on 19 October 2015
I read Casualty Figures as part of a study investigating the authenticity of John Ronald Skirth’s papers (held by the Imperial War Museum, London). Skirth is one of three WW1 soldiers whose biography is included in the book and which I refer to in this review.
The evidence in my study (now held at the Department of Collections Access Library at the Imperial War Museum) shows that Skirth’s account of how he sustained ‘shell-shock’ (a head injury) and his subsequent treatment for it and a ‘nervous breakdown’ are entirely fabricated calling into question Professor Barrett’s research underpinning Skirth’s biography and her decision to include him in her multiple biography.
Skirth’s account of how he sustained ‘shell-shock’ in early November 1917 is given in ‘War Story No.2, Passchendaele’. Apparently he and his best friend, a Scot called ‘Jock Shiels', were attempting to desert when they were caught in enemy shelling. Jock was killed and Skirth knocked unconscious. His treatment for ‘shell-shock’ and a ‘nervous breakdown’ at Abbeville and Schio respectively ensues. Basic checking of his battery’s casualties shows this story is very inaccurate and could not have taken place. John Shiels, the only Scot to die with the battery, died on 18 July 1917 almost four months earlier than Skirth states he died. The only man to die in November 1917 was George Burch - a southerner like Skirth. Skirth makes much of his Scottish pal in his story and, given he was the battery’s only Scottish casualty, “Jock Shiels” cannot be anyone else but John Shiels. The evidence also shows Skirth did not confuse Passchendaele with Messines which, if he had, would invalidate the dates of his treatment at Abbeville and Schio. Jock/John Shiels’ existence from 19 July 1917 through to November 1918 can only be fictional and, as the two men are bound together in the war story, Skirth’s ‘shell-shock’ and subsequent treatment are fictional too. Professor Barrett seems unaware of all this giving the impression she has not checked this crucial part of his story, which, presumably, is the basis for including him in her book.
The author refers to Skirth’s unit both as ‘239 Siege Battery RFA’ and ‘239 Siege Battery RGA’ neither of which is correct. (239 SB RGA was a discreet unit which was not sent to Italy in 1918). Skirth was attached to 293 Siege Battery RGA, but this fact is not acknowledged suggesting any research she did do to substantiate parts of, or all of Skirth’s story is likely invalid. However, despite her acknowledgement that biographies are no guarantee of authenticity and that she has used sources to ‘contextualise’ the men’s experiences, it is unclear to what extent , if any, she has substantiated Skirth’s story. The Imperial War Museum’s reputation seems to have been relied on to some extent in this regard. (Their catalogue description states Skirth served with 239 SB RGA).
Professor Barrett leaves the reader in no doubt Skirth fictionalised a substantial amount of his story stating, for example, it has been “almost turned into a novel”, but then goes on to state much of that fictionalizing as fact including ‘War Story No.2 Passchendaele’, which she refers to as “exemplary” and revealing his “exact” experiences.
Discussing Skirth’s alleged treatment at Schio (Italy), Professor Barrett acknowledges she is using “informed speculation”. She suggests, as does Skirth, that perhaps the British medical facilities were not in place in Italy when he required treatment in Italy in mid-January 1918. The ‘History of the Great War Based on Official Documents Medical Services General History (Official Copy)’ by W G McPherson (1924) makes it clear that most of the British medical services were in place at that time and that ‘instructions’ had been issued stating that “Head injuries from all corps” were to be sent to Casualty Clearing Stations at Proven (Mendingham), not Abbeville. Professor Barrett seems unaware of this information and the source. She also cites a scholarly study by Bruna Bianchi in support of Skirth’s treatment at Schio, but given Skirth did not sustain ‘shell-shock’ or a ‘nervous breakdown’ in the way he describes, the study offers nothing but superficial credibility to his alleged treatment.
The author’s apparent conviction that Skirth’s story is essentially a true one, despite his extensive fictionalising, seems based on a belief he kept contemporary and detailed diaries which he later “worked up” and then discarded. However, Skirth states he has no contemporary account of ‘War Story No.2’ , although he does claim to remember events fairly clearly. The evidence shows his alleged diary entries, almost all of which occur in June 1918, are fabricated. (Duncan Barrett, editor of ‘The Reluctant Tommy,’ suggests in his Introduction that these same entries “should, perhaps, be taken with a pinch of salt as a narrative device”). It is far more likely Skirth was accessing the official unit and brigade war diaries and using them creatively to construct his war stories rather than referring to a personal contemporary diary.
In view of my own research Skirth’s biography in ‘Casualty Figures’, particularly that he sustained ‘shell-shock’ and was treated for it in the way he describes, appears to be largely unsubstantiated and unreliable. The purported academic support given to Skirth’s journals by the publication of ‘Casualty Figures’ would seem to be superficial and misplaced.
One can only hope the other biographees included in the book have been more rigorously researched than seems apparent with Bombardier John Ronald Skirth.