Last year we marked Armistice Day (Veterans’ Day in the USA) with an interview with Richard Van Emden, author of Famous 1914-18. This year we are looking at some of Rathbone’s own words about his experience of war.
For those of you who may not be familiar, Rathbone joined the army in 1916, initially with the London Scottish, and later with the 2/10 Liverpool Scottish, as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1918 “for conspicuous daring and resource on patrol.” His younger brother John was killed in the trenches in June 1918.
From his autobiography IN AND OUT OF CHARACTER…
Vive la France. Vive l’Angleterre. Vive l’Ecosse. Ypres. Festubert. Mademoiselle from Armentieres, “pinky pinky parlez-vous”
When England declared war on Germany I had been very young and had been dreaming of prodigious accomplishments in my chosen profession…I felt physically sick to my stomach as I saw or hear or read of the avalanche of brave young men rushing to join “the colors”; and if needs be to give their lives for God and King and Country (for King and Country maybe – but for God? What utter blasphemy so casually to inform God which side he was on). Was I “pigeon-livered” that I felt no such call to duty (or did I, and just refuse to accept it?) , that I was pondering how long I could delay joining up? The very idea of soldiering appalled me – and to think of it, there were men who did these things of their free choice, and some of them had become great generals and admirals and had statues erected to them, […] As a boy I was an avid reader of G.A. Henty, and storiesabout the glory of the Empire by Rudyard Kipling. The nursery walls featured reproductions of Lord Kitchener, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and The Thin Red (the Guards brigade at Waterloo). But now these things had become an inescapable reality for me personally
Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die
What a shambles such nonsense made of all good common sense. Most probably in Germany there was a young man with much the same ideas as I had, and one of us was most probably destined to shoot and kill the other. The whole thing was monstrous, utterly and unbelievably monstrous – irrational, pitiable, ugly and sordid.
But in due course (and despite myself) I eventually became a soldier; and as Private Rathbone, I was trained at a camp at Richmond Park, just outside London, to kill Germans. I learned to hate them and call them Boche and Huns, to believe them capable of all kinds of barbarous atrocities, including bayoneting babies. I learned to kill then with a Lewis gun, a rifle and a bayonet
As Private Rathbone I cannot be certain what might fate might have been as a man, pigeon-livered or not. But as 2nd Lieutenant Rathbone I was no longer in a position to consider myself. I was in command of a platoon of men who were almost completely dependent on me in every possible way., and who looked to me for example and leadership, whatever the circumstances. I became very fond of my men, and I like to think that they were fond of me.
Saying goodbye to Mother and “Daddy” at Victoria Station in London, was nothing like so bad as I had anticipated it might be. Somehow or other they did not seem quite like the same people I had known a few months ago. I could find in them no signs of deep emotion, and I can honestly say I disclosed none either…
“It’s like seeing Basil off to school in the old days, isn’t it Edgar?” My mother was speaking.
“Yes, write as soon and as often as you can, son, won’t you.” My father’s emotions were nearer the surface.
There was a train whistle, some wry smiles and a final “goodbye dear.” – I was never to see my mother again.
IN & OUT OF CHARACTER pp. 11-14:
[John’s] regiment, The Dorsets, was stationed close by, and he had leave to come over and spend the night with me…Colonel Monroe obligingly gave his consent and John and I spent a glorious day together. John had an infectious sense of humor and a personality that made friends for him everywhere 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 whisky. 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 face – for some moments I could not persuade myself 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.
Some weeks later, at one o’clock on June 4 1918, I was sitting in my dugout on the front line. Suddenly I thought of John and for some inexplicable reason I wanted to cry, and did. Immediately I wrote him a letter, to which he never replied, and in due course I received the news of his death in action at exactly one o’clock on June the fourth. We had always been very close to one another.
IN & OUT OF CHARACTER p.8:
And though we have published them before, I think this is an excellent time to take another look at the two letters Rathbone wrote to his father 1917-18.
Dear all, Bea’s 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 can’t 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 “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 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 — 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. There’ll 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 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.
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 ‘gas’ coming from north of us – We were all straining to catch anything unusual on the wind, but we couldn’t 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 ‘is it chlorine?’ and he said ‘I’m not taking the risk’ and he spun around and called out “gas” 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. I’m 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 he’s hoping to be back here soon. He surely can’t 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 shan’t 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 wasn’t 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? I’m hoping he will make a good recovery.
Your loving [word uncertain – “scion”?]
Dear father – 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.
I’m sorry for the awful handwriting but it’s very cold and I’m shivering terribly and there’s only an inch of candle left in the dugout to write by and it flickers. It’s 3.50 ack emma, so bitterly cold I’m wearing my great coat though it’s July, but it’s 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 Johnny’s 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 can’t 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.
I’m 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. 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.
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 won’t you.
with my best love