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Customer Review

43 of 52 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A shameful fantasy, 5 Jun. 2010
This review is from: The Reluctant Tommy - Ronald Skirth's Extraordinary Memoir of the First World War (Hardcover)
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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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 Jun 2010 09:58:59 BDT
This reviewer has clearly not read the book very carefully. The Introduction makes clear that Ronald Skirth changed various names in his journals, most likely out of a sense of propriety. The fact that his battery was in reality 293 and not 239 has never been in dispute, and Skirth himself indicates the change. He also makes clear his belief that the Army deliberately covered up numerous embarassing events and changed, falsified or 'lost' the relevant documents, including his own record of conduct.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Jun 2010 10:17:09 BDT
Unfortunately such key incidents as being without guns for months, the incorrect (by months) date of death of someone who is correctly named - or even, and I did not mention this before, the notion of a siege battery being so close to Passchendaele as he says it was, force me to the conclusion the man was a liar.
I would be interested in seeing any point of proof for any of his more "interesting" allegations that the old chestnut about changed, falsified or lost documents.

Posted on 17 Jun 2010 17:42:04 BDT
B. longhurst says:
239/293 could have been a typing error.
dont know about the other faults as I'm not an Historian.

Posted on 4 Aug 2010 20:38:13 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 2 Dec 2010 12:31:02 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Mar 2011 13:51:48 GMT
I am a historian, and fully back the comments above.

This is a work of, at best, fictionalised false memory, and should be regarded as fiction.
That the IWM has now withdrawn it should be evidence enough.

Bruce Hubbard

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Mar 2011 12:07:30 BDT
Last edited by the author on 27 Mar 2011 12:08:09 BDT
I don't find this an adequate response by Duncan Barrett to the criticisms. Do you as editor believe Skirth's claims in his account and do you believe his allegations of cover up which historians have shown to be highly implausible?

Posted on 19 Mar 2012 09:41:08 GMT
Nayles says:
The following was posted in reply to a comment left on my review by this reviewer:

"Read it as fiction - but don't accept any of it as fact."

These being your own words despite admitting that records exist that show Skirth did in fact serve in an RGA Battery in France and Italy albeit getting the battery number wrong. You can therefore perhaps understand why I don't agree with your 'professional' opinion after such a glaring contradiction.

I'm also a little surprised that a 'professional' historian would approach a personal memoir from a primary source with the viewpoint that official records are somehow complete and infallible. I'd be very surprised if many personal accounts marry up exactly with the official version of events. For me this is what makes personal accounts so interesting as they often do depart from the official view of things. An individual soldier's viewpoint is more often than not quite limited especially when compared against the viewpoint of those aware of the bigger picture i.e. the Officers responsible for writing up the unit war diary.

As far as the professionalism of the British Artillery in 1918 is concerned I think it worth remembering that these particular Gunners were involved in mountain warfare, something the British Army were not very experienced in. The Italian front threw up some unique challenges to the British units fighting there. This may also explain the 'no guns' controversy as I can imagine batteries relieving one another and taking over guns in situ owing to the difficulties in moving and sighting guns in such extreme terrain. I remember reading another personal account from a Gunner who stated that this happened on occasion on the Western Front. It would seem to me to be even more likely on the Italian front especially where Garrison (heavy) Artillery was concerned.

Your point about 'Lions led by Donkeys' is as spurious as it is telling. Even if you were to firmly believe this statement to be utterly false you'd be wrong to assume that this meant there was no such thing as a bad Commanding Officer. And I'm not talking about the reputation of an Officer amongst his peers or seniors but rather the perspective of the men under his command. As I'm sure you are aware, the rank and file don't get any say in how an Officer is promoted or honoured. I can well imagine that in that war an Officer who could put the mission before his men would be regarded by his Commanding Officers as a safe pair of hands who gets things done and therefore worthy of greater responsibility. More often than not the effect on morale and efficiency of the men of a 'bad' Commanding Officer can be remedied by the quality of the more junior Officers, which appears to be the case in Skirth's experience.

Frankly I'm pretty sickened by the tone of some of the critical reviewers here as I can't imagine what they've seen and done to allow them to even look Skirth in the eye let alone call him a liar. A man who served on two fronts during one of the most dreadful of wars deserves respect no matter how reluctant he may have been or how able he is to remember specific facts that agree with all other sources.

This, for me, is the problem with some modern historians. They seem too dedicated to their own reputations to be considered objective especially when you consider that a historical work is not likely to get published or even noticed if it simply reiterates what is already in print. I personally consider such historians as 'amateurs'; I'm using the word 'amateur' in the context of 'not very good'. There is a revisionist movement dead set on debunking 'common misconceptions' which needs to be resisted in order that the history written by those who were eyewitnesses to the events can be preserved in a state that is recognisable to the generation that fought the Great War for the generations that follow. In contrast to this the IWM have a reputation for the preservation of History rather than the revision of it and it appears the IWM are standing by their decision to publish Skirth's memoir. A decision I applaud and thank them for.

At least one other critical review is patently disingenuous owing to a personal interest in that Skirth calls into question the award of the Military Medal to the reviewer's ancestor - understandable but hardly a credible position from which to rubbish the entire book.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Mar 2012 19:30:38 GMT
There is one checkable fact in this whiole farago of opinion and that is that the IWM published the memoir. Actually they did not. I rest my case.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Sep 2014 10:11:54 BDT
R. Ward says:
Since the publication of The Reluctant Tommy, I have been investigating the authenticity of the original memoir on which it is based. My completed research is now held in the Department of Collections Access library at the museum.

In summary, the evidence shows that Skirth's three main war stories are fabricated and his Italian war story can be read as satire. His claims to have been a conscientious objector, to have mis-targeted the battery's guns to 'warn' the enemy, to have suffered from and been treated for `shell-shock' (in the way he describes) and to have written a "sincere" and "honest" account of his military experiences in WW1 are all false. It is clear Skirth wrote the `memoir' with mischievous intent and it is undoubtedly a hoax. The academic support, purportedly, given to the `memoir' appears to be, for the most part, unreliable and, likewise, the editor's introduction to The Reluctant Tommy. However, it is not disputed that Skirth served with 293 Siege Battery, RGA on the Western Front and in Italy.

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Sep 2014 13:16:00 BDT
Many thanks for doing this. It has been on my "to do" list for ages but hopefully you've done a thorough debunking. Incidentally, Chris Baker, former WFA Chairman, author and the man who runs the Long, Long, Trail website has also done one and come to pretty much the same conclusion. the one thing I'd say in defence of Skirth is that I doubt he ever intended it to be published or possibly even see the light of day. It is the appalling failure to do anything like an adequate job of checking before it was published that shocks me.
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