CAUTION: Doubts have been raised about the authenticity of the material in this book, especially in the description of military events and actual persons.
If, like me, you are very tired of the commemorations / glorifications of the Great Futile War (1914-1918) which have plagued 2014 and 2015 (and there must be still more to come until the end of 2018!!!), then this is the book for you.
Ronald Skirth was born in 1897. He left home to fight as a volunteer when he was nineteen years old and served on the Western and Italian fronts. His book (edited by Duncan Barrett) tells of the experiences of a man who came to hate the killing and who came to find mechanisms for frustrating it, and to write about why he was driven to such actions. He saw close-up the real horror and futility of what was happening around him and witnessed the appalling unconcern shown by the officer class for the men who relied on them for leadership.
One particular incident soured his view of war forever – the sight of the dead body of a teenage German soldier. “There was no bloodstain, no bruise visible on his person or uniform. Leaning back his helmet had been tilted upwards revealing his face. It was the deathly pallor of that face which shocked me beyond my powers of description. Part of a lock of blonde hair was resting on his forehead above the two closed eyes. I thought Germans wore their hair closely cropped, – but not this one. There was the suggestion of a smile on the pale lips, – a smile of contentment.” That was the moment he resolved he would never again help to take a human life. The many other bodies he saw which, unlike the young German, were mutilated beyond recognition, only strengthened his hatred for this organised orgy of mass-murder and his contempt for those who directed it so incompetently.
The process of the actual writing of the book is a story in itself, not least because Ronald meant at first to write a love story about his courtship of the girl who was to become his wife after the war. However, the act of writing revived his war-memories and so he ended up providing the material for this fine book. He had kept a diary at the front and used it as the basis for several folders of recollections. He kept on revising and adding to these memories for some years afterwards, even after suffering two strokes. When he died in 1977, all these writings passed to his daughter, but she did not read them until two decades later. She then handed them over to the Imperial War Museum where they remained until discovered by Duncan Barret, again some years later, who edited them into this book.
Interestingly, one of the ‘blurbs’ on the cover of the book, supplied by Richard Holmes of the Evening Standard, reads as follows ‘An important contribution to the literature of the war … whenever I get too misty-eyed about officer-man relationships I shall reread it to remind me of how badly things could go wrong’.I do not think that Holmes will ever re-read this book. Having nicely filed it away as ‘an important contribution to the literature of the war’ he will continue to enjoy his ‘misty-eyed etc., etc.’ He really has not understood what Ronald Skirth is saying. It’s not that things went badly wrong. Skirth is saying that the whole business was rotten from the start. I suspect that Holmes did not read the book entirely, or if he did, I am amazed he missed its main thrust.
Or am I amazed? No. When I see the present officer class (and political caste) laying wreaths at memorials for those who died in foreign wars I realise how far we have come from the time so many fine young men and women were sacrificed as cannon fodder. That is to say, we have not come very far at all. And I wonder how those American war veterans of the recent Iraq wars feel when they see on TV those towns that they ‘liberated’ which are now in the hands of ISIL (or whoever). And please do not misread me. I am appalled by what happened to these men and women and the wounds they suffered … and for what? It doesn’t help my mood to hear that many of them were badly treated when they arrived home.
If you harbour any notions about war being glorious, and that it is a duty to go killing people in other lands and other than in self-defence, and for the freedom of one’s own country, then you should read this book.