Basil Rathbone was not entirely honest in his autobiography (In and Out of Character) about his time serving in the Great War. He’s heartfelt. There’s no question about that. He certainly doesn’t lie either. But he leaves certain bits of vital information and emotions out of his retelling of his wartime exploits.
Long before he would become famous onscreen for roles in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Romeo and Juliet (1936), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and a series of 14 Sherlock Holmes films with Nigel Bruce, Rathbone joined the London Scottish Regiment in late 1915. Enlisting was not high on his list of things to do. That’s one aspect he’s very honest about in his autobiography.
“I felt physically sick to my stomach as I saw or heard or read of the avalanche of brave young men rushing to join ‘the colors’ […] The very idea of soldering appalled me-and to think of it, there were men who did those of their own free choice, and some of them had become great generals and admirals and had statuses erected to them, like the one to Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square in London […] 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 monstrous-irrational, pitiable, ugly, and sordid.”
He reluctantly joined, however, and put his acting aspirations on hold. Rathbone later said he learned to hate the Germans, thinking them capable of any kind of barbaric act. He was trained to kill Germans. Joining his regiment as a Second Lieutenant, he did just that after a bout of the measles in 1917.
All was maddening on the Western Front. Rathbone wrote to his father about the bitter cold, even in July, and in another letter, told his family of the impossible sleeping conditions. The sound of machine guns, the hustle and bustle of men, and the fear of being sneaked up on by the enemy made Rathbone so ridiculously tired he could fall asleep standing up during watch. He and the other men were so useless during these periods that they had to be sent behind the lines to rest up and eat.
Not all was doom and gloom. Basil somehow managed to keep his sense of humor in these torturous conditions of sleep depravity and starvation. He wrote about receiving woolen underwear from his aunt Elfrida: “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.” Other gems include a brief description of his living arrangement at one time: “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.” Finally, he speaks of the unfortunate situation of only having one song, a gramophone recording of “Roses of Picardy.” “[…] 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 Man’s 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 was also a fair amount of boredom by the looks of it. His situation could get so boring, the news of his captain being sent a beef and onion pie would be the topic of conversation for a week.
Excitement mixed with, I’m sure, no small amount of fear would come to break up the tedium. One morning, Basil and a fellow soldier crept slowing through No Man’s Land to a German trench, killing at least one German, obtaining his diary and some papers (which apparently had copious and detailed notes of valuable information), quickly left said trench (Rathbone obtaining lifelong scars on his right leg from some barbed wire in the process), and returned with the diary and documents. Rathbone speaks of not being afraid while in the action of infiltrating enemy territory. It wasn’t until later, when he returned to his own trench and realized he had stepped into a decomposing body, that he understood the realities and horrors of war.
The greatest losses for Rathbone during the war would not occur to him personally but to those around him. His mother died in 1917 and his younger brother John was killed in combat on June 4, 1918.
The lead-up to his brother’s death is a sad one. Rathbone had met up with his brother while both were on leave in France earlier in 1918. Basil had met a couple brief crushes while in the country, but if I had to guess his most powerful memory of that time it would be the night he awoke suddenly after a day spent with John:
“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 face—for 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 me—a premonition which even the dawn failed to dispel.”
Rathbone would later have another premonition of something terrible befalling his brother on the very day and time of his brothers death.
Basil writes affectionately of his brother in the his autobiography. They were very close, he says. During those bitter days and nights immediately following the tragedy, he is not so positive, as can be seen in a letter he wrote to his father on July 26, 1918.
“I was so certain it would be me first of either of us. I’m 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 can’t think of him without being consumed with anger at him for being dead and beyond anything I can do to him. I’m afraid it’s not what you hoped for from me and perhaps that’s why I haven’t written. I suspect you want me to say some sweet things about him. I wish I could for your sake, but I don’t have them to say. Out here we step over death every day. We stand next to it while we drink our tea. It’s commonplace and ordinary. People who had lives and tried to hold on to them and didn’t, 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. That’s an end of it. Grieving is only ridiculous in this place. It could be me today or tomorrow and I shouldn’t want anyone to bother grieving over that.”
In the prologue to In and Out of Character, Rathbone says straightforwardly that his biography will not be a tell all. He ends up sharing a lot about his experience in the war in the space of only a handful of pages. I may wish he had shared a bit more, but it was a painful time for him. Such a nightmarish experience was it that I’m sure being awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous daring and resource on patrol” didn’t help heal his deep wounds. Watching him in films after the war, I wouldn’t guess such a polite gentlemen would’ve lived through such horrific circumstances, but knowing what he went through couldn’t be more important to understanding such a legendary actor and his troubling early days.