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on 23 July 2012
Unfortunately I have to agree with the negative reviews I have read on this account (I confess to not having read all of them). I am not an historian but I am very well read on the subject of the First World War; my family history instilled in me from a very early age, a deep fascination with the war that has endured to this day.

Even an amateur historian such as me can find too many elements of the story that quite simply 'don't add up'. I had come across this book by chance without having heard of it previously and my suspicions as to its accuracy had been aroused fairly early in the reading of it and long before I had read the opinions of any of my fellow military history buffs. To be fair, it is stated early on that names of individuals and units have been changed (although the change of the name of a unit or specifically a battery in this instance is somewhat redundant since it is a very straightforward exercise to identify the correct unit based on official war diaries). The author can also be forgiven for memory failures following the lapse of such a long period of time between the events described and the writing of the memoirs. What I do find particularly unpalatable about this account is the distinct possibility that individuals referred to by pseudonyms (but persons who can be quite easily identified by living relatives, again based on other historical sources) have been posthumously defamed, including in respect of gallantry awards. It appears this may have been done purely as a means of settling old scores with men he personally disliked. In my opinion, such claims, particularly if they are to be made in print should only be done so when the accused are still alive to defend them and it is deeply dishonourable to do otherwise. What is also very distasteful to me as an ex soldier, is the author's claim that he was to be decorated for gallantry but refused to accept the award (a convenient explanation for why said award was never gazetted). A claim of this nature, if it is indeed untrue, is considered by servicemen to be one of the lowest and most detestable acts there is; to falsely claim credit or eligibility for or to a decoration for which one is not in fact entitled.

My own misgivings notwithstanding and as strange as it may sound given the tone of my invective, as the author himself is also no longer with us to defend his account, it should be left to the individual, only after having read the book, to make his or her own mind up as to the veracity of the account. I firmly believe however, that anyone who has read a significant number of first had accounts of the Great War will quite easily be able to identify far too many flaws to believe that this is an accurate account.

I have seen it written that this book should be removed from the shelves; I do not necessarily agree with this, but I do believe that it should be pointed out in greater detail that much of the material is, for a variety of reasons, of a dubious nature and that this account should be treated as semi-fictional at best.

To those who are determined, for whatever reason, to believe the author's account verbatim; perhaps they can't bear the thought of an 'honourable pacifist' writing an untrue or inaccurate account, I would simply point to the many inconsistencies with the official accounts of the actions and casualties described in the book (e.g. recording the date of the death in action of his 'best mate', not by days or weeks, but by over 4 months. If you remain unconvinced then perhaps you should consider the fact that the Imperial War Museum has chosen to remove the author's papers from its catalogue on the basis of their unreliability as an account of an individual's experience of the First World War.
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on 6 July 2015
By "truly extraordinary" I mean that it's literally unlike any book about the first World War that I've ever read, whether fact or fiction.

At times I thought I was reading fictional romance from what in a less enlightened age were called "women's magazines." At other times it appears to be a well written and all too clearly observed personal account of some of the nightmarish horrors of the Western Front and some of the hardships of the Italian front. At others it reads like a scholarly treatise on gunnery and map making and on the majesty and beauty of northern Italy. Elsewhere it is a work on the way men sacrifice themselves to try to help comrades survive, how they mourn the inevitable and often horrific and generally random losses. There is a searing account of how the pointless deaths of young men turned Skirth into a lifelong pacifist and, surprisingly, back to religion. There are insights into what it was like to suffer serious mental disorder. And, probably the most controversial ingredient, there are accounts of the callousness and stupidity, at times even duplicity, of some officers.

What of it is true, what invented? It seems to me to be an inexplicit and unacknowledged class issue that pervades many of the claims that Skirth was out to get revenge on officers he disliked -- detested, in fact -- and invented events that showed them in the worst possible light. He wrote most of the material that became "The Reluctant Tommy" more than 50 years after the Great War ended, allegedly using letters, postcards, and a diary as aides-memoires. But whether he had some records handy or not, I think there should be more effort made by his critics to grasp that memory is not like a videotape, memory is what is termed "reconstructive." That is to say, it is a version of the past which we construct to make sense of the fragments we think we recall, it is a story written from incomplete and often hardly legible notes. Disagreements with other people's versions may or may not be motivated, but are probably due, at least in part, very much to nature of memory itself.

I have seen little to convince me that Skirth just "made things up." The errors I have seen documented are relatively trivial, ones that on their own fail to discredit his broader claims. If someone can provide evidence that he is wrong on more than a few substantive points (which is not the same as saying his accounts differ from some other people's accounts), I will stop suspecting that many efforts to dismiss his claims are motivated errors.
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on 19 December 2010
At what point does a memoir stray so far from fact that it can be described more accurately as a work of fiction?

Even editor Duncan Barrett questions the truthfulness of Skirth's story in his introduction. He acknowledges inconsistencies and at one point suggests that `the memoir seems less an autobiography than a novel'. Given that he had such misgivings, it's surprising that Barrett and publisher Pan Macmillan have chosen to market this book as an 'extraordinary memoir'. What is particularly shameful is that Skirth makes serious allegations about the conduct of fellow soldiers, damning their characters without any regard for their reputations or the feelings of their descendants, and without offering any corroborative evidence.

Duncan Barrett should have taken more time to check the credibility of the memoir, or perhaps more notice of the `facts' he did check and found to be wrong. I bought this book as fact not fiction but it is an unreliable memoir and I feel cheated of the purchase price and the time taken to read it, though I haven't bothered reading it to the end.
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on 5 June 2010
This book should never have been allowed to see the light of day. With even the most basic checking it should have been obvious that the story is an elaborate fantasy. Skirth certainly existed - his Medal Card proves it - but basic checking of some of the alleged facts prove that the author was, at the most charitable interpretation, suffering from an appalling memory.

Skirth repeatedly claims to have served in 239 Battery RGA though it's clear he was actually in 293. He movingly describes two friends and an officer being killed on Messines Ridge on 8th June 1917 - though the unit war diary notes no casualties and the named officer isn't on the Commonwealth War Graves Register. In November 1917 he says his battery was so far forward they were ordered to withdraw and his insane CO refused to leave - Skirth claims to have disobeyed his direct order and fled with his pal Jock Shiels - yet according to the CWG Register John Shiels of 293 Battery RGA was killed on 18th July 1917. When the battery is later sent to Italy Skirth is quite clear that it was without guns as late as April 1918 yet the war diary records them firing numerous bombardments weeks before.

By the period he was writing about in Italy British artillery had reached heights of professionalism that it was not to scale again until El Alamein. It is inconceivable that a gun could have been so positioned as to be impossible to fire without killing the crew - they'd have known it just as much as Skirth and would have refused any order and would have had it moved. The senior officer he repeatedly slates as totally mad had a very respectable career and retired a full Colonel - lunatics do not do this - not even in the British Army.

Too many people have fallen for the "Lions led by Donkeys" line (itself a false quote invented by Alan Clarke) and happily gone along with this monstrous farago.

Read it as fiction - but don't accept any of it as fact.
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VINE VOICEon 4 February 2011
I have spent a considerable time checking the statements made in this book, comparing them with battery and brigade war diaries and soldier's records. Barely a line stacks up. I am afraid that "The reluctant Tommy" can only be considered at best a well-meant work of fiction or at worst some kind of personal attempt to embarrass individuals with which the author served. It's an interesting and even absorbing read, but a fairy tale.

UPDATE: on the basis of this and other research, the Imperial War Museum has now removed Skirth's papers from its catalogue on the basis of their unreliability as a record of the Great War. These papers were used as the basis for this book.
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on 12 June 2011
A book that I was looking forward to reading but when I did it was tinged with a feeling of surprise at the author's continuous theme of self satisfaction and selfishness.
What ever the outcome re the detriment of his colleagues it did not matter - his war would go on.
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on 14 March 2011
Military records, including his own, give the lie to much of the critical detail in Skirth's concoction. As a work of fiction, this book would have been interesting to a certain degree. However, it masquerades as fact, very thinly disguised, and makes utterly unsubstantiated accusations against brave soldiers who, unfortunately, can no longer answer for themselves. It is nothing more than the story of a self-centred, self-serving man who, by his own insubordination, ran afoul of military authority and who, in retaliation, committed acts of sabotage which endangered the lives of his comrades. The hard evidence of existing military records show Skirth to be, at best, a disloyal soldier with a bad memory, at worst, a coward and a liar. The Imperial War Museum has withdrawn from its catalogue Skirth's alleged "memoirs" upon which this book was built. For the serious reader who wants to know the truth of The Great War, there are a great many excellent and honest publications. This is not one of them.
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on 13 March 2011
It's regrettable to say the least, that the so many of the items that can be checked all turn out to be fiction.

I don't suppose we will ever know whether Ronald Skirth was deliberately malicious, or had simply confused himself so much that he produced so many inaccurate and misleading statements as if they were facts.

The shame is that readers who are not aware of the extent of the failings in this book might take it seriously.
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on 3 January 2012
I should have realised that a book relating to events 50 yrs earlier, would be hard to take seriously, as it turned out I was right.I in fact concluded, on reaching page 236 that fact had translated into fiction and the Author's piety, arrogance, ego and a vivid imagination had began to irritate, to the point where I felt I was reading a "fairy story"!
At this point I "binned" the item.
No doubt Ronald Skirth was a well respected lovely chap, but on the evidence of his book I am left with the distinct feeling that he went to war with a "chip on his shoulder", which continued to fester in Civilian life for 50 years, culminating in a book of little substance and rather an insult to the millions who had been killed.........
Remember this is only my opinion and in no way is it intended to offend anybody.........
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on 17 June 2013
Gave up after the first 100 pages. There are too many inconsistencies to make it anything other fiction. Being generous, this maybe down to the memories of an old man not being that accurate but as it this was originally not for publication then that maybe over generous.
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