Derry, the famous war cartoonist and search for lost ‘Old Bill’ mural

A personal photograph taken in Aberfoyle House sometime in 1942 or early 1943 showing the HQ Marine Corps' officers returning a toast to an 'Old Bill' mural on a dining room wall. Second from right is  Lt. Col. James Dugan.

A personal photograph taken in Aberfoyle House sometime in 1942 or early 1943 showing the HQ Marine Corps' officers returning a toast to an 'Old Bill' mural on a dining room wall. Second from right is Lt. Col. James Dugan.

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A photograph recently discovered in the amazing archives of Derry’s acclaimed Base One Europe Museum has fuelled speculation that a mural by a celebrated British war cartoonist may still be located in picturesque Aberfoyle House which overlooks the River Foyle.

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather became world-famous during the First World War as the creator of ‘Old Bill’, the walrus-moustached old soldier who appeared in many of his ‘Fragments from France’ cartoons depicting life on the Western Front.

A US Marine Corps' press photograph from December 1943 showing Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather, cartoonist, and Lt. Col. James Dugan, USMC Executive Officer. The watercolour which depicted 'Old Bill' toasting the US Marines was presented to Colonel Shaler Ladd who was commanding officer of the Derry Marine barracks by that time.

A US Marine Corps' press photograph from December 1943 showing Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather, cartoonist, and Lt. Col. James Dugan, USMC Executive Officer. The watercolour which depicted 'Old Bill' toasting the US Marines was presented to Colonel Shaler Ladd who was commanding officer of the Derry Marine barracks by that time.

In World War II, Bairnsfather became official cartoonist to the American forces in Europe. It’s known that he spent time in Derry at least twice during WWII and the newly discovered photograph reveals that a ground-floor room in Aberfoyle House – situated in the grounds of the University of Ulster’s Magee campus - was the location for an ‘Old Bill’ mural, specially commissioned for the US Marines’ officers billeted there.

UU is currently refurbishing the building and history enthusiasts hope the discovery of the photo will convince the University authorities to investigate the possibility that the mural may have survived previous redecorations and is still in situ.

The find of a photograph of a previously unrecorded Bairnsfather mural has excited experts. Mark Warby, an authority on Bairnsfather who has spent 35 years researching the cartoonist’s life and work, said: “Bairnsfather painted numerous murals during his time with the American forces in World War II, but none are known to have survived. So it would be fantastic if his Aberfoyle mural had simply been wallpapered or painted over after the war and, perhaps, still remains intact.

“Bairnsfather was the greatest cartoonist of his time. His ‘Fragments from France’ cartoons published in ‘The Bystander’ magazine during the First World War were incredibly popular and ‘Old Bill’ went on to appear in plays, films, books and magazines and on all manner of merchandise. General Sir Ian Hamilton [senior British Army officer during WWI] described Bairnsfather as ‘the man who kept the Empire laughing in its darkest hour’.”

Bairnsfather, a captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, originally drew the character while serving on the Western Front. In 1915, he was hospitalised with shellshock sustained during the Second Battle of Ypres. “Old Bill”, a curmudgeonly soldier with his trademark walrus moustache and balaclava, initially drew criticism from some in authority as being a “vulgar caricature” of the British soldier.

Nevertheless, the immense popularity of the cartoons among troops and their success in raising morale led to Bairnsfather’s promotion and the receipt of a War Office appointment to draw similar cartoons for other Allied forces – including the American Army, whose soldiers he visited in France in 1917-18. It was at this time that Bairnsfather first came into contact with the men of the US Marine Corps.

From 1942 to 1944, he was officially attached to the American Forces in Europe as an accredited war correspondent-cartoonist. It was during this time that he is known to have visited Derry, as Mark Warby explains: “I know from my previous research that Bruce Bairnsfather struck up a friendship with Lt. Col. James Dugan, Executive Officer with US Marines stationed in Londonderry; this friendship continued after the war and Bairnsfather visited Dugan at his home in the USA. Newspaper articles from January 1944 suggest that, while Bairnsfather was visiting the Marine Corps in Londonderry, he drew a large mural on the wall of the American Red Cross Club and drew many sketches for the men serving with Lt. Col. Dugan.”

The Base One Europe Museum is hosted by the Beechhill Country House Hotel. During WWII, the woodlands around the house contained a ‘city’ of Quonset Huts, forming one of the main accommodation camps for the US Naval Operating Base in Derry.

Mark Lusby, a volunteer researcher for the Base One Europe Museum, discovered the unprinted photo negative amongst archive material loaned to the museum by the families of veterans.

He says: “We were aware that Bruce Bairnsfather visited Derry around Christmas 1943 since a publicity photograph showing Lt. Col. Dugan and Captain Bairnsfather had been issued to the press at the time. But by late 1943, the Commandant of the US Naval Base, Commodore Cortland C Baughman, had made Aberfoyle House his official residence and the Marine Corps’ senior officers had moved out to one of the Beech Hill camps which was renamed Camp Holcomb. So, the recently-developed photograph of the Marine Corps’ officers toasting an ‘Old Bill’ mural in one of main reception rooms of Aberfoyle must have been taken after an earlier visit to Derry by Bairnsfather.

“It would be brilliant if the actual mural survived subsequent redecoration. So little physical evidence of the US Navy presence in Derry has been preserved and there isn’t any marker at Magee College or Aberfoyle House to commemorate the wartime connection between the site and the United States Navy.”