#whitefeather diaries

A pacifist soldier

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Hilda Clark was not the only one to feel “stifled by lies and hatred”. Revulsion to the war was experienced by people in many different situations on all sides, amongst both civilians and soldiers. Some soldiers came to reject the war even while they were fighting in it.

Ronald Skirth was a teenager when he joined the army in 1916. He believed in the righteousness of the war and strongly espoused values of patriotism and obedience. Going to war, he took with him a photograph of his girlfriend Ella.

He was sent to the Western Front with the Royal Garrison Artillery and found himself in the Battle of Messines in 1917. Two of his closest friends, Bill and Geordie, were both killed. He then stumbled across the dead body of a German soldier. This is an abridged version of his description of the experience.

What I saw might have been a life-size wax model of a German soldier. He was in a posture I can only describe as half-sitting and half-reclining. Resting his body on the edge of a smaller shell-hole he had leaned back against a mound of thrown-up earth. But for his complete immobility you would have thought he had assumed that position quite deliberately and, overcome by tiredness, had fallen asleep. Everything about his posture looked perfectly natural and normal, except that there was a something you don't see, you feel. An aura of death.

It was the deathly pallor of that face which shocked me beyond my powers of description. Part of a lock of blond hair was resting on his forehead above the two closed eyes. There was a suggestion of a smile on the pale lips, a smile of contentment.

This figure was my enemy. He had been my enemy, perhaps, but he wasn't now. For this man I should feel hatred, not compassion. This man! He was, or had been, no man. He was a boy who, but for the colour of his hair and uniform, must have looked very like me. I was nineteen, he probably younger still. What could he possibly have done to deserve this?

In his wallet there were two mica windows with photographs behind them. One must have been of his parents. The other had 'Mein Hans' written diagonally across one of the lower corners. It was the picture of a young girl, who could have been taken for Ella's sister. I was sick with shame and pity.

Hans had died as uselessly as Bill and Geordie. That it might have been from the blast from one of our shells, one of my shells which killed young Hans, I felt a sense of guilt almost overshadowing my pity and sorrow.

Ronald now considered himself a pacifist, though did not say so publicly. He applied to be transferred to the medical corps but was turned down. Continuing with the Royal Garrison Artillery, he deliberately aimed the guns away from intended targets to reduce the chances of killing or wounding others. He died in 1977 and his behaviour was not discovered until his memoirs were made public, in 1999.

Source: Ronald Skirth, The Reluctant Tommy: An extraordinary memoir of the Great War, edited by Duncan Barrett (Macmillan, 2014)

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