Basil Rathbone and The Great War

It 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 saw or 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 was 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 War:

Basil 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 Famous: 1914-1918 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)
Captain Basil Rathbone, Liverpool Scottish battalion
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, and 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 Picardy." Listen to the song as you read Basil's letter, and imagine his situation:

Sunday 15th

Dear all,
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 again.

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 improvement.

I believe William has caught a Blighty one? Iím hoping he will make a good recovery.

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 named William.



  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.


Glossary of World War One Terms in Basil's Letter
minenwerfers mine launchers
abri a shelter or place of refuge
Fritz the Germans
dixie a large iron pot
ack emma
(in the letter below)
a.m. (morning)


Click here or on the map below to see a map of France during World War One

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 Calais, France.

In 1915 Rupert Brooke's poem "The Soldier" was published; it inspired thousands of British soldiers, including Basil Rathbone:


The Soldier
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.


John Rathbone
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:

July 26th
Wed morning

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 going.

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 wonít you.
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.

In 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:

From 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 nights or 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

Two 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!




1 In and Out of Character, by Basil Rathbone (Doubleday, 1962) p 11-12

2 Bravest of Hearts: The Biography of a BattalionóThe Liverpool Scottish in the Great War, by Harold Giblin (Winordie Publications, 2000) p. 287

3  In and Out of Character, p. 14

4 Famous: 1914-1918, by Richard van Emden and Victor Piuk (Pen and Sword, March 2010) p. 157

5 Famous: 1914-1918,  p. 157

6 In and Out of Character, p. 8

7 In and Out of Character, p. 8

8 In and Out of Character, p. 3

9 In and Out of Character, p. 4

10 "Love Life of a Villain," Photoplay, August 1938.

11 "Horror Men Talk about Horror," Modern Screen, January 1940.

See also "A Multimedia History of World War One":





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All original content is © Marcia Jessen, 2013