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Thursday, 23 October 2008

Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone is probably best known as the film actor who played Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone was a battalion intelligence officer during the First World War 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."

Rathbone won the Military Cross for his daylight patrols. 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."

Rathbone's motives for taking such risks dates back to an incident that took place a few months earlier. He met up with his brother John Rathbone in the trenches. 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.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWrathbone.htm

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