Will Dyson was born near Ballarat, Australia, in 1880, the ninth of eleven children. The family moved to Melbourne, where he attended the Albert Park State school. He was no model pupil, and in 1892 he was in possession of the Certificate of Exemption from compulsory attendance at school. This meant that he had reached the minimum educational standard needed to leave school before he had even entered his teens. Quick-witted and a natural performer, he was already adept at the comic improvisation and sardonic one-liner. Roaming the streets of Melbourne, he recorded these early experiences for the Sydney Bulletin and the Melbourne Herald.
But there was little scope for his talents in Australia and, in 1909, he moved to London and was engaged by the radical newspaper, the Daily Herald as its cartoonist. In 1916, Dyson joined the Daily Sketch and was sent to the Western Front in December of 1916 to record the life of the Australian troops. It was at this time, that the A.I.F.’S morale was at its lowest ebb after their efforts at Pozieres. He met Charles Bean, who was the Australian Official Correspondent and future author of six of the twelve volumes of the Official History of Australia in the war of 1914/1918. Bean described Dyson as an able man who showed an acute sympathy with the humble “digger.”
Dyson’s main function was to express in his art the character of the Australian soldiers, he drew them having breakfast, on sentry duty, writing letters home and interacting with the villagers behind the lines where the soldiers were billeted. Dyson returned to London in June of 1917 to go back to the Western Front in July. It was soon after this, that he suffered a nick from a piece of shell fragment as he and Bean were running from a shell-hole near Messines. The month of August saw Dyson with the First Australian Tunnelling Company at Hill 60 near Ypres. There had been extensive German mining activity for the Australian tunnellers to counter. The lithograph “A Dug-Out – in the Tunnels, Hill 60, August 1917” (1430) portrayed as Dyson wrote “the circumstances were bearable to what they would be in the line, but fatigue even here, to the unlucky forced to spend a night in the bad spots of the tunnels, is a circumstance the aching misery of which cannot be judged by any standard with which our average civilian is conversant .... The tragic fact is that the incomparable heroisms of this winter warfare bring no compensations to the heroes - no element of dramatic exaltation in the performance of them. They are less swift dramatic acts than long states of siege with exhaustion as the besieger.” Yet Dyson shows in his superb lithograph entitled “With the tunnellers” (1433), a group engrossed in a card game with the Nieuport dunes in the background.
Dyson was once again wounded, this time in November of 1917. He was on his way up to Passchendaele and was close to Westhoek and just finishing a sketch near a dug-out when he heard a shell. It did not seem extra formidable, but the next thing he knew was that his drawing board was blown away and he tumbled over. He got a nasty gash in the arm, a cut in the hand and a graze on the cheek, together with a little bit of stuff in the leg, but was alright after three weeks of recuperation. He was, in fact, badly shaken up and returned to London to rest and recover further. He then returned to France once again, this time to the Somme area and recorded the involvement of the A.I.F. in the May of 1918. He recorded “Company awaiting relief - the Caterpillar, Ville-sur-Ancre, 1918” (1427). His lithograph “Welcome back to the Somme, March 1918” (1432) shows one of Dyson’s most striking works. Here he so capably expresses his passionate sympathy for the humble “squadie” and especially his beloved “diggers.” “The Grooms, Happy Valley, Franvillers, Somme 1918” (1438) shows a happier mood in this characterisation of three riders sitting on their horses “on top of the world.”
There is little doubt that Dyson’s best work was before 1920. His drawings showed a sardonic disrespect for orthodox standards and had an iconographic freedom and ideological fervour that distinguished it from the output of other cartoonists of the period.
Dyson died on the 21st January 1938 aged 57 - tributes appeared under headlines “The genius of Will Dyson” (Daily Herald) and “Will Dyson - a great Australian” (Sydney Herald). After a memorial service at Chelsea Old Church, he was buried in the grave next to his wife, Ruby, at Hendon Cemetery in London. Ruby had died in the influenza epidemic of 1919. It was not until April 2003 that a suitable headstone was erected in their memory. The Will Dyson Trust raised all the necessary money, ably supported by the Trustees and members of the Western Front Association.
“Will Dyson” by Ross McMullin, ISBN 0 207 148595 3, published 1984 by Angus & Robertson.
“The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators - 20th Century” by Brigid Peppin and Lucy Mickelwait , ISBN No. 0 7195 3985 4, published by John Murray.
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