun to flag, engages the interpretative talents of uniquely sagacious Bystander readers to elicit their pro-war consent by stripping justifications for the war of any heroicizing rhetoric (fig. 16). This three-tier cartoon invites readers to take an extremely long view, imagining themselves in the year 4916, 3000 years after this 1916 cartoon, looking back at an archeological fragment of the trenches, pictured here as a kind of old stone tablet showing images of Old Bill and his pals performing trench maintenance, laying in stores, and manning the guns pointed out toward “no man’s land.” In so doing, as expressed by the caption, readers are encouraged to understand the global conflict as little more than an “inter-tribal war”—that is, a state of continual warfare endemic to tribal societies, rather than, say, advanced, civilized nations. This Bairnsfather cartoon thus encouraged the magazine’s readers to continue supporting the First World War even when the cause for fighting became increasingly more difficult to justify.


We have long since been accustomed to the idea that nations at war put aside internal differences and conflicts to meet the challenge of fighting a common enemy. The humorous war cartoons published in the Tatler, The Sketch, and The Bystander, however, teach us otherwise. These works of popular culture demonstrate the extent to which British support for the First World War was galvanized by appealing to and reinforcing class distinctions and antagonisms, including those among the most privileged segments of British society. These humorous war cartoons mobilized well-heeled Britons by indulging their disdain for the working classes, as seen in Tatler cartoons, by activating the stolid resolve of the middle-classes, as did vast numbers of Sketch cartoons, and by tilting the distinguishing powers of intellectual discernment that defined Bystander readers toward pro-war sentiment.


1 For an account of British humorous war cartoons published in newspapers and monographs, see Hiley 148-177.

2 On the tradition of British caricature, see Hallett 131-168; Taylor, 3-39. For a history of cartooning in Britain, see Jones 8-14.

3 See Purseigle 308; Welch 50; Dickason 128.

4 In Jay Winter’s persuasive formulation, British wartime propaganda depended not on a top-down model of state-directed mind control but on a “synergistic relationship with opinion from below” (“Propaganda” 217).

5 Although exact circulation numbers are difficult to ascertain, a 1905 account reports that The Sketch and the Tatler, among many other illustrated magazines, had “very large and important circulations” and that “[t]housands of families subscribe to three and four of these papers weekly” (Richards 64). Unsigned articles are cited by date and page number. Full runs of the Tatler, The Sketch, and The Bystander published during the war years are available at The British Library. Near full runs in digital format are available at the British Newspaper Archives and sporadic issues are available at Hathi Trust

6 For accounts of dissolving class boundaries during the war, see Marwick 103; Winter, Great War 130. On the limited impact of the war on postwar society, see DeGroot 381.

7 J. M. Bourne argues that it was “commonplace among the political elite to doubt the working class’s willingness to make ‘sacrifices’ for the ‘common good’ in time of war” (Bourne 201). See also Robb 33; DeGroot 157.

8 See, e.g., “Bad Shooting” (The Sketch, 21 July 1915, p. 51) and “Dash it All” (The Sketch, 9 February 1916, p. 129).

9 In DeGroot’s formulation, “The national emergency may have camouflaged class divisions, but it did not wipe them out. Class antagonism quickly resurfaced when peace returned” (DeGroot 379).

10 For an empirical study of the anxiety-relieving benefits of humor, see Yovetich et al.

11 While my focus here is on the middle class, Stella Hockenhull points out that “[b]y 1917, with an increase in German U-boat attacks on Allied Merchant ships, starvation had become a serious threat to Britain, and the main victims were the poorer members of society” (581).

12 Kate Macdonald draws attention to this issue, pointing out that the Illustrated War News “stopped publication before the end of the war due to paper shortages” (249).

13 The Bystander sometimes favorably reviewed cubism and futurism, as well as, in the interwar period, the work of modernist writers, including Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, and Lawrence). For the magazine’s coverage of cubism, see 21 January 1914, p. 166; for its favorable mention of “La Patrie,” a futurist painting of wounded soldiers by C.R.W. Nevinson, see 7 June 1916, p. 440.

14 See, e.g., Bateman’s cartoon, “If,” published in The Bystander on 29 August 1917, p. 407.

15 Prominent First World War memoirists and novelists have frequently referenced both the availability of illustrated magazines at the front and the practice of servicemen on leave reading these periodicals. See Graves 126; Ford 59; Wells 219. Siegfried Sassoon mentions The Bystander by name in Sherston’s Progress (81). The illustrated magazines studied here also routinely reviewed the contents of soldier-produced trench journals, so civilians who read these newspapers and magazines had some shared knowledge of the contents of soldiers’ publications.

16 Mark Bryant notes that, while some British politicians objected to what they perceived to be Bairnsfather’s “vulgar caricatures” of the common Tommy, British military command recognized the potential to exploit his morale-boosting cartoons for propaganda purposes, promoting him to officer-cartoonist for the Intelligence Department of the War Office (57).

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