Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Story of World War 1 by Mike Butterworth and Frank Bellamy

A complete impulse buy the other day was this book collecting the 26 part series The Story of Word War 1  from Look and Learn magazine.  I used to get Look and Learn every week from about 1967 until 1976 and loved the mixture of science (most of my understanding of science has not progressed from where it was in 1976), literature and, above all, history in the magazine.  The fact that my sister still believes that I don't really like books unless they have pictures in them (largely true and certainly for non-fiction) dates back to the beautifully illustrated articles in Look and Learn.  Many of Osprey's top illustrators produced work for the magazine and I own an Angus McBride original painting from it.  The Embletons were also regular illustrators for it as well.  We used to have a holiday house in the South of France (the then unfashionable bit near the Spanish border) and the most exciting thing about going there for the summer was having six Look and Learns to look forward to when we returned, as the village shop kept them for me.

Apart from the factual pieces there were always a number of comic strips which, although my mother didn't approve of them ("comics are for Americans who can't read") she did at least admire the artwork for my favourite: The Trigan Empire.  The Trigan Empire was created by Mike Butterworth (1924-1986) who also wrote The Story of World War 1 for Look and Learn.  

Providing the illustrations was Frank Bellamy (1917-1976) whose fantastic work on the Thuderbirds strip in TV21 I already knew.  I was only allowed TV21 as my mother knew that the Gerry Anderson programmes were my all time favourite viewing and, more importantly, she had met Anderson once and approved of him as a person.

The series ran from May to November 1970, so several of those issues would figure in my bumper end of summer dose that year. The duo of Butterworth and Bellamy was of such renown at the time that Look and Learn, most unusually, actually gave them credit on the individual weekly articles; usually contributors to Look and Learn were anonymous. 

They even look like the Airfix figures (which first came out in 1966)

Looking back on these articles today I realise how much of my interest in World War 1, particularly the early war, comes from Bellamy's stunning illustrations.  In fact, I think that they are simply the best WW1 pictures ever produced.  Fortunately, I could recreate the grim grey units of spike headed Germans and stolid British with the appropriate Airfix figures, which I did in the garden in trenches I dug in the lawn.  Oddly, I never used the WW1 figures in a conventional wargame, which I had started playing with other periods of Airfix figures, using the Terence Wise rules in the early seventies.  

Maybe it's because he didn't include a WW1 battle in his book, An Introduction to Battle Gaming (I always felt that "battle gaming" was a a rather more civilised, and indeed accurate, term for the hobby than "wargaming"); the period being represented by a single photograph of an Airfix tank.  More likely, I seem to recall, it was because my figures were ingrained with mud and kept in a plastic box full of dirt and grit and my mother wouldn't let me get them out of the box inside the house.

I think this painting also accounts for one of my great bugbears regarding WW1 wargaming figures.  Why doesn't anyone produce British infantry in a prone position?  

The other set of Airfix WW1 figures I had were the French (annoyingly from a different period from the British and Germans - I suppose there was some overlap at the end of 1914/beginning of 1915) but, again, Bellamy's paintings caught the distinctive look of the poilu and his Adrian helmet brilliantly.  There are a couple of manufacturers that do later war French figures and I am determined to get some as soon as I can work out a good paint shade for Le bleu horizon; one of the most difficult shades to recreate accurately on wargames figures.

Bellamy (who surely possessed the most dynamic signature of any artist) also provided portraits of many of the principal figures of the war and I was always taken by his pictures of the French senior officers Joffre and Petain in their kepis.  This was partly because, at exactly the same time (summer 1970) the French Total petrol stations (I don't think they were in Britain at this point) were offering free giveaways every time you stopped at one of their service stations, which we did a lot over six weeks in France.  

The Total Marshal Joffre bust from Gloires de la Republique

These were entitled Gloires de la Republique and you received a medallion, a little book or a 2 inch tall bust of a famous Frenchman (or woman, I think Marie Curie was in there).  They had both Joffre and Petain and I wish now that I kept mine!  I think I collected all of them in the end although we did get bored with the fact that Marshal Petain kept turning up again and again (you didn't know which bust, coin or book you were going to receive).

Anyone who has seen Bellamy's Thunderbirds strip in TV21 knows that his ability to draw machines was just as good as his ability to render figures.  Some of his WW1 dogfight illustrations for the series were tremendous and demonstrate how dynamic and radical his layouts were; using both pages to great effect.  Bellamy was always good at explosions and no one could do an exploding ship like he could.

This is a tremendous book for anyone interested in graphic art or World War 1 and the work that has gone into restoring the old Look and Learn pages is fantastic.  I got mine from the Book Palace who are selling it a at a bargain £15 at the moment (compared with Amazon who want £55 for it).  One thing is for sure I now know from what period my next unit to paint is going to come from!


  1. Brilliant - I'll keep an eye open for it... I think I was more a fan of "World of Wonder" rather than "Look and Learn" but I did read both... A couple of years ago I saw a "Best of.." compilation for the Victor comic - kicked myself ever since that I never bought it....

  2. What a fascinating slant on Bellamy's war illustrations in Look and Learn. And I had no idea about the giveaways at French petrol stations! Thanks
    I wonder if you know about my blog on Bellamy?

  3. No I hadn't see your blog. It is quite superb! Although you have signed the copy of The Story of World War 1 I have!

  4. What a brilliant post - really enjoyed that!

  5. Hve you been collecting the reprints of 'Charley's War'?
    Volume 9 received from Amazon this morning, brilliant!