John Ronald Skirth (11 December 1897–1977) served in the Royal Garrison Artillery during the First World War. His experiences during the Battle of Messines and the Battle of Passchendaele led him to resolve not to take human life, and for the rest of his army service he made deliberate errors in targeting calculations to try to ensure the guns of his battery missed their aiming point on the first attempt, giving the enemy a chance to evacuate. Many years later, after retiring from a career as a teacher, he wrote a memoir of his years in the army, describing his disillusionment with the conduct of the war and his conversion to pacifism. In 2010 the memoir was published as The Reluctant Tommy.
Skirth was born in Chelmsford and grew up in Bexhill-on-Sea. In the First World War, having volunteered for the British Army under the Derby Scheme, and having requested that the process be expedited, he was called up in October 1916, two months before his 19th birthday. He became a Battery Commander's Assistant in the Royal Garrison Artillery, responsible for making the calculations necessary to target the large guns of a field battery. When he argued with a superior officer over whether to use a French church for target practice he was demoted in rank from Corporal to Bombardier.
Skirth saw action in the Battle of Messines, in which two of his closest friends, Bill and Geordie, were killed. On the same day he had an "epiphany" when he stumbled across the body of a dead German of about his own age, and realised that one of the shells he had targeted might well have killed him. This was to mark a turning point in his thinking about the war as he determined that he was morally responsible for his actions and for their consequences, despite the chain of command.
In January 1971, having retired from his teaching career, Skirth began work on a handwritten memoir which described his conduct and experiences 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.
Skirth gave the memoir to his daughter Jean in 1975, two years before his death in 1977 Although for many years she found it too upsetting to read in full, she felt that it was a story that should be shared with others, and in 1999 she donated four of the five ring binders, containing the bulk of the memoir but excluding its more personal sections, to the Imperial War Museum in London, where they remain to this day.
Once it was made available to researchers and academics, Skirth's memoir began to attract attention, and his story was featured in Richard Schweitzer's The Cross and the Trenches (2003), Michele Barrett's Casualty Figures (2007), and in Ian Hislop's documentary Not Forgotten: The Men Who Wouldn't Fight (2008), in which Hislop interviewed Jean Skirth about her father's war experiences.