In April 1945 the cartoonist Carl Giles, at the time working as a war correspondent for the Daily Express, accompanied the Coldstream Guards through the gates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. He had to be coaxed to enter and when he did he couldn’t bring himself to draw what he saw.

“He drew the various rooms and cells,” gallery owner and author Tim Benson writes in his new book Giles’s War, “and not the thousands of dead bodies that littered the ground.”

After entering, the cartoonist met the camp commandant Josef Kramer who announced that he was a fan of Giles’s work and gave him his pistol and holster, a ceremonial dagger and swastika armband. In return Kramer asked for an original signed cartoon.

Loading article content

Giles never sent it. “What was the point? He had been hanged,” he would later say. As late as 1992 the cartoonist admitted that “not a day goes by even now when I don’t think of Belsen.”

Reading Tim Benson’s new book, the distance between that image of Giles at the scene of one of the greatest crimes in human history and the one of the cartoonist that sits  in my own memory seems a gaping chasm.


For myself, the cartoons of Giles are associated with Sunday roasts, The Big Match on the telly and my dad reading the Sunday Express. Childhood, in other words.

Giles was a weekly pleasure back then. Most of the allusions to the news of the 1970s in his cartoons passed me by at the time. What I did enjoy, though, was the quality of the draughtsmanship. His cartoons were rich enough in detail to lose yourself within.

That is still the principal pleasure to be gained from dipping into his cartoons. It is now 22 years since the cartoonist died - more than a century since he was born in 1916 - but on our bookshelves there is always somewhere that is forever Gilesland.

Leafing through the latest collection of his cartoons from the Express which draw on cartoons published between the late 1940s and the end of the 1980s, Gilesland is revealed as a country of terrible weather (he was great at drawing rainy streets), nudist beaches, union leaders, oil spills, short skirts, hippy festivals on the Isle of Wight (Bob Dylan in attendance) and boozy office parties. Another country indeed.

Giles, who would describe himself as a “Bentley-driving socialist,” was a man of contradictions. A man of the left who walked away from the left-leaning Reynolds News to work for Lord Beaverbrook’s Express. And who the author and journalist Colin (Absolute Beginners) MacInnes condemned for his “frantic adulation of the powerful.”

MacInnes at least noted Giles’s artistic talent. What’s striking looking again at his work is how busy his cartoons often were. Giles was great on the telling detail, but he loved filling the panel. As well as the regular Giles family he enjoyed crowding his cartoons with faces and bodies. And for all that he worked in bold lines, you couldn’t really say he was much of a minimalist.

It was ever thus. Even in his earlier cartoons for Reynolds News in the early 1940s he would often fill his panels with people and animals and (when dealing with the Japanese) racial stereotypes. The style back then was, the cartoonist conceded himself, more primitive than what came after. But the building blocks of Giles’s style were already in place, most notably in his ability to place his caricatures against surprisingly naturalistic backdrops. He always had an eye for landscape and, during the war years, for blasted brickwork.

“If Giles was the quintessential cartoonist of post-war Britain,” Tim Benson notes in Giles’s War, “the style he became renowned for was forged in the struggles of the Second World War.”

Of course after the war he had more time to garnish what he did. The fact is, the cartoonist has an enviable work routine. He worked no more than three days a week, insisted that the Express send a taxi to come and pick up his cartoons from his Ipswich studio (on particularly inclement days they would even send a helicopter). Tim Benson has also discovered that The Express even covered the cost of the hotel room at the Savoy when he would have trysts with his mistress.


Think of that, then think of the twentysomething cartoonist standing at the gates of Belsen and think of the distance he travelled in between.

“Perhaps the most important thing the cartoon gives is a balance,” Benson quotes Giles as saying in 1945. “It’s a relief after reading the heavy and serious matter to be able to turn to your cartoon, which, as long as you like it, and you laugh, is a good one, however bad!”

Giles’s War, Cartoons 1939-45, edited by Tim Benson, is published by Random House Books, £12.99.

Giles The Collection 2018 is published by Hamlyn, priced £8.99.