ROYD E. BEAMISH
"Bing" Coughlin and his Herbie send laughter up with the soldiers’ rations
MENTION the name of Sergeant William Garnet Coughlin and probably not more than a dozen people in the Canadian Army will have the faintest idea whom you are talking about. But introduce him as “Bing” and recognition will be almost universal. To Canadian troops—and particularly those who have served in Italy—Bing Coughlin is synonymous with a brand of humor that has kept soldiers laughing at themselves through almost a year and a half of the bitterest campaigning of this war.
The bespectacled, solidly built, 33-yearold sergeant, who looks more like an intent young barrister than a wholesale purveyor of puckish whimsy, became an institution in Italy. His daily cartoon, “This Army,” was scrambled for by everyone from generals to privates when the Canadian Army newspaper, The Maple Leaf, was delivered at front and base units. He is known on the Western Front, too, because the Belgian edition of The Maple Leaf also carries the feature, and readers of more than 30 Canadian daily newspapers have laughed
with him or wrinkled their brows over the nuances of a cartoon based on some incident only the overseas soldier can properly appreciate.
Bing has been called the Bairnsfather of this war, and the comparison is probably not unfair to either. He has certainly developed a character who, in a scatterbrained, innocent way, has become the most lovable cartoon soldier since the days of Bert and Alf, and he has managed, like Bruce Bairnsfather, to reach into the bitterness and tragedy of war and extract a humor that is healthy, sometimes profound and always fresh.
A wistful, happy-go-lucky little individual named Herbie, with the unhappy faculty of winding up in the middle of the most fantastic scrapes, is perhaps the biggest single reason for Coughlin’s sudden and widespread popularity with his soldier readers. For a while it was doubtful who had the greater following, Bing or Herbie. Now the issue has been settled beyond all dispute. It’s Herbie. The chinless little guy, with his propensity for doing the wrong thing at.the wrong time, and always the hard way, is familiar to every soldier in the whole Canadian Army.
He has even become a common noun in the soldier’s vocabulary. “Don’t be a herbie!” is the stern warning of sergeants and sergeants-major wherever Canadians go into action. And Lieut.-Gen. Charles Foulkes, G.O.C. of the First Canadian Corps, in a foreword to a book of Coughlin’s cartoons published in Italy, formally accredited him as “the ambassador of the Canadians in Italy to the people at home.”
Herbie’s winning personality fits him admirably for that role. He is funny rather than just pathetic, because the things that happen to him have happened to every soldier. Even when he oversteps the bounds of plausibility it is to yield to some desire that every soldier has nourished in his heart. His comedy— and Bing Coughlin’s art—is comedy of situation, and the situations are real.
Perhaps this is why Coughlin’s cartoons have that undefinable something that appeals so strongly to his soldier audience. Scores of troops have recognized in them situations exactly duplicating incidents they have experienced and have written in to ask if they can have the original, because “that’s exactly what happened to me.” Scores of others have found humor in Herbie’s antics because the little fellow has so often given way to impulses they have felt strongly themselves.
Take, for instance, those stretches of highway where the Provost Corps have put up their huge warning signs: “DUST DRAWS MORTAR FIRE; DRIVE SLOW!” One of Bing’s memorable cartoons depicts Herbie driving past one such sign in a jeep. Not only is he obeying the admonition to the letter, but he has played it doubly safe by attaching a watering can to the front of the jeep to dampen the path before him, just in case. Everyone who has driven over such roads has wished, at one time or another, that he had Herbie’s gadget on his car.
On more occasions than one Herbie’s activities have been held up to newly arrived recruits as reliable guideposts for their own behavior if they wish to enjoy a ripe old age. His role has usually been that of “horrible example,” but this does not rob him of the distinction he enjoys as a moral force among Canadian troops.
Certainly Bing Coughlin had no idea he was going to father such a versatile brain child when he enlisted as a trooper in the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards in Ottawa in 1941. The
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idea of pushing a pen was farthest from Coughlin’s thoughts at the time.
“I guess I’ve always liked to draw,” Bing explains, “and I was lucky in having a mother who didn’t just figure I was wasting my time, even when I was a kid scrawling pictures all over my schoolbooks. But when I joined the Army I figured that wa3 out for the duration. It never even occurred to me that we would someday
be publishing a newspaper of our own.’’ He did, of course, continue to draw sketches and cartoons of Army life for his own amusement, because Bing Coughlin has been drawing things ever since he first held a pencil in his hand.
Born in Ottawa in 1912, Coughlin attended public school in that city before moving to Philadelphia with his mother. His father, the late W. H. Coughlin, was a conductor on the old Canada-Atlantic Railway until his death in an accident 30 years ago.
Bing completed his junior matriculation in Philadelphia. By that time
his early fondness for drawing had developed into a passion overshadowing any desire for scholastic achievement and so it was to the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art, rather than to a university, that he went from high school.
“I never did have any specific ideas about what I wanted to be,” he confesses, “except that I wanted to draw. I did some sketches and cartoons while I was at the art school and some of them sold to magazines and newspapers in Canada and the United States, but most of them just came back. Cartooning didn’t look like a yery secure proposition just then, so I gravitated to display advertising and kept the other as a hobby.”
After graduation from the art school he became a display advertising designer in Philadelphia and in 1940 returned to Ottawa to work for a Canadian display company in the same capacity. A year later he joined the Army as a trooper.
When he landed in Sicily with the “Plugs” in July, 1943, Coughlin was a sergeant and cartooning seemed farther away than ever. He served throughout the Sicilian campaign and four months of the push through Italy before the surprising break came that altered his whole military career and now promises to change his civilian vocation as well.
In January, 1944, the Canadian Army decided to publish its own newspaper in Italy and a staff was hastily collected by drafting men with printing and newspaper experience from their units. With only a skeleton staff to start, Editor Doug MacFarlane, a product of the Toronto Star and the Windsor Star, kept his eyes open for talent in all departments and sent out a call for contributions to the sheet.
Coughlin sent a few of the cartoons he had drawn to The Maple Leaf. They were so good that Major MacFarlane lost no time in requisitioning his services and from the moment that he joined the staff in February he was a complete success.
His first “This Army” cartoon depicted an ack-ack officer standing by his still-smoking weapon. A harp is falling from the sky and the officer is explaining to a goggle-eyed witness: “With this new supercharge we get unlimited range.”
Like his own ack-ack gun, Bing himself seems to have unlimited range, for since that day he has covered a wide field of hilarious situations, and insists he has not yet scratched the surface of Canadian Army humor.
“If the troops like my cartoons, I can thank my regimental experience more than any other one thing,” he declares. “Because no matter how well you can draw, you can’t get that feeling of live humor into an army cartoon unless you’ve experienced the things you’re trying to put into black and white.” Some of Bing’s cartoons are faithful reproductions of incidents he has experienced himself during his six months of action; others are evolved from those inevitable situations only too familiar to every soldier.
But Bing has not permitted memory to take the place of front-line experience since leaving his unit. Ideas for his cartoons are not created in the peaceful sanctum of an art department but on the battlefield where things are happening. Every month or six weeks he packs up his sketchbook and pencils and pushes off in a jeep for the front, visiting as many units as he can in a tour that usually lasts about 10 days. He lives with the men of whatever regiment he may be visiting and shares their experiences, humorous or other-
wise. And when he returns to the newspaper office he usually has enough ideas to keep him turning out cartoons for a month or more before he feels himself going stale again.
It is directly after such front-line tours that Coughlin’s pungent observations take on their most incisive form. The old gag concerning volunteers, for instance, took on new sharpness and pathos after Coughlin had spent 10 days on the Gothic Line offensive last fall, when he drew a cartoon showing Herbie and two of his mates crouched in a slit trench with shells raining all around them. An officer’s face appears over the rim of their shelter, and the expression on the faces of the three men indicates only too clearly their reaction to his words: “I want three
volunteers—you, you and you!”
On the same trip Coughlin came up with another of the cartoons he delights in, depicting the ludicrousness of war. Herbie and a pal are shown heaving grenades enthusiastically into a building marked “Banca di Rimini.” “Isn’t it terrific?” says the pal, delightedly. “We’d get 15 years for this back home!”
Makes No Money From It
Although Bing’s cartoons are published in some 30 daily papers, he receives no revenue from them. They are issued free to the papers by the directorate of Public Relations for the Army. The same is true of his book of cartoons published in Italy—they were sold as close to cost as possible. The small surplus realized was later used to publish a book of poems which had appeared in the Maple Leaf.
Coughlin is serious, quiet and so retiring in manner as to be almost abrupt with strangers. But he has a pixyish sense of humor and will play along with a gag all the way if he is with his fellow workers on The Maple Leaf staff. His little studio in the paper’s Rome editorial offices bore witness to this side of his character. There were two entrances to it, both well plastered with signs warning against mines and booby traps— ostensibly for the purpose of discouraging curious visitors. The walls óf the studio were lined with photographs, serious sketches he has made from time to time and pictures of pin-up girls, in each of which the ubiquitous Herbie had managed to put in an appearance, peeking over the girl’s shoulder or swimming after her in the sea. The room itself was full of German equipment, for Bing has developed into the most ardent souvenir hunter of the entire Canadian Public Relations Group. Bits of uniform and equipment, Luger automatics, Schmeisser machine guns and innumerable odds and ends litter almost every corner. Coughlin claims he picked them up so he could study them and make his drawings of German soldiers more authentic, but his colleagues insist he is just souvenir crazy, and they could be right.
He has no pretensions about the job he is doing.
“If I can keep the boys laughing,” he says, “I’m happy. My cartoons don’t carry any particular message. They’re based on predicaments I’ve laughed at, or other soldiers have found funny, and I just try to pass the laughs along.”
In spite of the fact that his cartoons usually have their origin in sheer humor, Coughlin has more than once managed to offer rather biting commentary on events of the moment. And he is not above poking fun at his own editor when the situation warrants.
One black morning The Maple Leaf came out with a real “boner” in its Letters to the Editor department. A soldier had written asking the order in
which service ribbons of the last war and this should be worn, and the reply gave the Victory Ribbon and General Service Ribbon in the wrong precedence. Next morning The Maple Leaf carried one of Bing’s cartoons, showing a quaking soldier standing before a very irate general. I don’t care what The Maple Leaf says, the general was thundering, you’ll wear your ribbons according to Routine Orders!
But the Coughlin classic in the topical field was turned out while the Canadians were advancing up the Adriatic last fall. They were passing through farm country and most of the units managed to pick up quite a bit of “stray” livestock to add variety to the normal, tiresome routine of dehydrated food so common in the field. It was really surprising how many cows and pigs stepped on land mines or otherwise became “casualties” just at the right place and time to grace some unit’s dinner table.
Coughlin, however, got right down to fundamentals in his cartoon, which showed an Italian farmer hastily applying camouflage paint to a young porker, while his wife stood apprehensively behind him, saying: “Hurry,
Tony, hurry! The Canadians will be here any minute!”
That cartoon, incidentally, was one of the very few that Coughlin has drawn without the omnipresent Herbie putting in an appearance somewhere in the scene. It doesn’t happen often, because if Herbie disappears for any length of time, the result is invariably a united wail of complaint from troops in every sector of the theatre. Herbie fans are legion and loyal.
. Herbie’s Accidental Birth
Herbie’s entry to the Coughlin repertoire was largely accidental. Bing didn’t have any specific set of charac-
ters in mind when he began drawing “This Army.” His aim was to keep his cartoon soldiers as anonymous as possible, so that they might be just about any soldier. In addition to the main character in each drawing, however, Coughlin used to portray the occasional innocent bystander, just for atmosphere.
Two or three times this individual took the form of an unhappy-looking, chinless little guy, who simply stood apart, looking wistfully at whatever action was taking place in the cartoon. For reasons known only to Bing and The Maple Leaf staff he was christened Herbie, and he kept on showing up at intervals, never saying or doing anything.
Then the letters began to come in enquiring about the strange little character. “Who is he?” the soldiers demanded. “Is there any significance? What’s it all about?”
Then someone — probably Major MacFarlane—decided it would be a good idea to do one cartoon with Herbie as the central figure. The troops were delighted and Coughlin began to develop his little find into a principal character.
“After about a week,” Coughlin recalls, “the little beggar simply took things into his own hands. Every time I tried to picture a situation, I’d always see Herbie in the middle of it. Half the time, I think, he drew himself. Now he’s taken away all my following and he’s just running the show the way he pleases. Sometimes I wish I’d never thought about him at all. He haunts me.”
But in spite of his harsh words, Bing is really inordinately fond of his wistful little character. Lately he has been trying to provide him with a running mate, in the form of an egg-headed, mustachioed individual named Beanie, who is somewhat reminiscent of Jerry Colonna in many respects, but to date
Beanie hasn’t registered with the troops. Some, in fact, have written letters upbraiding Coughlin for trying to “play down” their hero, and have threatened to form “Herbie Clubs” if they feel he isn’t getting a square deal.
The troops don’t need to worry about Coughlin forsaking his protégé, however. Bing is beginning to look forward to a postwar career as a cartoonist and has been experimenting in his spare
time. The last drawing we saw before leaving Italy was one of Herbie in a Toronto Maple Leaf uniform, and the transition was successful enough to indicate that Herbie’s own postwar rehabilitation program will not be difficult.
As for Coughlin, all he wants to do is draw cartoons and keep his audience laughing after the war the way he has done up to now.