‘The Reluctant Tommy’ – Historical Fiction masquerading as ‘War Memoir’

'The Reluctant Tommy' by Ronald Skirth. edited by Duncan Barret. Categorised as 'Non Fcition' by Pan Books, 2011,
‘The Reluctant Tommy’ by Ronald Skirth. edited by Duncan Barret. Categorised as ‘Non Fiction’ by Pan Books, 2011.

I enjoyed Ronald Skirth’s book ‘The Reluctant Tommy’ because the direct ‘on-the-spot’ experiences of an ordinary soldier in 1914 are always welcome as a counterbalance to the preponderance of accounts from the officer and political class. However, my enjoyment was rather soured when I found that the book, while purporting to be an a first-hand and honest account of war experiences was in fact largely a work of fiction.

The dubious nature Skirth’s narrative was brought to my notice by a reader of this blog whose personal interest in his story led her to do some extensive research into this edited account and to conclude that, even though he was a soldier at that time and was indeed involved in at least some of the events he describes, his involvement in these events was significantly altered by him. As well as this, she found that there were other events in which he was probably not involved  at all.

Skirth wrote his memoirs some 60 years after the first world war and his journals form part of the archive of the Imperial War Museum. They comprise an impressive five binders of meticulously ordered accounts of war-time experiences in neat hand writing, accompanied by photographs, drawings, maps and other miscellaneous material. When perused in the museum’s reading room they certainly have an aura of an unquestionable authenticity. Until, that is, someone starts questioning them, as did Ms Ruth Ward, who contacted me after reading my review of the book.

It was Skirth’s description of his treatment at the hands of one of his officers, a man whom Ward immediate recognised as bearing a close resemblance to her grandfather, that drove her into her investigations. The portrayal of this officer was an extremely negative one, going as far as to imply dishonesty and cowardice.  There is a copy of her research paper included with the original Skirth materials in the museum and the inconsistencies with actual military records are clearly exposed, as are his downright fabrications. She is not alone in questioning the factual basis of Skirth’s account. Among other negative reactions, a review in the BBC’s Who Do You think You Are magazine remarks on the disparities between official war records and his version of events:

‘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. […] The overall impression he gives of the tiny scale of one man caught up in a huge and apparently indifferent military machine in a war like none previous is impressive – but should be treated with great caution as factual history’. (Source: Wikipedia)

These inconsistencies (and the many more throughout the book) were all rather a shock to me. Perhaps an even greater shock was to find, on going back to the book, that some rather ‘big names’ had been similarly misled. In a lengthy introduction, full of caveats, evasions and special pleadings, the book’s editor, Duncan Barrett (a well-known and experienced editor, writer & etc.), gives it as his view that ‘the tenor of Ronald Skirth’s memoir is one of honesty and truth-telling … even if he does deviate from specific facts in order to craft an engaging story’. (!) Elsewhere he admits that ‘Skirth often chooses to fictionalise, or at least work up his material for dramatic advantage. He clearly felt that this was his story and that he had a right to make whatever changes he saw fit’. (!!) He concludes, rather lamely, that ‘you should read the memoir for yourself, and make up your own mind about who to believe’. Well, no. There are such things as established historical facts and one is not at liberty to believe or disbelieve them. This book would fit comfortably in that curious (and very popular) hybrid-genre known as Historical Fiction, but that is not what Duncan Barret is endorsing in his introduction (or Jon Snow in the Forward). And the book is clearly described on its cover as ‘Non Fiction’.

The publication of ‘The Reluctant Tommy’ as a ‘war-memoir’ raises some important issues. I will mention just one: Skirth is profoundly disgusted by the realities of death at the front and this is a reaction most people will find very understandable. However, he goes on to make much play of his making a pact with God not to engage in killing people, so disgusted is he by what he has seen of these dreadful realities. Again understandable, but I think that most people will be uneasy about this attitude because of the obvious implications it could have for the safety of those fighting alongside him. It is an unfortunate fact that war often involves situations of ‘kill or be killed’ and the fact that the chap beside you isn’t keen on killing the enemy is bound to have implications for your safety. Furthermore, and because of this ‘resolve’, Skirth considers himself to be a ‘conscientious objector’, although he decides at the same time to keep quiet about it.  I believe that the many who have suffered greatly at the hands of society because they have declared openly their ‘conscientious objection’ to war would not readily admit him as one of their number.

And I cannot forbear but mention what I consider another important issue raised by the way this book is presented. Duncan Barrett informs us that Skirth had been in touch with the Imperial War Museum before his death in 1977 and that in 1999 his daughter decided to donate his journals to the museum. The fact that these documents are in the keeping of the museum seems to confer on them an important status. And of a later TV documentary on Channel 4 ‘Not Forgotten, The Men Who Would Not Fight’, hosted by Ian Hislop and in which Skirth’s ‘memoirs’ feature, Ruth Ward remarks in her research paper that ‘the narrative’s credibility seems to rest almost entirely on the fact [that] Skirth’s journals are held at the Imperial War Museum’. Readers of this the book or viewers of that TV programme would most likely conclude that this mention of the museum means that they are dealing with material authenticated in some way by that institution. Not so. The museum is acting merely as a depository for Skirth’s journals, which it describes as a ‘… very interesting but anecdotal and disjointed ms memoir’. This rather ‘sleight of hand’ method of implying a museum’s approval might lead many to question in future the authenticity of what they read or view, even when the accompanying endorsements come from seemingly scholarly and impeccable sources. Certainly for this reader, Ronald Skirth’s historical novel, masquerading as a war-memoir, was a wake-up call.

Ruth Ward’s in-depth study of Ronald Skirth’s original

The Impeial War Museum, London
The Imperial War Museum, London

memoir can be accessed at the Imperial War Museum’s Department of Collections Access Library. The link is http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/search?query=skirth_per_page=10 although it cannot be read on-line. However, one can view all these materials by making an appointment with the reading room of the museum whose staff are most courteous and helpful.

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