Bruce Bairnsfather, the son of Thomas Bairnsfather and Amelia Every, was born in Muree, on 9th July 1888. Bruce's father was a Lieutenant in the Bengal Infantry. He attended schools in India and Stratford-upon-Avon. While taking evening classes in art he sold his first drawing (an advertisement for Player's Navy Mixture) at the age of 17 for two guineas.
Bairnsfather joined the British Army but he found army life boring and left the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and enrolled as an art student at the Hassall School of Art. After completing his training he produced advertising posters for products such as Lipton Tea, Players's Tobacco, Beechams and Flowers Beer.
On the outbreak of the First World War Bairnsfather rejoined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and within a couple of weeks had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant. After the Battle of Mons the British Army was desperately short of trained soldiers and Bairnsfather was quickly rushed to the Western Front where he served with people such as Captain Bernard Montgomery and Lieutenant A. A. Milne.
Bairnsfather, who was put in charge of a Maxim Machine-Gun section. He later recalled: "An extraordinary sensation - the first time of going into trenches.... It was a long and weary night, that first one of mine in the trenches. Everything was strange and wet and horrid. First of all I had had to go and fix up my machine guns at various points, and find places for the gunners to sleep in. This was no easy matter, as many of the dug-outs had fallen in and floated off down stream." Bairnsfather was so shocked by trench-life that he refused to take leave, fearing that once he left, he would find it too difficult to return. During the Christmas of 1914, Bairnsfather came close to being court-martialed after joining German soldiers in what later became known as the Christmas Truce.
While on the Western Front, Bairnsfather drew pictures of trench life and in 1915 The Bystander magazine began publishing his drawings. Bairnsfather's work was extremely popular with the soldiers in the trenches and this helped sales of the magazine. However, some people objected to his drawings and one member of the House of Commons condemned "these vulgar caricatures of our heroes."
In April 1915, Bairnsfather took part in the 2nd Battle of Ypres. After enduring a chlorine gas attack, Bairnsfather was badly wounded by a shell explosion. He was taken back to England and at London General Hospital his doctors diagnosed him as suffering from shellshock. While in hospital, The Bystander commissioned him to do a weekly drawing for the magazine. Later Bairnsfather's drawings were published in a series of books entitled, Fragments From France. A book that sold over 250,000 copies. He also published two books on his war experiences, Bullets & Billets (1916) and From Mud to Mufti (1919).
Instead of being sent back to the Western Front, Captain Bairnsfather was given the task of training new recruits at the Albany Barracks on the Isle of Wight. It was during this period that Bairnsfather created his famous cartoon character, Old Bill. Some people believe the character was based on his commanding officer in France, Sir Herbert Plumer, others claimed the inspiration came from Sydney Godley, the first private to win the Victoria Cross in the First World War. Later, Godley played the role of Old Bill to raise funds for the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.
Bairnsfather's cartoons were extremely popular with soldiers in the trenches. As Martin Walker has pointed out, cartoons like A Hopeless Dawn (1916) and The New Submarine Danger (1917) were "the nearest thing to anti-war propaganda which the British media had to offer during the war." Walker goes onto argue in his book, Daily Sketches: A Cartoon History of Twentieth Century Britain (1978): "The cartoons were by a man who had fought in the trenches and who knew what that kind of wholly new warfare was like. Veterans of the Western Front have paid almost universal testimony to Bairnsfather as a historian of the conditions in which they fought and the sense of humour which the soldiers brought to bear against the life, or more precisely, against the death."
Mark Bryant has pointed out: "Old Bill appeared in books, plays, musicals, two feature films and comic strips. In addition he was reproduced on pottery, playing cards, jigsaw puzzles, postcards and other merchandise. An Old Bill waxwork was produced by Madame Tussaud's and a bus named after him now resides in the Imperial War Museum."
In the 1920s and 1930s several plays and films were produced featuring Bairnsfather's Old Bill character. Other books written and drawn by Bairnsfather during this period included Carry on Sergeant! (1927), Laughing Through the Orient(1933), Old Bill Looks at Europe (1935) and Old Bill Stands By (1939).
During the Second World War Captain Bairnsfather was appointed as an official cartoonist to the American Forces in Europe. This included contributing drawings for the American Forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes.
Bruce Bairnsfather died of acute renal failure after treatment for cancer of the bladder in Worcester Royal Infirmary on 29th September 1959.