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.
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.
TB: 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?
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?
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:
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.
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?
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