Heath Robinson’s Great War

heath robinson's great warThe mechanics of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

William Heath Robinson was a British cartoonist and illustrator who is now best remembered for his cartoon contraptions. In fact, he’s one of very few cartoonists whose name has become a shortcut in everyday use – in his case, for any design that seems unnecessarily complicated or slightly ridiculous. (Makes me think of these wine bottle openers that require a gas canister, a physics degree and a diploma in Health & Safety to operate.) His career having begun in 1897, he was already well established by the time of the outbreak of WW1, and this collection from the Bodleian Library brings together three of his wartime books – Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures (1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917).

An introduction by Geoffrey Beare of The William Heath Robinson Trust gives a brief biography of the man. Starting out as a book illustrator he gradually moved on to drawing humorous sketches for some of the periodicals of the day. His first ‘contraptions’ appeared in The Sketch in 1908, in a series entitled Great British Industries – Duly Protected. Over the following years, while book illustrations became less prevalent, his humorous work steadily became more popular. He remained popular between the wars, still entertaining the country with his cartoons during the Second World War, until his death in 1944.


These First World War cartoons are satirical and absurd in tone and directed as much at the British war effort as at the enemy. Apparently they were hugely popular with the troops as well as at home. Some of the things he poked fun at – poison gas warfare, for example – made me think that somewhere during the last century we seem to have lost our willingness to laugh collectively at horrors while keeping our individual fears hidden, or perhaps even as a method of keeping those individual fears at bay. We’re much more likely now as a society to protest and publicly emote. I’m not sure which is the healthier reaction, to be honest, since neither seems to prevent war, but these made me think very much of the old ‘stiff upper lip’ approach we used to take. I suppose in a continent that had been fighting amongst itself since pre-history the people had to have a way of lightening the emotional toll or survival would have been well nigh impossible; and perhaps it’s the long years of relative peace (in Western Europe) since WW2 that have caused us to react differently now. The book certainly made me feel that the idea of Tommies trudging through the mud of the trenches cheerily singing Tipperary is not so far-fetched and propagandistic as our generation might think. I like the thought that, even in the midst of the hell around them, the boys at the Front were able to laugh at the tragic absurdities of their situation. It doesn’t make the idea of war better but it makes it somehow more bearable.

Anyway… as well as his contraption cartoons, Heath Robinson also drew a series of silhouettes depicting German officers and soldiers performing acts of kindness to old ladies and animals, as an ironic response to the daily reports of atrocities, many true but many propaganda, that were appearing simultaneously in the press. As Mike Webb of the Bodleian Library points out in his preface, “Although in his gentle way Heath Robinson was drawing attention to these stories, there is no rancour or hate in his depictions, and perhaps one can detect too an undercurrent of mockery of not only German propaganda, but also more hysterical sections of the British Press.”


Over this 100 year anniversary of the start of WW1, as well as reading a very good history of the lead-up to the war, I have found that reading some of the complementary publications of writings of the time has added a lot to my understanding of how it must actually have felt, particularly for those at home, as the war dragged on. This collection adds to that understanding, along with the excellent collection of war journalism in The Telegraph Book of the First World War. And on a lighter note many of the cartoons are still as fresh and funny as they would have been at the time. The book itself is good quality and well produced, and would make a great gift for anyone with an interest in the WW1 period. Or for yourself…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bodleian Library.

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51 thoughts on “Heath Robinson’s Great War

  1. I absolutely LOVE Heath Robinson and this book is definite must for me. He captures everything brilliant about the good, old-fashioned British sense of humour, surely the finest in the world. At least it was, before we all became a nation of whinging, PC bores who wouldn’t say boo to a goose for fear of upsetting some bugger. Goodness, where did that rant come from? Must be nearly time for my wine… 😉

    • They seem to be bringing out a whole series of his stuff over the summer – his household contraptions and WW2 stuff too. And they’re actually much nicer than my photos make them look – I think my lighting always makes paper look dull and drak, but they’re actually printed on nice, shiny white paper. I know! When I think of the stuff we used to laugh at when I was a kid, and how they’ve ‘cleaned’ up all the old cartoon strips, I wonder where it all went wrong! Did it make us bad people? (This is a rhetorical question… 😉 )

      • I think your photos are very nice, as it happens. I shall keep my beady eye out for them, they are such cheerful things. Ah, how I long for those simpler times – it is almost too complicated to have a chuckle about anything these days 😉

        • Aw, thanks! I just wish I could get the pages to look white instead of sepia! I know – humour is a minefield now. Even I find myself tut-tutting occasionally although I try not to get bogged down in the whole PC thing…

    • He’s a particularly British creation, I think. Some of his stuff is universal – the household contraptions – but because of the time he was working an awful lot of it is about the Brits v the Germans. It’s fascinating to see how he dealt with the horrors by mockery – I wish we could still do that more, I think. Oh, that book does look interesting… 🙂

    • Oh, I’ve vaguely heard the name Rube Goldberg, but didn’t know that was the kind of thing he did. Interesting that they should both have been doing similar stuff at the same time. It seems as if they’re bringing out more of Heath Robinson’s collections over the summer in the same format, including some of his non-war work – I wonder if Professor Branestawm might appear…

  2. Lovely stuff. And it kind of feeds into my most recent (and as yet unreviewed) read – or re-read – Nancy Mitford, In Pursuit of Love. Where again, some dark things happen, but the emotions are not expressed. Yet it’s quite clear the central character feels the emotions, but it kind of doesn’t do to reveal them. It’s just not done. Neither repression nor over emoting is quite the answer, and I think if you are living in a society which is extremely one or the other, the one which you aren’t begins to seem attractive!

    But, aside from that, Heath Robinson a delight! I’ve just been offered my own version of an HR sounding item – how to turn a wine bottle into a light which you can use for 2 hours (it needs charging first) – the device has the ‘cork’ with a bulb. Are you surprised how easy I found it to resist this. And yes, HR sprung to mind. It’s a bargain basement item you never knew you absolutely didn’t need because you never dreamed anyone would feel the need to invent it, or, even worse, think the invention had legs and was a good idea. It will be interesting to see how many people prove me wrong and choose to request it and are then able to glow (for 2 hours, after charging) about it in their reviews

    • Your glowing wine bottle sounds good. A whole two hours, eh? I suppose the idea is that you use it for that romantic dinner and then, at the appropriate moment, there’s a fadeout . . .

      The best gadget in this category that I’ve come across recently (by report, not in real life) is the Egg Master.

    • Hehe! I’ve just been offered a water bottle that, according to existing reviews, is so badly over-engineered it leaks! A fairly fundamental issue I feel – and ties in well with the Heath Robinson theme. I reckon there’s so many weird and wonderful gadgets now his cartoons would almost look like advertisements rather than jokes! And my sister had a wine opener that terrifed the bejabers out of me every time anyone tried to use it!

      Yes, I don’t know when exactly we changed from laughing to emoting – sometime in the 70s and 80s, I think. Personally I think I prefer the hiding our emotion behind laughter but that may be because that’s how it was when I was a kid…

  3. This sounds like such a terrific take on the life of such an interesting person. The ‘cartoonist-eye’ view of the world can really show us a lot about people’s views, and Robinson’s work was so intelligent. Very glad you enjoyed this perspective and collection.

    • The cartoons are fun and the introduction was just detailed enough to be interesting without becoming dull. It looks like they’re planning to issue more of his stuff over the summer, including his WW2 contraptions…

  4. Now, what fantastic cartoons. I love cartoons. I’m always laughing at the absurd drawings, I think. And it’s nice to see that you use your new camera for something!!! Dadblameit.

    *laughs* Wine bottle openers are like that! Glad you have problems with them, too. You know, I love the sound the cork makes when it comes out. I actually put it in over and over, just to hear that sound.

    • I do too, and these are good! *laughs* But aren’t the photos pretty bad? I either seem to not get enugh light or have the light glaring off the page – I think I’ll blame the camera!

      It’s like kitchen gadgets – every time I review one I end up saying it’s actually easier just to use a knife! I got sent a chopper that could only do two mushrooms at a time, and a burger thingy to make all your burgers the same size! Not a thing I’ve ever known I should be worried about…

      • The photos aren’t bad at all, madam! Light is always a tricky thing, but if you can see it well, then no problem, I say.

        *laughing* Burgers the same size! Well, that’d be kinda cool, you must admit. And of course knives are better!

            • Good! You should! And send me chocolate to cheer me up!

              Well, it’s too ghastly to go into the details – but it wasn’t totally unlike Ruber’s little issue with the axe. Suffice it to say that, in the battle between FF, the melon and the knife, the melon won…

            • *accepts cherry sucker gratefully and laughs* Well, I’ll have to send you my wob collection then…

              I probably should have but I was a brave little soldier and just stuck the flappy bit together with sticking plaster. And then went and mopped up the blood… *proud face*

            • Wob?! I’ve got no idea what that is, the sudden. Is it edible?

              Well, if I was there, I would’ve wrapped it up and squeezed so hard…you wouldn’t have felt your finger. I think that’s how it’s done. But good for you, I say! No wonder you’re afraid of the katana.

            • Poor WOB! He’ll be heartbroken that you’ve forgotten him! He might be edible though – if sauteed in a nice sauce.

              Awww! Actually WOB was there at the time, so at least I had someone to fetch me medicinal chocolate! But the katana would have won a stunning victory over that malicious melon…

            • *laughing* Well! You didn’t capitalize it and you have a collection of wobs?! Goodness me, says I.

              Yes! I would’ve chopped it to death after that, you know. WOB! Does he have any medical experience?

            • Well… but… see… it appears you have a collection of Ticks!

              That would have served it right! Not as such, but he did play lots of football when young so is well used to the sight of blood and gaping wounds…

            • *chuckles wickedly*

              Well, we Brits don’t wear all that protective gear, you know! And getting kicked on the shin by a studded boot hurts – so they tell me! *laughs* You are a master of the non sequitur, sir! He is like the Professor – that old stubble/smooth/stubble/smooth cycle – but can’t compete with Mr Twain…

  5. This one sounds interesting, if nothing else than to compare and contrast THEN and NOW. Perhaps we’ve lost our sense of what’s funny? Or perhaps we’ve all bought into the notion that we’re supposed to crack nary a grin if it’s not within PC guidelines?!

    • There definitely does seem to have been a big change in what we think it’s OK to laugh about – sometimes rightly, probably, but I do think humour can be great as a safety valve when bad things happen, and we seem to have lost that a bit. I’m quite sure some people would find some of these a bit distatseful now – the poison gas ones for instance – but I still think they’re funny…

  6. Quite a lot of kitchen gadgets seem to be designed by the school of Heath-Robinson – things that take longer to set up and clean than the actual task. Sadly, I seem to have been gifted with most of them. This book looks a winner: I love Heath-Robinson. (Hint, hint, hint).

    • Haha! I know – I seem to have got on the kitchen gadget list with Amazon Vine and I’ve tested some really incredibly pointless, and fairly lethal, ones recently. The huge chopper that can only manage two mushrooms at a time for example…

      Hint noted! It looks like they’re bringing out a whole series of these over the summer…

  7. That is awesome! I love dark humor and even *whispers* even some inappropriate humor. I have some (what is now ) politically incorrect books. Have you ever read James Thurber? If not, I should wrap them up and send them to you. He wrote for the New Yorker Magazine.

    • I did read some Thurber many years ago – he’s the guy who did the stuff about ponies, isn’t he? Yes, I think it’s getting harder to find subjects for humour these days – we’ve all got so politically correct…

      • It was Thelwell who did the ponies. Thurber was the invisible seal peering over the bedhead (one of many indelible pictures he left in my mind) among other things. He was also a very (dryly) funny essayist, making some sharp observations on American society. Not quite GAN material, but if you ever did a series on American humorists (sic!) ………now there’s a fertile field.

        • Ah, of course! No, don’t think I know Thurber at all then. Hmm – I’m not big on written humour really, with the odd exception, but you may have given me an idea! I shall put my thinking cap on…

  8. Have not heard him spoken of here (U.S.), though I am certain more educated people than me know of him! Political/current event cartoons endure. This was brilliant.

    • Thank you! I think he’s very British – I’m not even sure if some of these war ones would travel very well. But he also did lots of stuff about household contraptions which I think would work just as well over on your side of the Pond. Yes, I love political cartoons – stops the politicians from taking themselves too seriously!

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