Basil Rathbone conceived an almost certain suicide mission—and carried it off disguised as a tree. Herbert Marshall, who lost a leg to a sniper’s bullet, downplayed his sacrifice, saying his most salient memories of the trenches were numbness and boredom. Claude Rains lost almost half his sight to a poison gas attack. And Ronald Colman barely dragged himself back to his barracks after being strafed by shrapnel in one of the earliest, bloodiest battles of the war.
World War I claimed over 17 million lives—or roughly one of every hundred human beings alive on earth when it began in 1914. By dint of their age at the time, many of our most beloved early film actors were among those who fought. This is the story of four who served valiantly—all in separate battalions of the same regiment.
The storied London Scottish Regiment, which saw some of the most savage fighting in France and Belgium, was headquartered on Horseferry Road in Westminster, in the heart of London, with a drill hall around the corner from Buckingham Palace—both within walking distance of the West End theatres. So it was a natural destination for young actors willing to leave the safety of the boards behind, putting their promising careers on hold and their lives on the line to volunteer for one of the ghastliest conflicts in all of history.
Ronald Colman was working as a shipping clerk and starring in amateur productions with the Bancroft Theatrical Society when the war broke out in July 1914—and he promptly enlisted the following month. Among the first British soldiers sent to the Western Front, where some of the worst fighting was already raging, Colman made it through the Battle of Ypres before his luck ran out. On Halloween night, he was thrown into the air by an exploding mortar shell in the brutal Battle of Messines in Belgium’s Flanders field, which killed or wounded almost 300 of his comrades.
“Amid the din of his army’s band, the shellfire, whizbangs, machine-gun bullets, the shouting of Germans and British alike, came an explosion unnoticed by all except Private Colman. Shrapnel ripped through his knee and ankle, throwing him face-first into the beetroot field. Finding himself unable to put any weight upon the mangled leg, he started to crawl back, dragging the broken bones, stumbling over his kilt, and trying not to pass out. During this maneuver, it suddenly occurred to him that should the next bullet or shell be lethal, he would be found dead with his back to the enemy, and at the rate the battle was going, this was more than a strong possibility. He had every intention of maintaining the dignity both of himself and of his country, whether or not he made it to safety. Without further hesitation, he turned onto his back, and pulling with his elbows, then pushing with his good leg, he retreated from the field of battle while facing the German lines.” — daughter Juliet Benita Colman, in Ronald Colman: A Very Private Person.
Colman was discharged as no longer physically fit for war service in May 1915, and later awarded the Silver War Badge as well as the Victory Medal and the British War Medal. His injuries left him with a permanent limp, which he disguised as a unique, even jaunty stride throughout his career. Other wounds were less visible and doubtless more common. Years later, Colman recalled:
“The war suddenly swooped down on us like a martial bird and bore us off. There was no time for goodbyes, either to family or sweethearts, movies and fiction to the contrary. We embarked from Folkstone. I remember sitting in that train with my battalion on a siding, waiting to go. I could see from my car window the familiar streets I had walked so many times, houses of people I knew. I felt as a dead man might feel, revisiting, himself unseen, old haunts he had known well but which knew him no longer. I knew that I would come back but not as I was then. Because I didn’t come back. I won’t go into the war and all that it did to all of us. We went out. Strangers came back. It was the war that made an actor out of me. When I came back that was all I was good for: acting. I wasn’t my own man anymore.”
Claude Rains was already a successful working actor on both sides of the Atlantic when he enlisted in February 1916. “I was not heroic,” he said years later. “I just knew I’d be ashamed of myself if I did not. I didn’t want to be hurt, or hurt anyone else.”
In November, as they fought their way along the Vimy Ridge in northern France, Rains’ unit was bombarded with heavy artillery and poison gas. The noxious chemicals paralyzed his vocal cords and destroyed most of the vision in his right eye. His voice gradually returned, but with a huskier quality that would become his trademark.
Still fit for service though not for battle, Rains was granted an officer’s commission at a territorial unit based in the London borough of Croydon, where his commanding officer, Thomas Peak, described him as a “very intelligent scholar.” He served there as an adjutant until after the war in February 1919, leaving the army as a captain.
Despite his grievous injury, Rains seriously considered making the military his career, and was reportedly on his way to re-enlist when he ran into an old theatrical mate, who offered him a job with the Everyman Theatre company in London. The troupe specialized in the works of G. B. Shaw—including Caesar and Cleopatra, in which he’d later co-star with Vivien Leigh on film.
Herbert Marshall was three years into his acting career when he enlisted in June 1916—and was on his way to the Western Front in a matter of months. Like many who survived the war, he downplayed its more hellish aspects. “I knew terrific boredom,” he said years later. “There was no drama lying in the trenches 10 months. I must have felt fear, but I don’t remember it. I was too numb to recall any enterprise on my part.”
In April 1917, during the second Battle of Arras, Marshall was shot in the right knee by a sniper and taken to a medical unit at Abbéville before being transported home to England, where he remained in the hospital for more than a year. After a series of complex operations to try to save his leg, doctors were finally forced to amputate near the hip.
Marshall was initially racked by bitterness and despair, all but certain that a return to the theatre, or even to a normal life, was all but impossible. He credited a beloved uncle, Leopold “Bogey” Godfrey-Turner—who had lost his oldest son in the war—with saving him from self-pity: “He had a lavish joy in life, an embattled mind, keen wit, sensitive appreciations and a gallant soul, and proved to me that a man may face utter desolation without whimpering. By his fine courage and by his gorgeous humor, which not even grief could crucify, he showed me how a man may know irreparable loss and still inherit the earth. When I learned to walk again, I returned to London, healed in spirit if not in body, and all because of Uncle Bogey.”
While Marshall was undergoing rehabilitation in St. Thomas Hospital, King George V made the rounds of the wards, visiting wounded soldiers. Challenged to pick which of his legs was the prosthesis, the king picked the wrong one.
Other than his distinctive square-shouldered, deliberate gait and his need to be doubled in certain scenes, Marshall’s injury had virtually no impact on his performances. But he suffered from “phantom pain” and from the discomfort of the prosthesis for the rest of his life. He had holes cut in the pockets of his trousers so he could loosen the strap when it became especially excruciating. In later years, as the pain grew stronger, he developed a more pronounced limp.
For his valor and sacrifice, Marshall was awarded the Silver War Badge, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
Basil Rathbone seemed destined for the crucial role he played late in the war: that of a spy. In 1895, during the Second Boer War, his family had been forced to return to England from South Africa after the Boers accused his father of carrying out espionage for the British government.
Like so many others, he was horrified by the senseless nightmare unfolding across Europe. “I felt physically sick to my stomach, as I saw or heard or read of the avalanche of brave young men rushing to join,” he later wrote in his memoir, In and Out of Character. “Was I ‘pigeon-livered’ that I felt no such call to duty—that I was pondering how long I could delay joining up? The very idea of soldiering appalled me. Most probably somewhere in Germany there was a young man, with much the same ideas as I had, and one of us was quite possibly destined to shoot and kill the other. The whole thing was monstrous, utterly and unbelievably monstrous—irrational, pitiable, ugly, and sordid.”
Still, in March 1916, Rathbone abandoned a promising career in the theatre and enlisted—prompted in part by the fact that his younger brother John (above center with Basil and sister Bea, and above right), with whom he was extremely close, had already been fighting for a year. After completing officers training camp, he was awarded a commission as a second lieutenant. At first, his battalion was held back in England, sparing him at least briefly from the horrors of the Western Front.
The following February, he contracted the measles, and after a brief stay in a military hospital was sent home to London—where John was recovering after being shot in the chest and nearly killed at the Battle of Somme. When the measles subsided, Rathbone rejoined his battalion, which was by then neck-deep in the muddy trenches of Bois-Grenier. But despite his own travails, his thoughts continually turned to his brother. That autumn, he wrote to his father:
I had a letter from Johnny the other day, saying he hopes 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.
But John did return to France, in the spring of 1918. “His regiment, The Dorsets, was stationed close by and he had leave to come over and spend the night with me,” Rathbone wrote in his memoir. “John and I spent a glorious day together. He had an infectious sense of humor and a personality that made friends for him wherever 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 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.”
His next premonition was chillingly accurate: “At one o’clock on June 4, 1918, I was sitting in my dugout in the front line. Suddenly I thought of John, and for some inexplicable reason I wanted to cry, and did. In due course I received the news of his death in action at exactly one o’clock on June the fourth.” Their mother had died just months earlier.
A month later, in a letter to his father, Rathbone wrote:
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 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.
It’s clear, as he writes of having “someone else” deliver his brother’s letters if he cannot and how his father will get them “come what may,” that he all but expected to die. Decades later, in a letter to a friend, he said that during these months, he was “dragging this living corpse of myself around, giving it things to do, because here it was, alive. I followed paths that were there to be followed, I did what others said to do. I didn’t care.”
Rathbone had been leading nighttime patrols into No Man’s Land, the treacherous and often lethal stretch of ground between the enemy camps, which was strewn with the bodies of soldiers from both sides. Shortly after learning John had been killed, he went to his commanding officer with an even bolder plan.
“I said that I thought we’d get a great deal more information from the enemy if we didn’t fool around in the dark so much… and I asked him whether I could go out in daylight,” he recalled in a 1957 interview. “I think he thought we were a little crazy…”
So just imagine his reaction when the eager lieutenant said they should go out on these raids disguised as trees. “I suggested we use camouflage, a device I had first learned under very different, though not always more peaceful circumstances, and which would compensate us somewhat for the loss of anonymity afforded by darkness,” Rathbone relayed in his memoir. And almost at once, the daring mission was underway: “On our heads we wore wreaths of freshly plucked foliage; our faces and hands were blackened with burnt cork. About 5:00 a.m. we crawled through our wire…”
Rathbone and three comrades crept almost imperceptibly slowly across the 200 yards of No Man’s Land, finally reaching the enemy’s front line: “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… Tanner tore the identification tags off his uniform and I rifled his pockets, stuffing a diary and some papers into my camouflage suit… We scaled the parapet, forced our way through the barbed wire… and had hardly reached it when two machine guns opened a cross fire on us.”
Rathbone and his men fled off in different directions, diving from one crater to the next until all four finally made it back to base.
His commanding officer sent reports to the war office praising the daring daylight raid, which yielded crucial information on upcoming troop movements, and Rathbone was awarded the Military Cross “for conspicuous daring and resource on patrol.” That he survived such a firefight was nothing short of miraculous—but it wasn’t until he was safe in his dugout that the full toll of the war hit him the hardest. “In one of the shell holes on the way back I had stepped into a decomposing body,” he recalled. “Right there I removed the boot, and someone stuck a bayonet into it and heaved it back into No Man’s Land… With one shoe off and one shoe on, the reality and horror of war came rushing in on me.”