Century-old Stars and Stripes cartoons serve as vivid reminder of WWI troops’ struggles
It’s been 100 years since they were scrawled by a doughboy in France, but Stars and Stripes’ World War I-era comics still offer a glimpse of military life in those dark days.
Between Feb. 8, 1918, and June 13, 1919, the newspaper published more illustrations than photographs and often included humor-filled cartoons reflecting the daily lives of members of the American Expeditionary Forces.
Marine Pvt. Abian “Wally” Wallgren’s “Helpful Hints” comic ran throughout the war, making fun of rules and regulations and the contrasting lifestyles of the brass and front-line troops.
But many of his jokes were irreverent. For example, “How to relieve trench tedium” from May 31, 1918, shows soldiers juggling grenades and threatening to use one on an annoying trench-mate.
Cord Scott, a University of Maryland University College Asia professor who teaches history, film and government on U.S. bases in South Korea, recently spoke about Wallgren’s cartoons at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va. The Civil War had combat sketch artists and political cartoonists, but the dawn of authentic American military comics drawn by soldiers came during World War I, and Stars and Stripes was a major part of that, he said.
Wallgren’s “Directions for the proper care of the rifle” from April 5, 1918, includes drawings of dead enemy soldiers and Americans shooting, bayoneting and striking German troops.
The cartoon is remarkable because it shows combat action that isn’t present in works from World War II. Strips like Bill Mauldin’s “Willie and Joe,” which ran in Stars and Stripes from 1943 to 1945, showed battle damage “but enemy combatants killed or shot was not something that was common for World War II cartoons,” Scott said.
“Just think of the lads in Siberia,” from Sept. 27, 1918, imagines the predicament of thousands of soldiers sent to Vladivostok to safeguard U.S.-provided supplies after the Bolsheviks seized power at the dawn of the Soviet era.
“It’s an aspect of American history that few people know about,” Scott said. “To have it register in a cartoon is kind of interesting.”
Wallgren’s cartoons are a reminder of just how hard life can be for front-line soldiers.
“Some of the World War I cartoons are pretty dark,” Scott said.
“How to get rid of rats without bloodshed,” which ran June 7, 1918, shows a soldier pumping rodents full of gas to make them float like balloons so his buddy can shoot them out of the sky. It includes illustrations of troops sleeping in rat-infested barracks while others fill rodents with nitroglycerine and free them to flee toward German lines with the caption: “Every time Fritzie jabs a rodent will mean two less rats (counting the Heinie).”
“We now have an A.S.L. [Anti-Swearing League],” from Nov. 8, 1918, shows soldiers put on KP or “Kitchen Patrol,” which involved peeling potatoes and washing dishes, with the caption: “Instead of letting loose a howling flood of profanity when something annoys you, try yodeling a quaint sentimental ditty or recite plaintive portions of the congressional record until the feeling of aggravation has left you.”
A week later, Wallgren drew soldiers trying to mail home Christmas presents, including a captured machine gun and French cheese and wine. One image has a soldier trying to mail himself home.
A more recent example of a Stars and Stripes cartoon depicting troops in battle is “Downrange” by Jeffery Hall, which ran during the peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the early 2000s.
The newspaper no longer has an in-house cartoonist. It still runs “Beetle Bailey," Scott said, but the military setting and characters don’t reflect real-world issues faced by servicemembers.
Perhaps the closest modern equivalent to Wallgren’s work might be “Terminal Lance” by former Marine and Iraq War veteran Maximilian Uriarte, who spoke to Stars and Stripes in 2016 about his graphic novel, “The White Donkey.”
“I wanted to tell a war story of what it’s like to be in the Marine Corps,” he said. “What does it mean to do this, to go to Iraq, to come home? What did I learn from all of this?”