Observation of the centenary of the First World War (WWI) is underway, beginning for some in June, marking the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and for others in July, marking the anniversary of the start of hostilities.
Here, I’m starting now, with this sculpture of the British WWI cartoon figure “Old Bill.” He appears on the Physics and Astronomy Building at Western University (UWO — because it used to be called the University of Western Ontario) in London, Ontario.
“Old Bill,” described as “the blob-nosed walrus-moustached old soldier” who appeared in cartoons from the front by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (1887-1959) from 1915.
With the outbreak of war, Bairnsfather was deployed with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and went to the Western Front to help relieve the manpower shortage experienced by the British in Flanders. He was sent home to Britain in 1915, suffering from the effects of a chlorine gas attack, a shell explosion and shell shock.
He had been cartooning while at the front, and in 1916, he was transferred to the Intelligence Department of the War Office, and officially appointed “Officer Cartoonist,” and toured the French, Italian and American armies in that capacity.
It’s not clear why he appeared on the UWO building, but the building’s construction history contains a clue. According to an article in a March 2010 issue of Western News, the first buildings on campus were University College and the Natural Science building (which is now the Physics and Astronomy building).
John Putherbough, builder of the Natural Science building (which was completed in 1924), was in a friendly competition with the building of University College to see who could do the best job, the article quotes Alan Noon, a freelance researcher with the university’s public affairs department. Putherbough hired stone mason Dan Cree of Hamilton, Ont., who asked if he could put some “interesting designs” on the building “to give it some colour and movement,” Noon said.
“From that enthusiasm came more than 30 one-of-a-kind sculptures, which Cree carved on the spot,” the article said, with Noon adding, “That’s what makes them so special, there were no moulds whatsoever.”
The building also sports an Old Bill-like owl. (An Old Bill sculpture also appears on Yeo Hall at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.)