Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone

Philip Basil Rathbone was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on 13th June 1892. His father, Edgar Rathbone, was a mining engineer. However, in 1896 he was accused of being a British spy and the family were forced to flee the country.

Basil Rathbone was related to Henry Rathbone, who was with President Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. A cousin, Eleanor Rathbone, president of the NUWSS and one of the first women to be elected to the House of Commons. Another cousin was Frank Benson, one of England's leading actors. Laurence Binyon, who was also related to Rathbone, was considered to be one of the most important poets of the time.

In 1906 Rathbone was sent to Repton School. Already over six feet tall, he was an excellent sportsman but found academic work difficult. Rathbone was also a talented actor and wanted to follow his uncle, Frank Benson, onto the stage. Rathbone's father initially insisted he joined an insurance company after leaving school but in 1912 he was allowed to join Benson's theatre company. His first major role was in The Taming of the Shrew. He toured the United States with his uncle and later received good reviews for his role in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

On the outbreak of the First World War Rathbone considered joining the British Army. He later wrote: "I felt physically sick to my stomach, as I saw or heard or read of the avalanche of brave young men rushing to join... I was pondering how long I could delay joining up." He eventually joined on 30th March 1916.

Rathbone applied for a commission and in February 1917 became an officer in the Liverpool Scottish Regiment. After contracting measles he was not sent to the Western Front until May of that year.

Soon after arriving at the front-line he met up with his brother John Rathbone. He later recalled: "We retired late, full of good food and Scotch whiskey. 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 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." John Rathbone was killed a few days later on 4th June.

Lieutenant Rathbone was sent to the trenches near the French village of Festubert. Rathbone was a battalion intelligence officer and twice a week he led reconnaissance night patrols into No Man's Land. On the patrol's return, it was Rathbone's job to write up a report. He later admitted that many of these reports "were masterpieces of invention; inconclusive, yet always suggesting that every effort had been made by our patrol to garner information and/or make contact with the enemy. Under such circumstances one's imagination was often sorely tried in supplying acceptable news items."

In July 1918 Rathbone went to see his commanding officer and explained that it was very difficult for him to obtain accurate information in the dark. He suggested that he should undertake patrols in full daylight. He added that he should be allowed to take two other men with him: Corporal Norman Tanner and Private Richard Burton.

In his autobiography, In and Out of Character (1956), Rathbone described his first daylight patrol: "Camouflage suits had been made for us to resemble trees. On our heads we wore wreaths of freshly plucked foliage; our faces and hands were blackened with burnt cork. About 5.00am we crawled through our wire and lay up in No-Man's-Land."

Over the next few days Rathbone was able to obtain some very important information: "Camouflage suits had been made for us to resemble trees. On our heads we wore wreaths of freshly plucked foliage; our faces and hands were blackened with burnt cork. About 5.00am we crawled through our wire and lay up in No-Man's-Land."

His commanding officer was so pleased with Rathbone use of this camouflage strategy that he suggested a raid on the enemy trenches and to seize a prisoner. Rathbone accepted this very dangerous task. The following morning the patrol took an hour to crawl to the enemy front-line.

After cutting the barbed-wire, they got into what they thought was a deserted trench. Rathbone later recalled: "Suddenly there were footsteps and a German soldier came into view behind the next traverse. He stopped suddenly, struck dumb, no doubt, by our strange appearance. Capturing him was out of the question; we were too far away from home. But before he could pull himself together and spread the alarm, I shot him twice with my revolver - he fell dead. Tanner tore the identification tags off his uniform and I rifled his pockets, stuffing a diary and some papers into my camouflage suit. Now things happened fast. There were sounds of movement on both sides of us, so we scaled the parapet, forced our way through the barbed wire - I have the scars on my right leg to this day - and ran for the nearest shell hole. We had hardly reached it when two machine guns opened a crossfire on us. We lay on the near lip of the crater, which was so close to their lines that it gave us cover. The machine-gun bullets pitted the rear of the crater."

As the authors of Famous 1914-1918 (2008) pointed out: "Rathbone felt that their best chance of survival would be to split up and run from shell hole to shell hole in different directions. This, they hoped, would confuse the machine gunners and dissipate the concentration of fire as the Germans failed to decide whom to aim at. The plan worked and all three men made it back to the British front line."

When he arrived back in the trenches Rathbone discovered he had trodden on a decomposing body during the operation. The stench was so bad that Rathbone nearly fainted. He quickly took off the offending boot and with the help of a soldier's bayonet, it was hurled over the parapet into No Man's Land. Rathbone later commented: "With one shoe off and one shoe on, the reality and horror of war came rushing in on me."

Rathbone continued with these daylight patrols. His commanding officer wrote in the War Diary: "A conspicuous feature of the last two months has been the activity of the Battalion daylight patrols under the able leadership of Lieutenant Rathbone."

On 9th September 1918 Rathbone was awarded the Military Cross. The citation included the following: "Lieutenant Rathbone volunteered to go out on daylight patrol, and on each occasion brought back invaluable information regarding enemy's posts, and the exact position and condition of the wire. On 26 July, when on the enemy's side of the wire, he came face to face with a German. He shot the German, but this alarmed two neighbouring posts, and they at once opened a heavy fire with two machine guns. Despite the enemy fire, Lieutenant Rathbone got his three men and himself through the enemy wire and back to our lines. The result of his patrolling was to pin down exactly where the enemy posts were, and how they were held, while inflicting casualties on the enemy at no loss to his own men. Lieutenant Rathbone has always shown a great keenness in patrol work both by day and by night."

After the war Rathbone returned to acting. He appeared in his first film, Innocent in 1921. This was followed by The Fruitful Vine (1921) and School for Scandal (1923). That year he moved to Hollywood and although he continued to act in the theatre he became well-known for his films such as Anna Karenina (1935), Captain Blood (1935), and A Tale of Two Cities (1935). In 1936 he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Romeo and Juliet.

Rathbone also appeared in Love from a Stranger (1937), Confession (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938). That year he was nominated for his second Academy Award for the film If I Were King. Once again he failed to win the Oscar.

In 1939 Rathbone appeared as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. This was the part that man him famous and over the next seven years he appeared as Holmes in several films including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), The Spider Woman (1944), The Scarlet Claw (1944), The Pearl of Death (1944), The House of Fear (1945), Terror by Night (1946) and Dressed to Kill (1946).

Basil Rathbone died in New York on 21st July 1967.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Basil Rathbone, In and Out of Character (1956)

Camouflage suits had been made for us to resemble trees. On our heads we wore wreaths of freshly plucked foliage; our faces and hands were blackened with burnt cork. About 5.00am we crawled through our wire and lay up in No-Man's-Land. All sentries had been alerted to our movements.

For several days we tested our adventure, and it soon became evident that the enemy had no suspicions whatsoever of our presence. We were able accurately to locate German machine-gun positions, which were later phoned back to artillery and put out of action. We also noted a sparseness of enemy front line positions, supporting High Command's contention that something was up.

(2) Basil Rathbone, In and Out of Character (1956)

The only sound now to be heard was a skylark climbing up into a cloudless blue sky, as the opposing armies took their midday siesta. We rose and proceeded slowly and with the utmost care along the German trench. We made our way around a traverse - then another stretch of empty trench - and proceeded further.

Suddenly there were footsteps and a German soldier came into view behind the next traverse. He stopped suddenly, struck dumb, no doubt, by our strange appearance. Capturing him was out of the question; we were too far away from home. But before he could pull himself together and spread the alarm, I shot him twice with my revolver - he fell dead. Tanner tore the identification tags off his uniform and I rifled his pockets, stuffing a diary and some papers into my camouflage suit. Now things happened fast. There were sounds of movement on both sides of us, so we scaled the parapet, forced our way through the barbed wire - I have the scars on my right leg to this day - and ran for the nearest shell hole. We had hardly reached it when two machine guns opened a crossfire on us. We lay on the near lip of the crater, which was so close to their lines that it gave us cover. The machine-gun bullets pitted the rear of the crater.

(3) The London Gazette (7th November, 1918)

For conspicuous daring and resource near Festubert on 26 July 1918, and on three other occasions, viz - 5,7 and 14 August, when on patrol. Lieutenant Rathbone volunteered to go out on daylight patrol, and on each occasion brought back invaluable information regarding enemy's posts, and the exact position and condition of the wire. On 26 July, when on the enemy's side of the wire, he came face to face with a German. He shot the German, but this alarmed two neighbouring posts, and they at once opened a heavy fire with two machine guns. Despite the enemy fire, Lieutenant Rathbone got his three men and himself through the enemy wire and back to our lines. The result of his patrolling was to pin down exactly where the enemy posts were, and how they were held, while inflicting casualties on the enemy at no loss to his own men. Lieutenant Rathbone has always shown a great keenness in patrol work both by day and by night.

(4) Basil Rathbone, In and Out of Character (1956)

We retired late, full of good food and Scotch whiskey. 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 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.