Wednesday 10 July 2024

Basil Rathbone MC (1892 – 1967) - South African-born English actor.

With thanks to John Daniel for reminding me that I had not yet written a post about Basil Rathbone, one of my favourite actors.

Philip St. John Rathbone was born in Johannesburg, South African Republic on 13th June 1892.  His parents were British. Basil’s father, Edgar Philip Rathbone, was a mining engineer and scion of the Liverpool-based Rathbone family.  His mother, Anna Barbara Rathbone (née George), was a violinist.  Basil had two older half-brothers, Harold and Horace, as well as two younger siblings, Beatrice and John. 

The Rathbones returned to Britain when Basil was three years old after his father was accused by the Boers of being a spy, following the Jameson Raid. Rathbone attended Repton School in Derbyshire from 1906 to 1910, where he excelled at sports and was given the nickname "Ratters" by schoolmates. He was briefly employed as an insurance clerk by the Liverpool and Globe Insurance Companies, to appease his father's wish for him to have a conventional career.

On 22nd April 1911, Basil made his first appearance on stage at the Theatre Royal, Ipswich, Suffolk, as Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew, with his cousin Sir Frank Benson's No. 2 Company, under the direction of Henry Herbert. In October 1912, he went to the United States with Benson's company, playing roles such as Paris in Romeo and Juliet, Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Silvius in As You Like It. Returning to Britain, he made his first appearance in London at the Savoy Theatre on 9th July 1914, as Finch in The Sin of David. That December, he appeared at the Shaftesbury Theatre as the Dauphin in Henry V. During 1915, he toured with Benson and appeared with him at London's Court Theatre in December as Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

During the First World War, Basil was called up in 1915 through the Derby Scheme, joining the British Army as a Private with the London Scottish Regiment. Also in that Regiment at different points through the conflict were Basil’s future professional acting contemporaries Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall and Ronald Colman. 

After basic training with the London Scots, in early 1916 Basil was commissioned as a Leutenant into the 2/10th Battalion of the King's Liverpool Regiment (Liverpool Scottish), where he served as an intelligence officer and attained the rank of Captain.  Basil was twice the British Army Fencing Champion, a skill that served him well in his film career and allowed him to even teach actors Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power swordsmanship. 

Basil's younger brother John was killed in action on 4th June 1918. In 2012 two letters Rathbone wrote to his family while serving on the Western Front were published. One reveals the anguish and anger he felt following the death of his brother, John:

“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.”

Following his brother's death, Basil seems to have become unconcerned about the dangers of serving at the Front. Author Richard Van Emden in Famous 1914–18 speculates that his extreme bravery may have been a form of guilt or need for vengeance. He persuaded his superiors to allow him to scout enemy positions during daylight rather than at night, as was the usual practice to minimise the chance of detection. Basil wore a special camouflage suit that resembled a tree with a wreath of freshly plucked foliage on his head with burnt cork applied to his hands and face. As a result of these highly dangerous daylight reconnaissance missions in September 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross for "conspicuous daring and resource on patrol".

Basil died in New York, USA on 21st July 1967 after a long and illustrious career.  He was buried in Ferncliffe Cemetery, New York - Shrine of Memories, Unit 1, Tier K, Crypt 117.


Additional Notes:  An interview with Basil Rathbone about WW1:

Basil Rathbone was a cousin of Eleanor Rathbone and I wrote up a panel for both of them for Dean Johnson's Wilfred Owen Story Museum in Argyle Street, Birkenhead for on of the WW1 commemorative exhibitions held there.  Unfortunately the WOS has since closed down.   

Eleanor Florence Rathbone (12 May 1872 – 2 January 1946) was an independent British member of parliament (MP) and long-term campaigner for family allowances and for women's rights. She was a member of the noted Rathbone family of Liverpool.  The Rathbones of Liverpool were a family of non-conformist merchants and shipowners, whose sense of high social consciousness led to a fine tradition of philanthropy and public service.


From a post on by Mark Bristow who has given me permission to share.

Basil was a cousin of the actor

And had a relationship with WW1 poet Richard Le Gallienne's daughter Eva le Gallienne -  a British-born American stage actress, producer, director, translator, and author.

Monday 17 June 2024

Annamites in Pau, France, during the First World War

 This painting entitled "Annamites dans un camp d’aviation à Pau", 1914/18” painted byFrench artist Achille-Émile Othon Friesz (1879-1949) prompted my research into the Annamite people and French aviation in Pau during the First World War.

After landing in Da Nang in 1858, the French founded the colony of Cochinchina in 1865 and established a protectorate over Tonkin in 1884. The Republic of Ferry intensified the colonial exploitation begun under the Second Empire, constituting an immense empire within which the Indochinese peninsula is a jewel. The fighting of the First World War had little impact on the Far East, with its riches coveted by all the colonial powers. But the traditional recruitment of auxiliaries, the need to replace the numerous soldiers who fell at the start of the conflict, and the desire to develop patriotism among the indigenous population, led the metropolises to draw on the colonial pool. In four years of war, France brought 43,430 Annamites from Indochina (center of present-day Vietnam) and Tonkinese (north) riflemen, mobilized mainly in stage battalions responsible for development and transport. 1,123 died on the field of honour. In addition, 48,981 Indochinese workers were sent to French factories to replace workers who had gone to the front.

Annam, or Trung Kỳ, was a French protectorate encompassing the territory of the Empire of Đại Nam in Central Vietnam. Before the protectorate's establishment, the name Annam was used in the West to refer to Vietnam as a whole; Vietnamese people were referred to as Annamites.

The first aviation school was founded in Pau in 1909, a Wright Bleriot School for aviators. Apparently one of the reasons for locating the flying school in Pau was because of the belief that the city and surround areas were almost wind free. When the First World War broke out, the numbers of its trainees and its capacity grew to such an extent that it became one of the largest flying schools in France.

From then on, aviation became a permanent fixture in Pau. Following the lead of the private schools, a military aviation school began to train pilots in Pau and, when the First World War broke out, the numbers of its trainees and its capacity grew to such an extent that it became one of the largest flying schools in France.

Pau is a commune overlooking the Pyrenees in the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France


Painting posted by Ognyan Hristov to the Artists of the First World War Facebook Group

Sunday 26 May 2024

Felix Lloyd Powell (1878 – 1942) – Welsh composer

Felix Lloyd Powell was born on 23rd May 1878 in St. Asaph, Wales.  His parents were John Morris Powell and his wife, Sarah Snelson Powell, nee Hill.

During the First World War Felix served in the British Army as a Staff Sergeant. 

Felix is most famous for writing the music for the WW1 marching song "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile” in 1915. The lyrics to the song were written by his brother George Henry Powell (1880 – 1951) - under the pen name George Asaf.   

The song was entered into a competition for "best morale-building song". It won first prize and was noted as "perhaps the most optimistic song ever written".

Friday 3 May 2024

New Zealand Troops on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, UK in WW1

With thanks to John Daniel who sent me a message about ANZAC Day that prompted this reseach

Sling Camp was a military camp near the town of Bulford on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, UK, occupied by New Zealand soldiers during the First World War.   

Created in 1903 as an annexe to Bulford Camp, Sling Camp was originally named "Sling Plantation" after nearby woods. 

Soon after the beginning of the First World War, New Zealand troops started work on building wooden huts there. They were later joined by Canadian troops, joiners, bricklayers, and civilian workers. The word "Plantation" was dropped from the title and it became Sling Camp. After building was completed, it was said that if each hut were placed end-to-end they would measure 6 miles.

In 1916, the camp was occupied by New Zealand forces and was then known as Anzac Camp by some. It comprised four main sections: Auckland, Wellington, Otago, and Canterbury Lines. It was officially called the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade Reserve Camp, and trained reinforcements and casualties who were regaining fitness.

Ten New Zealand soldiers were killed when they were hit by a train at Bere Ferrers in southern England. The accident occurred as troops from the 28th Reinforcements for the NZ Expeditionary Force were being transported from Plymouth to Sling Camp.

To occupy them before deployment, the New Zealand soldiers were put to work carving the shape of a large Kiwi in the chalk of the hill that overlooks the camp. The Bulford Kiwi, as it is known, is still there today and as of 2007, the Kiwi has been maintained by the Ministry of Defence. In 2017 the chalk figure was designated as a scheduled monument.

In 1918, there were 4,300 men at Sling. Soon after this date the camp suffered large casualties as a result of the Spanish influenza.

The camp also housed fourteen New Zealand conscientious objectors (among them Archibald Baxter and his brothers Alexander and John), who had been forced into the army and sent all the way from New Zealand to England to make an example of them.

At the end of the war, there were 4,600 New Zealand troops stationed at the camp and it became a repatriation centre. At that time there was unrest in other camps as a result of delays in demobilising troops. To try to maintain order the "spit and polish" regime was enforced and route marches ordered. The men requested a relaxation of discipline as the war was over and they were far from home, however this was refused and the troops rioted, stealing food from the mess and all of the alcohol from the officers' mess, hundreds of New Zealand soldiers rioted. It was the most serious breakdown of discipline in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the European theatre.

In an attempt to resolve the situation, the officers and men were promised no repercussions, but this promise was not honoured; the ringleaders were arrested, jailed and immediately shipped back to New Zealand. 

Much of the original camp was demolished in the 1920s and replaced by newer buildings.


ANZAC DAY – remembered on 25th April annually.  25th April marks the first major military action fought by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps forces during The First World War, at Gallipoli.

Cathy Sedgwick, who does the most wonderful work researching the ANZAC soldiers buried in the UK, has researched all 66 NZ War Graves in Codford (ANZAC) Cemetery, Wiltshire.  Cathey tells me there is a New Zealand War Graves Project -


Wednesday 24 April 2024

Adolphe Célestin Pégoud (1889 – 1915) – French aviator, flight instructor and fighter pilot Ace WW1.


Adolphe Célestin Pégoud was born on 13th June 1889 in Montferrat, France. Between 1907 and 1913 Adolphe served in the French Army. When he was discharged on 13th February 1913, he immediately began flying, and earned his pilot's licence on 1st March 1913. 

Adolphe became the first pilot to make a parachute jump from a plane. During the first jump, observing the unexpected path of the plane and particularly a loop-like trajectory, he was convinced he could reproduce and control the same in flight. After landing, Adolphe told reporters: "I've seen him, alone, looping the loop. So you see that this is possible. Also, I will try!"

As a test pilot for Louis Blériot, he devoted himself to that goal with a Blériot model XI monoplane in a series of test flights exploring the limits of airplane maneuvers. Having modified his plane, and after realistic "head down" ground training, he then flew the first inverted flight on 1st September 1913.

Adolphe became an instructor of pilots from France and other European countries.

When the First World War began, Adolph volunteered for flying duty and was immediately accepted as an observation pilot. On 5th February 1915, he and his gunner were credited with shooting down two German aircraft and forcing another to land. Soon he was flying single-seat aircraft and in April claimed two further victories. His sixth success came in July.

It is not known how many of Pégoud's victories involved destruction of enemy aircraft, as early air combat was rare enough to warrant credit for a forced landing. However, it is certain that Adolphe Pégoud, rather than Roland Garros (four documented victories, and later), was the first pilot to achieve ace status of any sort.

On 31 August 1915, Pégoud was shot down and killed by Unteroffizier Otto Kandulski (who had been his pupil) while intercepting a German reconnaissance aircraft. He was 26 years old. The same German crew later dropped a funeral wreath behind the French lines. Two weeks later, Kandulski was shot down by the French pilot Roger Ronserail, earning Ronserail the title "Le Vengeur de Pégoud" ("The avenger of Pégoud").

Photograph:  Adolphe Pégoud being awarded the Croix de Guerre

Monday 22 April 2024

James Thomas Byford McCudden, VC, DSO & Bar, MC & Bar, MM (1895 - 1918) was a British flying ace of the First World War and among the most highly decorated airmen in British military history.

 With thanks to John Daniel for finding this information for us:

Born on 28th March 1895 in Chatham, Kent, UK, James Thomas Byford McCudden’s parenst were  William Henry McCudden, A Master Sergeant in the Royal Engineers Regiment, and his wife, Amelia Emma McCudden, nee Byford.  

The McCudden family went to live in Sheerness in 1909 and James transferred to the Garrison School. He learned to shoot at the rifle range, learnt to box and was a reasonably intelligent student.

James joined the Royal Engineers in 1910. Having an interest in mechanics he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1913, during which time he first came into regular contact with aircraft. At the outbreak of war in 1914 James flew as an observer before training as a fighter pilot in 1916.

James claimed his first victory in September 1916 flying the Airco DH.2. He claimed his fifth victory — making him an Ace — on 15th February 1917. For the next six months he served as an instructor and flew defensive patrols over London. He returned to the frontline in summer 1917 flying the S.E.5a. That same year he dispatched a further 31 enemy aircraft while claiming multiple victories in one day on 11 occasions. 

With his six British medals and one French, James McCudden received more awards for gallantry than any other airman of British nationality serving in the First World War. He was also one of the longest serving. By 1918, in part due to a campaign by the “Daily Mail” newspaper, James became one of the most famous airmen in the British Isles.

At the time of his death, James had achieved 57 aerial victories, placing him seventh on the list of the war's most successful aces. Just under two-thirds of his victims can be identified by name. The majority of his successes were achieved with 56 Squadron RFC and all but five were shot down while he was flying the S.E.5a. 

On 9th July 1918, James was killed in a flying accident when his aircraft crashed on takeoff due to engine failure. His rank at the time of his death was major, a significant achievement for a man who had begun his career in the RFC as an air mechanic. James Thomas Byford McCudden, VC, DSO & Bar, MC & Bar, MM was buried in the British War Cemetery at Beauvoir-Wavans, Pas de Calais, France. 


A flying ace, fighter ace or air ace is a military aviator credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft during aerial combat. The exact number of aerial victories required to officially qualify as an ace is varied, but is usually considered to be five or more.

Sources:  Information supplied by John Daniel, Find my Past, FreeBMD

Sunday 14 April 2024

William Somerset Maugham CH (1874 – 1965) – British writer who served as an Ambulance Driver in WW1

William Somerset Maugham was born in the British Embassy in Paris, France on 25th January 1874. His parents were Robert Ormond Maugham (1823–1884), a solicitor, based in Paris and his wife, Edith Mary, née Snell. William's father handled the legal affairs of the British Embassy in Paris.

Shortly before William's birth, the French Government proposed a new law under which all boys born on French soil to foreign parents would automatically be French citizens and liable to conscription for military service. 

The British Ambassador, Lord Lyons, had a maternity ward set up within the embassy – which was legally recognised as UK territory – enabling British couples in France to circumvent the new law, and it was there that William Somerset Maugham was born.   

From 1885 to 1890 William attended The King's School, Canterbury, Kent, UK, where he was regarded as an outsider and teased for his poor English (French had been his first language), his short stature, his stammer, and his lack of interest in sport.

A legacy from his father enabled William to go to Heidelberg University to study when he was sixteen. His aunt, who was German, arranged accommodation for him. For the next year and a half he studied literature, philosophy and German.

From 1892 until he qualified in 1897, William studied medicine at St Thomas's Hospital Medical School in Lambeth.

By 1914 William was famous – he had written thirteen plays and eight novels.  He was too old to enlist when the First World War began, so he volunteered to serve in France as an ambulance driver for the British Red Cross.

In 1954, William was appointed Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) and was invested by Queen Elizabeth II at a private audience in Buckingham Palace.

The Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) was founded by King George V in 1917 to recognise outstanding achievements in the Arts, Sciences, Medicine and Public Service. 

Somerset Maugham died on 16 December 1965.