BIOGRAPHY, general biography, WW1
Comments 6

The Horror of War

fwwrathbone1November 11 is Veterans Day in the USA and Armistice Day in the United Kingdom. It’s an appropriate time to look again at Rathbone’s military service.

The most terrifying experience Basil Rathbone lived through was The Great War, now known as World War I. He served his country in the 2/10 Liverpool Scottish battalion and was awarded a Military Cross for bravery. Rathbone downplayed his heroic actions, though, and would have preferred to stay out of the war. He wished that there would be no war.

In late 1939 (with World War II soon approaching), a journalist from Modern Screen magazine interviewed Basil Rathbone for an article called “Horror Men Talk about Horror” (published in the January 1940 issue). Here is an excerpt from that article:

I began with Basil Rathbone. I said, “What constitutes real horror to you?”

“War!” screamed Rathbone, instantly. And I mean he screamed the word at me, horribly, so that its echoes hung around the room we sat in. “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 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. And there you have it. A trap is the most horrible thing in the world. Any kind of 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. You go over the top because it is the only way to get out. If there were any other way, a million voices would chorus, ‘I can’t face it! I can’t face walking over the broken bodies of my comrades, over their spilled hearts and hopes and dreams. I can’t and I won’t.’

126e1eb80ae458c33916d907f96474f8“I never stuck a bayonet into a man in my life. If I had, I would have known such horror that I would have screamed aloud and the scream would have wakened me out of the mass murder psychosis which alone preserved my reason. I would then have become an individual and would have lost my mind. I would have spent the rest of my life cutting out paper soldiers, tearing them apart, like that poor chap glimpsed in ‘The Little Princess,’ How many of him I have seen—not in pictures for the kiddies!

“War, I say, that’s horror! It is a trap. In the trap a man, no longer a man, lives with Death. There is no horror like it!”

The “horror men” interviewed were Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, and Bela Lugosi. You can read the article here: horrormen

To learn more about Basil Rathbone’s experiences in the First World War, see these related posts:

Armistice Day 2013

Interview with Richard Van Emden

Biography Week: Two Unidentified WW1 Letters

Also visit



  1. Nice version! I’m trying to follow the playing with the Tab mentioned here. The tab shows some full C chords. I watched the video many times and it seems that the song was played in finger-picking style, I cannot hear or see full C chords played. Is there some trick here?


    • marciajessen says

      Could you please be more specific? There is no music mentioned in the post on this page, so I don’t know what song or video you are asking about.


  2. Rebecca K. says

    I can’t find the words to describe how I feel about this article, except thank you for sharing it! I feel bad for him and other men who had to go to war in order to preserve peace, and not all of them came back in one piece-literally! I know he’s dead, but I just want to say, Thank you, Mr. Rathbone for your service to protecting others.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ceridwyn says

    I have always marveled at how real, poignant and sensitive Mr. Rathbone’s performance was in The Dawn Patrol. I can’t help but wonder if it was all too real for him having read these letters and interviews regarding his actual service in the war. I hope the movie did not evoke too many ghosts for him. What a dear man!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Judy D. says

    Thanks for this Veterans’ Day/Armistice Day special, and for the link to run off the Modern Screen article. What can one say about war. He was an eloquent man who could probably have developed into a respectable and successful writer, had he chosen that direction. Maybe a war correspondent as well. (I think the initials he signed must be PSJB, his impressive list of legal first and middles. Wonder if at home or in school years he was called Philip.) The letters seem genuine, given all that wonderful research on names, and the “M” and baby obviously refer to his wife and son; it all checks out, including poor, handsome Johnny. I thought “Famous 1914-18” was unavailable but today found it on Amazon–ordered the “last” paperback until restocked and it’s available on Kindle. Thaks again (also for the amusing Bombcutta article!).


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