Flanders turned Ronald into the Reluctant Tommy

THE Reluctant Tommy is the amazing story of a local man who survived the First World War.

With information gathered from memoirs, letters and postcards home, the book is a moving record of Ronald Skirth's struggle to be a pacifist and stay true to his dearest principles as he continued to fight for his country.

Ronald was like any other soldier until at Flanders he came across the dead body of a teenage German soldier on the battlefield.

He realised the boy was just like himself, and had in his hand a photograph of a girlfriend who looked like Ronald's own sweetheart, Ella.

Ronald became a conscientous objector on the spot and vowed never again to help take another man's life.

Under extreme pressure he somehow maintained his beliefs for the rest of the war even at risk of being punished for being a 'coward'.

He made it back home to Ella in Bexhill and they married and settled down together.

Decades later after Ronald's death his memories passed into the hands of daughter Jean and are now published in what is a unique personal history.

Jean, who now lives in London, said: "The book wasn't the first time he'd spoken about the war.

"My mother and I knew he had written occasional letters and articles, to the Imperial War Museum and for competitions.

"It must have been hard for my mother, such a shock not to know the horror of it until so late. It must have been a shock to think he hadn't been able to tell her.

"When he was writing it, she would always say 'it's keeping him busy'. He was showing it to her as he wrote it. She was horrified by what she read.

"She was upset she hadn't known before. It must have taken up a lot of his time, though I don't think it was an obsession.

"I wasn't particularly interested at the time he was writing it.

"I suppose children tend not to be that interested in what their parents did. I remember I was pleased when he finished it because I knew how relieved my mother was.

"By the time he gave it to me, shortly before he died, I had become more interested, but I couldn't read it all, it was too upsetting. After he died I put it away and forgot about it for years and years.

"I keep it in a leather valise. Seeing it now as a book, opening the first copy I stood and held it and I just felt numb.

"I didn't cry or anything I just stood there. I thought it's too late to regret it now, it's done.

"People I've sent it to have said they're sure my father would have been proud of me for doing it.

"I don't really know whether that's true or not, but he writes it as though he expects people to read it, more than just mum and me.

"He gave it to me before he died. He'd finished writing it in 1972, then he had two strokes, the final one in 77, and I got it in about 1975.

"After all that work he wanted me to look after it. They would drive to me to visit. I hadn't seen it at that point but I knew about it. I thought oh god when I first saw it. I was surprised at how much there was.

"I showed it to a friend and my father was quite angry. Because of his deafness he didn't generally use the phone, but on that occasion he did speak to me on the phone so I could say sorry. It was a big deal for him. He wasn't very well either. It wasn't just the deafness, he had arthritis and asthma and so on. I assume he thought it was too personal, private, that it was just for mum and me. We never really

talked about it after that.

"He was very sensitive and not very outgoing really - my mother was outgoing and gregarious, they were opposites, but once he got going he would be quite forceful. He had a good sense of humour, he liked the Goons.

"I was horrified when I read it, at what he had been through. I loved parts of it. The section in Italy. I felt he'd deserved that after all he'd gone through. I tried to read it straight through when I thought I should sort it out, but I got quite depressed about it and give up.

"He was very romantic and sentimental, but as a couple they weren't demonstrative, at least not in my lifetime. I think they both knew what the other was like. She once told me about when they were in London and he was on leave. In the book he describes it very romantically. The way she told it to me, they did a lot of walking and she got exhausted!

"In WW2 he was teaching, and his school was evacuated to South Wales. As a teacher and in his forties he didn't have to fight. His health wasn't great. I went with his school, not with my own. It was about nine months.

"In the blitz, before that, we used to take our bedding to the school and staff were on premises at night. When he was on rota mum and I would go and we would sleep in the staffroom. One time there was a landmine dropped about a mile away from where we lived and when we got home from the school shelter our front door had been blown off. I remember visiting Bexhill as a child, going to stay with my mother's parents - they still had the little house on Windsor Road and the blacksmith's forge at the bottom of the road. And walking along the seafront and seeing the De la Warr Pavilion. That wouldn't have been built when my parents first met, but they used to listen to concerts at the bandstand on the promenade. It was half a century ago that I

visited Bexhill as a child, but I still have clear memories - of the smells of the horseshoes in the forge, and of running my hand along the wonderfully smooth banisters of the Pavilion.

"I was not a mature child, not sophisticated. I wasn't really aware of any issues around WW2 and my father's feelings about the war. I don't think he would have spoken to me about it at the time. I suppose as an adult I always knew he was quite anti-war, but he had his own life. Life goes on. It wasn't at the forefront of my mind.

"If anyone asks me to defend him, I would just say, that is what he thought and I'm proud of him for sticking to his beliefs. I can't put myself in his position but I admire what he did."

The Reluctant Tommy – Ronald Skirth, edited by Duncan Barrett, is published by Macmillan and costs 16.99.