was supposed to be the war to end all wars. When another great war broke out
a mere twenty years later, the first one became known as World War One (1914ó1918).
It started when a Serbian nationalist secret society assassinated
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, on June
28, 1914. Austria-Hungary threatened to crush Serbia, who sought help
from its ally Russia. Austria-Hungary turned to its ally, Germany, for
support. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914. France was
drawn into the war because it was bound by treaty to Russia. The event
that precipitated Britain's involvement in the war was Germany's
invasion of neutral Belgium on August 4. Britain had a treaty with
Belgium and was obligated to defend her.
Basil Rathbone was not eager to
join the fighting. He wrote: "I felt physically sick to my stomach, as I
heard or read of the avalanche of brave young men rushing to join ...
Was I 'pigeon-livered' that I felt no such call to duty ... that I
pondering how long I could delay joining up? The very idea of soldiering
appalled me ... Most probably somewhere in Germany there was a young
man, with much the same ideas as I had, and one of us was quite possibly
destined to shoot and kill the other. The whole thing was monstrous,
utterly and unbelievably monstrousóirrational,
pitiable, ugly, and sordid."1
Basil's younger brother John
(born 1897) had no such reservations about joining up. John left school
in May 1915 and volunteered for the army. Having attained the rank of
Sergeant Major in training, John was accepted for a commission in the
3rd Battalion, the Dorset Regiment, and appointed a captain on June 11, 1915.2
John Rathbone was seriously wounded
at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. Below is a video about the Somme
Offensive, one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the First World
eventually enlisted on March 30, 1916. As a Private, he trained at Richmond
Park, just outside of London. Rathbone then applied for a commission, so was
therefore sent to an officers training camp at Gailes in Scotland. After his
training, Rathbone received his commission and became a Second Lieutenant in
the Liverpool Scottish Regiment. He wrote, "Here again luck was with me, but
this time not of my wangling! The Liverpool Scottish, Second Battalion, was
attached to the Fifty-seventh Division, a division which for reasons best
known to the War Office was held in England for several months."3
This gave Rathbone a reprieve from facing the horrors of the Western Front.
In February 1917 Basil Rathbone contracted measles. The authors of
wrote, "After a week in a military hospital he was sent home to 24 Hendrick
Avenue, close to Wandsworth Common in London. Here he shared the house
with his brother John."4 John was still recovering from the
wounds he received the previous July. He had been shot through the chest and
right lung. "As soon as Basil was better, he returned to the depot and trained with the
men under his command. He soon felt thoroughly adjusted to army life and,
two months later, was finally sent abroad to join his battalion, the 2/10 Bn King's Liverpool Regiment, in the trenches near Bois-Grenier. On 23 May
1917, the unit's War Diary refers to the battalion being in billets. It
also notes that a 2nd Lt P St J Rathbone had reported for duty and duly
posted to B Company."5
Life on the front was like hell on earth. Soldiers on both sides in the
war dug trenches to
protect themselves from the machine-gun fire and artillery. The trenches gave the
soldiers a shelter in which to eat meals and rest. As the armies fought,
they worked their way north, toward the sea, and they were closer to the
low countries, where the ground is lower than sea level. Consequently, the
trenches they dug there were easily flooded.
British trench near the Albert-Bapaume road
at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme
(photo by Ernest Brooks)
Lt. Basil Rathbone
The area in between the German trenches and the British trenches was
called No Man's Land. Completely exposed, soldiers were forced to cross No Man's Land in order
to advance. It was extremely dangerous and slow going due to barbed wire,
land mines and machine-gun fire from the enemy trench. In addition, the
ground was often littered with the bodies of soldiers who were killed.
The British soldiers typically spent about a week or two living in the trenches,
fighting on the front line. Then another unit would replace them on the
front line, and the first unit would go "out of the line" to spend a week or so
resting in a nearby village. This brief rest period gave the soldiers an
opportunity to eat regular meals and get regular sleep so they'd be ready
for another round of fighting.
In August 2012 Frank B in the United Kingdom
revealed on The Baz the contents of two letters that appear to have been written by
Basil Rathbone. In the following letter, which Basil
wrote to his family in 1917, he mentioned listening to the song "Roses of
Listen to the song as you read Basil's letter, and imagine his
Beaís letter arrived this morning, and so also did letters from uncle
Harold and other family and a parcel from aunt Elfrida which looked very
promising but proved to contain nothing but woollen underwear of such
gigantic proportions I am at a loss for words. We have managed to fit
three men inside a single pair. I wonder if this is the intention. You
must enquire politely and also discover if auntie E made them herself. I
think they will make excellent tents. Do not tell her that.
We are going out of the line tomorrow, praise the lord, which means we
will be able to change our clothes, wash and get some decent food and
proper sleep, but it would be very fine to get some good whisky sent out
before we are back again. I canít say for sure how long we will be out, so
if you could cut along and send it soon, and also some decent cigarettes,
I should be eternally in your debt.
It is the Park Lane of accommodation here, the best in all the Sector and
we shall be sad to leave it indeed. Even the rats wear little dress suits
and have impeccable manners. And we have a gramophone, though only one
thing to play on it, which is Mr Pike singing ďRoses of PicardyĒ Ė it has
lost much of its original charm by this time and I think we would most of
us cheerfully lob the thing into No Manís Land if only we could get it
away from its owner. But he is wise to us and never lets it long out of
his sight, damn him.
There is chronically little of interest to report as ever, and the state
of tedium we exist in can best be illustrated by telling you the captain
was sent a beef and onion pie by his people about a week ago, and it is
still a topic of excited conversation for us.
Otherwise ó we kill rats. And lice. Or play cards. Or take rifle
inspections or censor letters or write our own letters home. Fritz has
been paying this sector a fair bit of attention for the last day or so.
Mostly minenwerfers and field artillery but occasionally we get one of the
really big blighters. Thereíll be a terrific whistle and rush and thump
somewhere and the ground will shake and bits of the parapet will fall on
us. Terribly jolly. The heavy stuff mostly fall on the reserves, which of
course means we are getting no food sent up and are living on rations and
scraps and are fairly starving right now. Sleep is impossible day or
night. As soon as we stand down at dusk there is endless movement and
bustle of men on fatigues and supplies coming up the communication
trenches and everyone is more jittery because we canít see so every shadow
becomes Fritz creeping up on us. Star shells are going up all night.
Machine guns rattle now and then at nothing. Sometimes some unlucky
blighter catches it by blind chance and the call for stretcher bearers
goes up even though thereís not usually much to be done. After a few days
of this one is so tired and stupefied one can fall asleep standing up on
watch, and is really good for nothing, and so we are sent behind the lines
to sleep and wash and eat hot food and be rested enough to do it all
Oh but we had a real gas scare the other day. Our part in it was small but
telling. It was very near to being an incident. I was out on duty and
there were a few shells coming over, nothing much and mostly falling
pretty deep, when one of the men said he heard the dread call Ďgasí coming
from north of us Ė We were all straining to catch anything unusual on the
wind, but we couldnít see or smell anything and we thought it was just
imagination, until the CSM and I went along to the next traverse and we
caught the smell of something sharp and acrid in the air, and we stopped
dead and looked at one another, and I said Ďis it chlorine?í and he said
ĎIím not taking the riskí and he spun around and called out ďgasĒ to the
men and everyone began putting on respirators, and it was only then I
realised my respirator was in the abri and not at my side, which was not a
happy realisation. Iím afraid I took off and ran for it all the way back.
Heroically of course.
And that was it. The gas alarm proved unfounded you will be happy to know.
This evening we are blessed for Fritz is being parsimonious with his gifts
and the dear things in the kitchen have sent us a dixie full of hot, or at
least not too cold, cocoa, to which we added our ration of rum . My
sergeant has some chocolate saved and is sharing it with the men, so
everything is excellently pleasant and we are sitting about playing rummy
like a collection of old ladies in retirement. We are really as cosy as
one can be in a hole in the ground full of mud and vermin and very
unwashed human beings.
I had a letter from Johnny the other day, saying heís hoping to be back
here soon. He surely canít be well enough yet? I had thought he would be
out of it for at least the rest of the year. He has scared us enough for
the present and I shanít enjoy worrying about him again. M also writes to
say the baby is now saying many complicated words so she is quite sure he
is a prodigy. He wasnít saying very much at all when last I saw him, and
was prodigious only in the amount he seemed prepared to eat, so this is an
I believe William has caught a Blighty one? Iím hoping he will make a good
Your loving scion
"PSB" are Basil's initials: Philip St. John Basil. "Bea" is
Basil's younger sister Beatrice. "M" (the next to last paragraph) refers to
Basil's wife Marion; "the baby" is their son Rodion. "William" might refer
to Basil's cousin, William Rathbone, or one of his father's cousins, also
Roses of Picardy
She is watching by the poplars
Colinette with the sea blue eyes
She is watching and longing and waiting
Where the long white roadway lies
And a song stirs in the silence
As the wind in the boughs above
She listens and starts and trembles
'Tis the first little song of love
Roses are shining in Picardy
In the hush of the silver dew
Roses are flowering in Picardy
But there's never a rose like you
And the roses will die with the summer time
And our roads may be far apart
But there's one rose that dies not in Picardy
'Tis the rose that I keep in my heart
And the years fly on forever
Til the shadows veil their sighs
But he loves to hold her little hand
And look in her sea blue eyes.
And he sees the rose by the poplars
Where they met in the bygone years
For the first little song of the roses
Is the last little song she hears
She is watching by the poplars
Colinette with the sea blue eyes
She is watching and longing and waiting
Where the long white roadway lies
And a song stirs in the silence
As the wind in the boughs above
She listens and starts and trembles
'Tis the first little song of love.
including the towns where Basil
trained and fought!
Even though Johnny was hoping to be able to return to the front "soon,"
he wasn't well enough. As Basil wrote in the letter above, he thought that
Johnny would be out the rest of the year. Indeed he was. Captain John Rathbone returned to France in 1918. "His regiment, The Dorsets,
was stationed close by, and he had leave to come over and spend the night
with me," wrote Basil. "John and I spent a glorious day together. John had
an infectious sense of humor and a personality that made friends for him
wherever he went. In our Mess on that night he made himself as well-liked as
in his own regiment. We retired late, full of good food and Scotch whiskey.
We shared my bed and were soon sound asleep. It was still dark when I
awakened from a nightmare. I had just seen John killed. I lit the candle
beside my bed and held it to my brother's faceófor
some moments I could not persuade myself that he was not indeed dead. At
last I heard his regular gentle breathing. I kissed him and blew out the
candle and lay back on my pillow again. But further sleep was impossible. A
tremulous premonition haunted meóa
premonition which even the dawn failed to dispel."6
A few weeks later, Basil had another premonition. It was one o'clock on
June 4, 1918, wrote Basil, and "suddenly I thought of John, and for some
inexplicable reason I wanted to cry, and did."7 Basil later
learned that his brother was killed on June 4 at exactly one o'clock. John
Rathbone was buried at Berles New Military Cemetery in Pas de
In 1915 Rupert Brooke's poem "The Soldier" was published; it inspired
thousands of British soldiers, including Basil Rathbone:
by Rupert Brooke
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart,
all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Capt. John Rathbone
As if John's death wasn't hard enough for Basil to take, he had also lost
his mother. She died in 1917.
In 1918 Basil wrote the following heartbreaking letter:
Dear father Ė We came up from the reserves a while ago, and just before we
left I had your letter and also the parcel from uncle H. Please thank
uncle and all the family especially the girls for their dear little poems.
The whisky has already proved helpful. I shared the cake with my men and
it was consumed in three minutes and pronounced to be pretty fair, which
is high praise.
Iím sorry for the awful handwriting but itís very cold and Iím shivering
terribly and thereís only an inch of candle left in the dugout to write by
and it flickers. Itís 3.50 ack emma, so bitterly cold Iím wearing my great
coat though itís July, but itís been a quiet night, and when I was out I
caught a nice moon, very bright between little bits of cloud. I think it
will be a very bright and sweet and warm day again like yesterday.
Cloudless and a little breeze. Just the day for cricket.
Today will be quite a busy one and so I want to send this before it gets
I have all of Johnnyís letters parcelled up together and I will either
bring them home on my next leave or arrange for someone to deliver them in
person. I would send them as you asked but I would be afraid of them being
lost. The communication trenches can take a beating and nothing can be
relied on. If I canít bring them myself for any reason there is a good
sort here, another Lieutenant in our company who is under oath to deliver
them, and who I have never known to shirk or break his word. So, you will
get them, come what may.
Iím sorry not to have written much the past weeks. It was unfair and you
are very kind not to be angry. You ask how I have been since we heard,
well, if I am honest with you, and I may as well be, I have been seething.
I was so certain it would be me first of either of us. Iím even sure it
was supposed to be me and he somehow contrived in his wretched
Johnny-fashion to get in my way just as he always would when he was small.
I want to tell him to mind his place. I think of his ridiculous belief
that everything would always be well, his ever-hopeful smile, and I want
to cuff him for a little fool. He had no business to let it happen and it
maddens me that I shall never be able to tell him so, or change it or
bring him back. I canít think of him without being consumed with anger at
him for being dead and beyond anything I can do to him.
Iím afraid itís not what you hoped for from me and perhaps thatís why I
havenít written. I suspect you want me to say some sweet things about him.
I wish I could for your sake, but I donít have them to say. Out here we
step over death every day. We stand next to it while we drink our tea.
Itís commonplace and ordinary. People who had lives and tried to hold on
to them and didnít, and now slump and stare and melt slowly to nothing.
You meet their eyes, or what used to be their eyes and you feel ashamed.
And now Johnny is one of them. Thatís an end of it. Grieving is only
ridiculous in this place. It could be me today or tomorrow and I shouldnít
want anyone to bother grieving over that.
Stand to is being called. I have to go now. God bless you and Bea. You are
both dearer to me than I could ever say. Take very good care of each other
with my best love
As Patrols Officer for the Battalion, Rathbone had been leading night
patrols into No Man's Land to gather information about the enemy. At the
time that Basil Rathbone wrote this letter, he had begun leading daytime
patrols into No Man's Land. Rathbone had convinced his commanding officer to
allow daytime patrols because it was difficult to get any useful information
in the dark. Going into No Man's Land in daylight was extremely
dangerous. The Germans would be able to see them and shoot them. Basil was
devastated by his brother's death. He may have no longer cared whether he
lived or died. Every time he went on one of these daytime patrols there was
a good chance he wouldn't make it back. In the letter above, it seems that
Basil is preparing his family for the possibility that, like his brother,
he, too, may be killed. Note that he has already arranged for "another
Lieutenant" to bring Johnny's letter's to his father in case he is unable to
do it himself.
The date of the letter above is significant. On July 26th
Rathbone and his men were in the trenches near the village of Festubert. For
these daytime sorties into No Man's Land camouflage suits had been made to
disguise the men to resemble trees. "On our heads we wore wreaths of freshly
plucked foliage; our faces and hands were blackened with burnt cork. About
5:00 a.m. we crawled through
our wire and lay up in no-man's-land. All sentries had been alerted to our
movements. The German trenches were some two hundred yards distant."8
Two other men went with Rathbone on July 26: Corporal Norman Tanner and
Private Richard Burton.
an interview with Edward R. Murrow in 1957, Rathbone related the story of
how he disguised himself as a tree to get near the enemy camp to obtain
information. Here's a clip from that interview:
the interview with Edward R. Murrow: "I went to my commanding officer and I
said that I thought we'd get a great deal more information from the enemy if
we didn't fool around in the dark so much . . . and I asked him whether I
could go out in daylight. I think he thought we were a little crazy. . . .
I said we'd go out camouflagedómade
up as treesówith
branches sticking out of our heads and arms . . . . We brought back an awful
lot of information, and a few prisoners, too."
In this interview
Rathbone downplayed how dangerous the mission was. The team had to crawl
ever so slowly across No Man's Land. If the Germans had seen moving "trees,"
the men would have been shot on sight. After about an hour, they reached the
German front line. They cut through the barbed wire and slowly made their
way along a trench that appeared deserted. "Suddenly there were footsteps
and a German soldier came into view behind the next traverse. He stopped
suddenly, struck dumb, no doubt, by our strange appearance. Capturing him
was out of the question; we were too far away from home. But before he could
pull himself together and spread the alarm, I shot him twice with my
revolveróhe fell dead. Tanner tore the
identification tags off his uniform and I rifled his pockets, stuffing a
diary and some papers into my camouflage suit. . . . Now things happened fast.
There were sounds of movement on both sides of us, so we scaled the parapet,
forced our way through the barbed wireóI have the scars on my right leg to
this dayóand ran for the nearest shell
hole. We had hardly reached it when two machine guns opened a cross fire on
us. We lay on the near lip of the crater, which was so close to their lines
that it gave us cover. The machine-gun bullets pitted the rear of the
crater."9 The three men split up, running in opposite directions
from one shell hole to the next until they reached the British line. It was
a miracle that they survived.
Rathbone's commanding officer sent reports to the war office praising the
daylight patrols led by Lieutenant Rathbone. On September 9, 1918, Basil
Rathbone was awarded the Military Cross for bravery.
The newspaper report of Rathbone's bravery and Military Cross award.
A military cross bearing the insignia of King George VI. The one
awarded to Basil Rathbone would have looked just like this one.
After the armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed on November
11, 1918, the troops began to return home. Basil Rathbone came back to
his wife and child, and his career, but he felt quite lost. The two years of
horror that Basil lived through, knowing that each day could be his last,
robbed him of any concern about the future.
In an interview for Photoplay magazine, Basil said, ďI had come
back from the war, where life had been like a long, terrible dream. At the
front I had never thought about what would happen or why. There was no past
and no future. Nights were either wet nightsor dry
nights. The important things to me were whether my billet was warm or
cold, the food good or rotten. I suppose when you meet death
daily for a long time you give up trying to order things. I came out of
the war comparatively untouched. That is, I wasnít shell-shocked or
scarred up. But I had lost all sense of lifeís realities. I found I was still a good enough
actor. I got some good parts in London. Whatever they offered me, I took.
Money meant nothing to me. I
never thought of getting ahead. I never cared about it. Somehow I expected to be taken care of Ė as I had been in the army. I
shrank from decisions. I never went after things I wanted. I hated any
sort of battle or argument. I
just wanted to be let alone Ė to vegetate. I was completely negative.Ē10
Although Basil stated that he wasn't shell-shocked, he may have affected
more than he cared to admit. The anger that he clearly felt after the
death of his brother and the aimlessness and lack of ambition with regard to
his acting career are typical indications of post-traumatic stress disorder. The first world
war was such a horror that it's a wonder any men came through it unscathed.
Rathbone was a changed man, and his marriage suffered. Basil and Marion
separated in August 1919.
In a 1940 interview for Modern Screen, Basil was asked what constituted
real horror to him. His immediate reply was "War! . . . Going into an
attack, paralyzed with fear, knowing that if we had our own free will, not a
living man of us would go! Every living man of us would funk it. We go
because we cease to be individuals. We become a mass machine. We are
dominated by mass psychology. We become a composite Thing of arms, legs,
heads and wills. We move into the attack only because it is the only way
out. If we do not go into the attack, if we turn back one quivering inch, we
are sot down like dogs Ė deserters. So we are forced to go forward, not
because we are brave and gallant gentlemen, but because we are in a trap.
War is a trap, a monstrous, gigantic, inconceivably barbarous trap. And
there you have it. A trap is the most horrible thing in the world. Any kind
of a trap. Because in a trap you are alone, crouched there with fear. There
is Death screaming at you in front. There is Death sticking his tongue out
at you from behind. . . . In the trap a man, no longer a
man, lives with Death. There is no horror like it!"11
photos of the Liverpool Scottish, taken near Hooge on June 16, 1915
To read more about the two letters above, their history and comments
about them, visit The Baz. Also look for an interview with Richard van Emden,
one of the authors of Famous: 1914-1918,
on The Baz!