Famous Military-Related Deaths for the Week of July 15-21

« Previous story
Next story »
Famous Military-Related Deaths for the Week of July 15-21

Imaginary portrait of Robert Guiscard by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1842?)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

This Week in Military History

July 17, 1085 – Robert Guiscard "The Weasel," Norman adventurer, died of fever, age c. 70

Robert of Hauteville was one of a large number of adventurers from Normandy who eventually conquered southern Italy and Sicily. These conquests eventually drove the East Romans (Byzantines) out of Italy after they reconquered that peninsula from the Germanic invaders who helped bring down the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD.

Guiscard was the sixth son of Tancred of Hauteville. As with many younger nobility of the time, he had little prospect of receiving an inheritance from his father. So, as with many other younger sons, Robert left Normandy sometime in the mid-1040s. He gathered a small band of followers and traveled to Italy. Two of his elder brothers had preceded him, and Robert eventually took a fief from his brother Drogo. In 1053, Robert distinguished himself by his leadership during the battle of Civitate. Over the next six years, he took a leading role in the Norman conquest of southern Italy. Pope Nicholas II in 1059 invested Robert as the duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily.

For the next 20 years, Robert fought to push Byzantine influence out of Italy. In the early 1080s, he launched an attack on the Byzantine Empire's lands in the Balkans. He besieged the city of Dyrrhachium and won a pitched battle against a relief army led by the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus. However, leaving one of his sons in charge of the Byzantine conquests in the Balkans, Robert led an army to the island of Corfu to re-acquire his lands. He died of a fever in July of 1085, and was buried in the family crypt in Venosa in southern Italy.

[Robert's sobriquet – in Latin Viscardis – can be variously translated as "the Resourceful," "the Cunning," "the Wily," "the Fox," or "the Weasel."]


John Paul Jones, portrait by Charles Willson Peale (c. 1783)
John Paul Jones, portrait by Charles Willson Peale (c. 1783)

July 18, 1792 – John Paul Jones, Revolutionary War naval hero, died of kidney disease, age 45

John Paul [Jones] was born in southwest Scotland. He went to sea at age 13, and quickly gained experience in the British merchant marine. Mr. Paul was a ship's captain by age 21.

However, two incidents put his career in jeopardy. In 1770, he had sailor flogged, and he died two weeks later from yellow fever. A few years later, he killed a mutinous sailor with a sword. Rather than face trial, he fled to the American colonies. His older brother William Paul had an estate near Fredericksburg, VA, where John traveled, only to find that his brother had recently died. While deciding what to do with this life, he went to North Carolina and was a guest of American planter and statesmen Willie Jones. Historians have speculated that it was the kind of this politician that inspired Jon Paul to adopt "Jones" as his new surname.

As the American War of Independence grew hotter, the fledgling American Navy required experienced ship captains to oppose the British navy. Jones offered his services to the American Congress. Between 1776 and 1779, Jones attacked British shipping and raided the coasts of Ireland and western England. He also spent some time in France, assisting American minister to France Benjamin Franklin in trying to form an alliance with the French against England.

In 1779, a French-constructed 42-gun warship was given to Jones, which he named Bonhomme Richard (in honor of Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac"). In September of 1779, Jones led a squadron of American and French warships during a raid on a British merchant convoy. The convoy was guarded by the HMS Serapis, a 50-gun ship. In the battle of Flamborough Head, Jones captured the Serapis after a long and bloody sea fight. During the battle, when asked to surrender, Jones is credited with saying, "I have not yet begun to fight." Apparently, he actually said, "I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike [surrender]."

After the end of the War of Independence, in 1787 Jones was recruited to the service of the Imperial Russian Navy. He led a campaign in the Black Sea against the Turks. Jones left Russian service in 1789, making his way back to Paris, where he died. He was buried in a French cemetery. However, the property was sold by the French revolutionary government, and his gravesite was lost. In 1905, U.S. Ambassador to France Horace Porter – a veteran of the War Between the States – uncovered Jones's coffin, and it was returned in honor to the US. His sarcophagus now rests in the U.S. Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis, MD.

[In a November 1778 letter to a French nobleman who supported America's quest for independence, Jones wrote, "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm's way."]


Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (film & date unknown); Courtesy of the New York Public Library digital collection
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (film & date unknown)
Courtesy of the New York Public Library digital collection

July 21, 1967 – Basil Rathbone, First World War veteran, actor, died of heart attack, age 75

Philip St. John Basil Rathbone was born in South Africa in 1892. His family left that country three years later when his father – a mining engineer – was accused by the Boers of spying for the British.

He began a stage career in 1911, which was interrupted by the onset of the "Great War." He joined the London Scottish Regiment in 1915, eventually serving as an intelligence officer. In July of 1918, Rathbone learned of the death of his brother, and appears to have become unconcerned about the dangers of serving at the front. He persuaded his superiors to allow him to scout enemy positions during daylight rather than at night, as was the usual practice to minimize the chance of detection. Rathbone 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. He received a medal for his actions.

After the war, Rathbone returned to the stage, then in 1921 broke into silent movies. When sound came to motion pictures, he made a smooth transition to that medium. He appeared in a number of now-famous films of the 1930s including:

  • David Copperfield (1935) as Mr. Murdstone;
  • A Tale of Two Cities (1935) as the Marquis St. Evremonde;
  • Captain Blood (1935) as the French pirate Lavasseur;
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) as Sir Guy of Gisbourne; and,
  • The Ghost of Frankenstein (1939), as Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone shared top billing with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi).

In 1939, Rathbone was tabbed to play "The World's Greatest Detective" aka Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was followed later that year by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both films set in the Victorian times of the original novels. These first two films were produced by Twentieth Century Fox studios, but Fox lost interest, and the rights were bought by Universal Pictures. Consequently, twelve additional films were produced – all with Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. The Universal films were updated to the 1940s, with the first three having Second World War themes. He also did a radio show, "The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," which ran concurrently with the Universal films.

Rathbone lost interest in the character in 1946. He was unfortunately typecast as Holmes, and the balance of his acting career didn't really match his earlier career. He returned to the stage, made many TV appearances, and some execrable movies, like The Ghost in the invisible Bikini (1966) and The Magic Sword (1962).

Rathbone died of a heart attack in 1975. He has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one each for film, television, and radio.

[One of Rathbone hobbies was fencing. After losing swordfights to Errol Flynn in the films "Captain Blood" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood," Rathbone quipped, "I could have killed Flynn at any time!"]

Posted in top stories | 0 comments
« Previous story
Next story »


* To comment without a Facebook account, please scroll to the bottom.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Have a tip for us? A link that should appear here? Contact us.
News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.