BLOG INTERVIEWS / Interview with Richard Van Emden

Interview with Richard Van Emden

Today, to mark Armistice Day (Veterans’ Day in the US), THE BAZ is talking to Richard Van Emden, WW 1 expert and author of numerous books, including FAMOUS 1914-18 that features the war experiences of various well known people. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are two of those featured.
Richard van Emden has been interested in the Great War since his teens. He interviewed 270 veterans of the conflict and has so far written twelve books on the subject. His latest, Boy Soldiers, is due out now.
Richard also researches, produces and directs television programmes about both World Wars, including the award-winning Roses of No Man’s Land and Veterans. His most recent television programme Shooting the War, was broadcast earlier this year (2010) on BBC4, and he has also appeared as an expert on programmes such as The Boy Soldiers of the Great War (Channel 4), and most recently The Real War Horse on the History Channel

. “Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire”

TB: Ok – let’s kick this off by asking you to tell me briefly about your work on the Great War, and especially your book FAMOUS 1914-18.

RVE: I have been fascinated by the Great War since my teens. I read ‘Goodbye to all That’ by Robert Graves in 1985 and I was instantly hooked. I wanted to meet veterans and so I shot down to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, and wondered around the public grounds looking at the campaign ribbons on the old soldiers’ chests until I found one. met over 270 veterans across the UK before they all passed away. The decision to write my book ‘Famous 1914-1918′, on the celebrities who served during the war was, in one sense made for me. The Great War Forum, a mecca for enthusiasts, had endless discussions about celebrities who served and I knew it was only time before someone wrote the book and I wanted it to be me! In the end I chose 21 characters, including men like Arnold Ridley (of Dad’s Army fame) Basil Rathbone, Dennis Wheatley, JRR Tolkien, AA Milne, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Nigel Bruce.

Do you feel, as we gather distance from the Great War we are tending to underestimate its impact on the lives of men like Rathbone?

RVE: With the success of tv programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ many more members of the public have been drawn to an appreciation of the past including, of course, the Great War. My current interest in the Great War is in fusing the Home Front with the Western Front, looking at the impact of the war on both sides of the Channel and not one in isolation. None of us can ever really begin to appreciate the fear and the anxiety soldiers, or indeed civilians, suffered, but through interviews with the children and grandchildren of those who fought, it is possible to see how the effects of war on men like Rathbone cascade down the generations. The neurosis and anxieties of the people I meet now are as a direct consequence of the impact the war had on their fathers and grandfathers. Equally, some veterans went on to have very successful careers, thankful that they were spared, and determined that they would not waste their lives, and that drive has been handed down too.

When I look at Nigel Bruce playing opposite Basil Rathbone, I notice that while Rathbone runs around, Bruce simply ‘turns up’. Bruce was machined-gunned through the legs while serving in France in January 1915, and his legs were ‘gammy’ from then on. Whether, in his case, the war had mental as well as physical repercussions, I do not know. Certainly, in Rathbone’s case, the loss of his brother had a profound effect on Basil who appears to have cared little about his own life at times, taking unnecessary risks which ultimately let to his winning the Military Cross.

TB: So, we almost can’t overestimate the impact of this war on the lives of the men who went through it. As you mention, Basil’s younger brother John was killed in June 1918, when he was only 20. And it was almost directly after this that Rathbone undertook the series of daylight raids on the German trenches that ultimately won him the Military Cross. Frank Belcher, one of our readers and a WW1 buff, has observed that Rathbone and his companions wee immensely lucky to have survived those sorties, especially after they were surprised and fired on. Would you agree with this?
“…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 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 shot down like dogs – 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. ” – Basil Rathbone, 1940

strong>RVE: Going out on daylight sorties, as Rathbone did, was extremely risky. Rathbone would automatically have asked for volunteers [rather than ordered anyone to go with him]. These two men, both of whom were awarded the Military Medal for bravery, would have been trusted men who would understand the risks.

By July 1918, there was a temporary stalemate of the Western Front as both sides caught their breath after the enormous and ultimately fruitless German offensive that had begun in March. By this time, the German Army was considerably weakened and they tended to thinly defend their front line posts, so Rathbone was taking a calculated risk. Even so, he could easily have been shot by a sniper or caught out in the open and vulnerable to machine gun fire.

TB: Can you tell me more about your estimation of Rathbone’s mental state at this time?

“…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 can’t 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 there’s 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. ” Rathbone, 1917

RVE:The impression one has is of a man in turmoil over the death of his younger brother to whom he was very close and no doubt protective. Many men who lost a brother or a close friend at the front recalled that for a period afterwards they cared little for their own safety. It is only speculation, but one gets the feeling that Rathbone was keen to exact some revenge for his loss.

TB: Also in this regard, I’d like to quote something he said about himself in the immediate post-war period:

“I 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 wasn’t shell-shocked or scarred up. But I had lost all sense of life’s realities …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 – to vegetate. I was completely negative.”

Do you think his estimate of himself as “not shell-shocked” might be a bit inaccurate?

RVE:Rathbone diagnoses himself as a man who was not shell-shocked, and what he probably meant by that was that he did not shake or tremble uncontrollably, nor did he suffer terrible nightmares. However, he was probably suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), as we would now describe it, with the desire to be left alone, avoiding confrontation and making personal decisions. It also sounds as if he was suffering from depression. The war was a great moment in the lives of these men, for good or ill. They enjoyed a camaraderie that they could never experience in civilian life, and they saw, in the their battle for life, what was worthwhile and genuinely valuable. Peace and the return to civilian life blurred that clarity of thought and left many men feeling out of kilter with everything around them, and alienated from family and close who had played no part in the conflict.

TB : So the breakdown of his first marriage in 1919 could possibly be seen in this context?

RVE: War breaks up marriages: that is as true today as it was in the Great War. It is very likely that in the aftermath of war, Basil may not have appeared to his wife the same man who went off to war. He may have been irascible, short-tempered, distant, I don’t know for sure. But I think it unlikely that his war experiences did not play some part in the marriage breakdown.

TB: There looks to be a certain parallel between Rathbone’s behavior at this time and that of Siegfried Sassoon doesn’t there. Was this quasi-suicidal, reckless attitude quite common in men who had suffered trauma?
“…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…” Rathbone, 1918

RVE:There are tentative parallels between Rathbone and Sassoon. Rathbone’s response to his brother’s death was reckless though not suicidal. Sassoon’s response to the death of his friend, right next to him during the battle of the Somme was to charge a German trench on his own. This was a spur of the moment reaction and not one anyone would take in their right mind. Rathbone was not there at the death of John.

TB: What’s your opinion of the two letters owned by Mr Frank Belcher? They are not signed with Rathbone’s usual signature, yet the handwriting and the family references seem to suggest they might have been written by him. Do you think this is true, and, if so, can they help to shed light on his state of mind at this crucial time?

RVE:Rathbone (assuming it is him) uses the typical language of the trenches in the first letter in a jovial happy-go-lucky style that men used to reassure their families back home that life was not too bad and boring most of the time, that is that they were not in imminent danger. Certainly he seems to believe that the sector that they are in is a good one: he refers to the accommodation as Park Lane-like and even the rats were well dressed and had impeccable manners, he says. And of course this was summer and trench life was altogether more attractive place than in a freezing winter.
TB: That’s a good place to end. Thank you Richard
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82 thoughts on “Interview with Richard Van Emden

  1. Thank you for this terrific interview and wonderful additional info. The whole post could be used as the most delicately eloquent argument for the futility of most wars. I think Mr Rathbone would approve. I have to say my appreciation of him as a man has only increased the more I know – and of how many movie stars or other celebrities can this be said?

  2. Basil did not write those letters, he would never have been insensitive enough to be angry with his brother! His brother’s death filled him with grief. He and his sister became much closer and both united to care for their father. Basil did not call his sister Bea. Beatrice became very close with Ouida and the two would talk often, and Beatrice spent a happy Christmas with them in 1942.

    • I always wondered what happened to Beatrice, and I couldn’t find any information about her! Where did you read about Beatrice and Ouida becoming close? Did she stay in England or move to another country?

            • Ok Alyssia you keep coming on here making claims and dismissing people’s opinions with an airy wave as if you had some esoteric knowledge at your disposal and then just dodging when you’re asked back it up, so I’m saying – enough is enough, put up or shut up.

              IF you really have all this info then share it. Or at least give your sources. Otherwise you’re just going to be dismissed as a windbag

            • Claude Rains is correct. Since you, Alyssia, have repeatedly refused to believe anything that wasn’t in Rathbone’s autobiography, I’m very curious to know what other sources you plan on using as you write Basil’s life story. Clearly, there must be some sources that you find credible, since you have information that no one else has. Why not tell us?

                • I’m glad you say that, but how do you plan to explain the dreadful penury they seem to have been in in later years? I was very shocked to learn this was apparently true as it does not fit with my understanding of his life and his marriage, nor with many things you have said and I have believed.

    • Beatrice emigrated to South Africa after the first war, and in Basil’s autobiography he says they virtually lost contact. How can you possibly know he didn’t call her Bea? And if he didn’t write those letters how do you explain the fact the handwriting is identical?

        • Beatrice lived in SA until she died, people in Britain can check the UK emigration lists in about 1924, which is around the time she left. Alyssia is talking through her ass

          • People are welcome to check what they like. I know what’s true and I have my proof. Basil’s own words don’t lie. I have his own writing about things he never included in his autobiography.

    • Being angry at the loved one for dying is a common effect of grief. As a writing teacher who has read many narratives of deaths and other traumatic incidents, anger is often expressed toward the loved one for having left the survivor, expecially with accidental deaths or war, as if the deceased could have prevented the death by being more careful. Anger is one of the stages of grief, accoridng to many psychologists.

    • Excuse ME BUT I’ve no had those letters looked at by a professional document examiner who says there is a 95%+ probability Rathbone wrote them. She found not just similar pen strokes and pressure diferentials but similar word-arrangement and sentence structuring. I do not appreciate being called a fraud

    • In his autobiography Basil says his sister shut herself off from him after the first war, WHY would he say that if she didn’t do it? I mean I can understand why he might leave out bad things or cover them up, but why make up a bad thing when the truth was nicer? Where do you get the evidence that they stayed close and Ouida was friends with Beatrice? I’m afraid I have to doubt it’s reliability.

      • My information is more reliable than that. Basil probably put that in his book so people wouldn’t pester his sister. She lived in London all her life and died in 1986.

        • I’m sorry, you know I sympathise with your POV but I don’t understand. Where do you get this information? Did you know Basil’s family?

            • I’m sorry but this is just too hard to understand, why do you not quote from these memories or tell us where they can be located? I don’t disbelieve you but it would be nice to know more. How on earth did you get these memories? i for one would be so grateful to see them myself. Could you quote from them?

  3. I studied Sassoon for my masters and I think there are almost eerie parallels wit him and Rathbone in their response to trauma and loss.

    1.Sassoon’s younger brother enlisted before him and was then killed in action. – So was Rathbone’s.

    2. Sassoon went out on daylight patrols and acted with reckless bravery, while seeming incredibly lucky at avoiding injury or death. – So did Rathbone.

    3. Sassoon won the military cross for his remarkable bravery – So did Rathbone.

    4. Sassoon was very anti-war. – So, it seems from his own words, was Rathbone.

  4. PTSD seems fairly clear doesn’t it. Look at his eyes in some of those early post-war photos. Talk about ‘thousand-yard stare.’

    • Yes,i agree.The PTSD and the depression.I think on and off the rest of his life there was evidence of depression.I think that it can account for his relationship with his wife Ouida.Also, his attitude towards work and his co-workers.I only read about him having one head to head confrontation with anyone on a movie set.I believe it was with David O Selznick in the Garden Of Allah.Michael Druxman wrote about it in his book.
      I wonder the man Basil would have been without the war experience.

      • Yes I agree, all his life. And I’ve wondered if he was mildly bipolar. Some interviewers describe his racing speech and leaping thoughts, jumping from subject to subject which could indicate a slight hypomanic episode. If he was that would also account for his depressive episodes.

          • I think that’s a matter of applying every modern diagnosis to someone who lived in the past. Sorry, but the many accounts of Basil’s gentleness and lack of opposition to Ouida do not sound like bipolar to me. I think “bipolar” would show up more in his professional life.

  5. I’m a very big admirer of Emden’s work, and he exhibits a rare understanding of life in the trenches for the every-day soldier, but I’m disputing the word ‘calculated’ in front of the word ‘risk’. The Germans were weakening in morale more than numbers and the thinning defences were only spotty while other places were being more heavily reinforced. And it doesn’t take a lot of defenders to take down three lightly armed men in the open in daylight. As soon as they were spotted they were sitting ducks.

    Once they were pinned down in that shell hole with the gunners getting their eye in and with no other target to distract them, those men were as good as dead or seriously wounded. It would have been noteworthy if one got back, but all three is miraculous, unless the machinegunners were blind.

    No wonder they were all up for the MM and MC.

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  8. Please forgive me if I sound a bit dence,perhaps I have missed something in the post, but where might I read these 2 letters in there intireity that everyone is quoteing?

  9. I know from doing my own family genealogy that many English births and death records are on line. Including Basils farther Edgar. I pulled up the site once but the great great great grandma I was searching for was born to early to be on it.I did find Edgar.Prehaps someone could check out Alyssia claim about Bea’s death. Again let me say I’m sory for any spelling errors.My spell check dosent work. Countess

  10. Thank you for this presentation. I used it and your letters with my 10th Grade for Veteran’s day, along with a few other resources. It was greatly appreciated and many of the kids were very moved by the letters.

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  12. This is a very good presentation, thank you. I read MrVan Emden’s book recently and was particularly impressed with Rathbone’s story. The heartbreaking loss of his brother must have left a scar on his entire life. My grandfather also lost a younger brother like that and he never got over the sense of guilt for having not been there to protect him.

  13. I have a serious issue with the idea that anything as crass as vengeance is being expressed by Rathbone. That second letter is detached and very obviously the letter of a man in the midst of traumatic dissociation, but where is there any hint of vengeance? Going out in daylight sorties is more likely to result in being killed than in getting vengeance.

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  15. I watched Parade’s End when it was shown here and now I want to see a really good non-mawkish honest movie about Basil Rathbone’s war. It would be freaking awesome.

    • Try “Dawn Patrol”. I’m fond of a silent called “The Big Prade” the war was just a little while over when this was made.I also like a silent called “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

  16. I would refer you to “A Very Long Engagement” which is a French film and also the British series “Birdsong” with Eddie Redmayne

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