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The Reluctant Tommy

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Country  United Kingdom
Publication date  2011
Pages  324
Author  Duncan Barrett
Genre  Non-fiction
Publisher  Macmillan Publishers
3.7/5 Goodreads

5/5 Audible

Language  English
Media type  Print (Hardcover)
Originally published  2011
Page count  324
ISBN  9780330513746
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Similar  The Sugar Girls, Men of Letters, Star Trek: The Human Fr, GI Brides, The Girls Who Went to War: H

The Reluctant Tommy is a book written by Ronald Skirth who was a member of the Royal Garrison Artillery during the First World War. His experiences during the Battle of Messines and the Battle of Passchendaele were detailed in this book. The book captured attention due to Skirth's actions during the war to avoid enemy casualties. The manuscript was known only by the family for decades before finally being published in 2011.



After coming home from the war Ronald Skirth entered the teaching profession. When he retired in 1971 he started work on his war time memories during the First World War, and in particular his experience of disillusionment. Although he initially intended to focus on his relationship with his wife Ella, touching on the war only briefly, he soon felt under a "compulsion" to write more about his war experiences. He worked on the memoir for over a year, eventually filling five green ring binders with many hundreds of pages, and over the next few years, despite suffering two strokes, he repeatedly went back to the material, editing, amending and adding to what he had written.


In 2010 the memoir was published in book form by Macmillan, as The Reluctant Tommy: Ronald Skirth's Extraordinary Memoir of the First World War, edited by Duncan Barrett. Barrett wrote in an introduction that he felt that Skirth's story "deserved as wide an audience as possible—and to be read in its protagonist's own words". Skirth's daughter Jean, who had given permission for the memoir to be published remained uncertain whether publishing the memoir was what her father would have wanted, but believed that it was important that his story was widely known. The book carried a foreword by Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow, in which he wrote about his grandfather Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas D'Oyly Snow. Referring to the popular description of the lower ranks as "lions led by donkeys", Snow acknowledged that "If Ronald Skirth was a 'lion', Thom Snow was ultimately a 'donkey'."

Critical reaction

The Reluctant Tommy received largely favourable reviews by Richard Holmes in the Evening Standard and Jonathan Gibbs in the Financial Times, as well as coverage in the Daily Mail, Socialist Worker and the Sunday Express.

[An] important contribution to the literature of the war ... a remorseless condemnation of war and support for the stance of the absolute pacifist ... I would certainly buy this book even if I had not been sent a review copy, and whenever I get too misty-eyed about officer-man relationships I shall reread it to remind me of how badly things could go wrong. And of just how vital it is, for any democratic society seeking to use war as an instrument of policy, to ensure that the connection between war's means and its political ends is crystal clear.

Skirth’s writing may be uneven but it carries the unmistakable tenor of honesty and true belief, not least in his disgust at the behaviour of many of his superiors. His descriptions of seeing his friends gassed and blown to bits are moving as much for what he can’t bring himself to write, as for what he can. The book began as the story of his marriage to the girl who waited for him back home, and that sense of a happy ending shines through even the bleakest moments.

Not all criticism has been favourable. A review in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are magazine remarks on the disparities between official war records and Skirth's 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.


The Reluctant Tommy Wikipedia

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