By Simon Basketter
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The Reluctant Tommy: British soldier who became an anti-war saboteur

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The story of a solider who turned against the military
Issue 2198
Ronald Skirth
Ronald Skirth

There are many military memoirs. This one is remarkable.

Ronald Skirth joined the Royal Garrison Artillery at the age of 18 in October 1916, was promoted to corporal and sent to the Western Front.

He fought at Passchendaele, and went to northern Italy, remaining there for the rest of the war.

His story is riveting. His experiences, including seeing a dead German who looked the same age as him, meant Skirth developed a contempt for “King and Country” patriotism and the “war profiteers” back home.

He described the grim realities of army life as he saw the friends he made killed in the space of a few short months.

In this memoir he mounts an unrelenting assault on the army’s entire structure. Major Snow, the bullying commanding officer, was “the person I grew to hate more than any of my country’s enemies”.

As Skirth puts it, officers “saw our war, but didn’t live it”.

In one sense the book is a love story – his love for the woman he later married kept him going.

But it is also a remorseless condemnation of war and support for a pacifist stance: “There is no situation in which you are compelled to go to war… My choice is non-resistance to the potential aggressor, a choice which accepts subjugation as a lesser evil than warfare.”

The book sums up frustration at being an agent of war’s destruction – his sense of powerlessness as a tiny cog in its massive machinery.

Convinced that the taking of human life was wrong, he began a campaign of sabotage, mistargeting British guns.

His belief in the “just war” he had signed up for had been torn to shreds but if he deserted he could be shot for cowardice.

He ends the memoir, finished in 1971, defending his beliefs. He wrote that his faith in the future was restored by young people involved in the anti-Vietnam movement.

This book is an inspiring read.

The Reluctant Tommy
Ronald Skirth’s memoir of the First World War, edited by Duncan Barrett
£16.99, out now


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