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The Reluctant Tommy


Ruth Ward
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Skirth states that the letter from Ruth's GF and also one from Snowdon, he destroyed. The IWM papers are the ?5 files of handwritten notes that comprise his original memoir, I think they are definitely worth a view.

You know, that's just too, too convenient, isn't it. During my career in the forensic examination of people's actions in corporate life, if I heard "I've shredded it" once, I've heard it a thousand times - and every time it raised a red flag, my instincts were confirmed. Antony

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You know, that's just too, too convenient, isn't it. During my career in the forensic examination of people's actions in corporate life, if I heard "I've shredded it" once, I've heard it a thousand times - and every time it raised a red flag, my instincts were confirmed. Antony

I think virtually every bit of possible evidence that Skirth mentions has been lost, thrown out, or plain 'disappeared'. And, he must have had a jolly big diary, don't you think?

Kind regards

Ruth

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Skirth 'confessed' to being a conscientious objector in a separate postscript attached to a letter which he wrote to his girl-friend. He did this deliberately knowing that the confession would not go any further than the officers mess -because it was 'private'. (TRT p.160). Skirth says in his confession: "I vowed that because God had spared my life I would never help to take away another's , - unless I had orders which I could find no way of evading... I am faced with a terrible dilemma:- my enlistment oath demands that I do one thing and my pact with God another. It's a conflict between my duty and my conscience."

Ruth

Skirth's claim does not make sense. In terms of correspondence from the front being "vettted" by an officer, there would be no material difference between the main body of a letter and a postscript, or whether the postscript was on the same page/ last page of the main letter, or on a separate page "attached" to the main letter. His implication that the postscript was somehow "private" and would not be treated the same way is, indeed, so nonsensical as to support the view that the "confession" was a figment of his 1970s imagination. The reference to the officers' mess is also interesting; it would have been one thing to hope that a single vetting officer would let his "confession" pass, but he suggests an expectation that it would become the talk of the mess - otherwise why mention the mess at all? - and yet no action would be taken.

Vetting served a number of purposes: not only preventing leaking of troops' numbers, movements etc, but also preventing sapping of morale at home by indicating lack of morale at the front. It seems most unlikely that such a "confession" would have passed unremarked, especially if it had been passed round the officers' mess.

In any case, the letter would still not be the independent corroboration that I would look for. If he had really become such a committed pacifist, why did he not join the No More War Movement or the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the 1920s, like many other ex-soldiers who had learned from their experiences?

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Skirth's claim does not make sense. In terms of correspondence from the front being "vettted" by an officer, there would be no material difference between the main body of a letter and a postscript, or whether the postscript was on the same page/ last page of the main letter, or on a separate page "attached" to the main letter. His implication that the postscript was somehow "private" and would not be treated the same way is, indeed, so nonsensical as to support the view that the "confession" was a figment of his 1970s imagination. The reference to the officers' mess is also interesting; it would have been one thing to hope that a single vetting officer would let his "confession" pass, but he suggests an expectation that it would become the talk of the mess - otherwise why mention the mess at all? - and yet no action would be taken.

Vetting served a number of purposes: not only preventing leaking of troops' numbers, movements etc, but also preventing sapping of morale at home by indicating lack of morale at the front. It seems most unlikely that such a "confession" would have passed unremarked, especially if it had been passed round the officers' mess.

In any case, the letter would still not be the independent corroboration that I would look for. If he had really become such a committed pacifist, why did he not join the No More War Movement or the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the 1920s, like many other ex-soldiers who had learned from their experiences?

Re the letter/postscript - I think I haven't explained it properly. Skirth says he wrote a letter to his girlfriend & put the confession on a separate sheet but still with the letter - knowing that the whole lot would be read - the letter would be allowed through, but the confession not. I agree with all your comments - not much of what Skirth says makes any sense when you really sit down and analyse it.

Another 'theory' I have about his motives for writing his 'memoir is that perhaps he was creating a 'spoof war-time memoir' - or at least taking the micky out of that genre. In the Bexhill on Sea article, his daughter mentions that he submitted articles and did competitons for the IWM. The IWM say they have no other work by him other than his memoir, so I assume his articles were knocked back - possibly with a bit of criticism or insensitive remarks. Skirth being a veteran & experienced English teacher may have taken the hump about this. Also, I think Norman Gladden's memoir came out around the time Skirth started writing his - his might be a response to Gladden's (& probably Hugh Dalton's as well) particularly if he thought they weren't very good/dishonest/exaggerate etc. I've started to detect a bit of black humour in Skirth's work eg on p.106 Referring to his friend Jock who died in a shell attack immediately after Skirth had lit & given him a cigarette, he thinks to himself: 'Jock's dead. It's all your fault. You gave him a cigarette, remember? Oh God! I'll never be able to smoke a fag again without thinking of him. Why didn't I die too?' - What kind of a comment is that? On p.228 he describes how Earl Cavan & asstd Brass Hats visited his O.P. - whilst he was asleep & blissfully unaware of their prescence throughout. There was no one else there to tell him about it afterwards, so, if he was asleep, how did he know about the visit & what they did whilst they were there? (I think Skirth might be having a bit of fun with the reader too). He claims to have taught himself Italian whilst in hospital & suffering from shell shock & mental breakdown. p142 - footnote. On p.181 he suggests his iminent demise by machine gun fire - from an enemy aeroplane. The 'Cartography' section really is a joke - too ridiculous for words.

I know I'll be accused of entering the realms of fantasy myself with this 'theory' & I probably do need to lie down in a darkened room for some considerable time, but I think it's worth a thought. No-one reads genuine WW1 memoirs expecting them to be a 'spoof'. And, before the men in white coats come to cart me off, it's possible that the plausibility of Skirth's memoir - to the lay person at least - is the combination of ignorance & the Blackadder Goes Forth effect. Skirth's work is full of stereotypes & some of the incidents Skirth writes about are Blackadderish - though perhaps much more subtle. Let's face it, his memoir was certainly not written for people with any military expertise, was it?

I hear knocking ... ... ...

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Is it possible that Skirth's "memoir" was in fact an unpublished novel that, after his death, was mistaken for a memoir? Antony

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Is it possible that Skirth's "memoir" was in fact an unpublished novel that, after his death, was mistaken for a memoir? Antony

I guess it's possible. Why would he write a novel with so many errors & implausible scenarios in it though? :wacko:

Ruth

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I thought that's what novels were all about :P . Yours, Antony

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I thought that's what novels were all about :P . Yours, Antony

You got me there! :D

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Is it possible that Skirth's "memoir" was in fact an unpublished novel that, after his death, was mistaken for a memoir? Antony

Although I've supported Ruth since she first raised this memoir on the forum I've become a little uncomfortable at some of the comments made about Skirth in this thread, as opposed to earlier ones on the same topic. As a veteran he is probably entitled to write whatever he wants and as mentioned above Fussell's 'Great War and Modern Memory discusses many of the issues around the literature of the war and memoirs in particular. Skirth may have decided to write as a catharsis for the horrors he had witnessed, to ease his conscience as he faced his own mortality or simply to supplement his pension.

We don't know his motivation, although we are told that writing and rewriting the account became an obsession. We're also told he became angry when his daughter showed it to someone outside the family which suggests he never intended to publish it, or perhaps he did. We'll never know for certain, but we do know the account has been extensively edited to pursue a contemporary agenda.

In this earlier thread at post 17 and 18

http://1914-1918.inv...1

we discussed the possibility the memoir was a fiction.

Like Skirth George Coppard who was writing about the same time could not resist being influenced by the 'Donkeys' and 'Oh What a Lovely War' era of the sixties but unlike Skirth who seems to have been embittered by his experience (or perhaps even his life after the war) he did not seek to denigrate his comrades and his pride shines through his memoir.

Incidentally just to lay it on, and in case we've been asleep for the last fifty years, Jon Snow trots out (sorry!) the familiar quotation in his foreword.

As I understand it the original intention to have the book classified as 'fiction' rather than 'memoir'.

The consequences of the Iraq War and current engagement in Aghanistan mean Skirth becomes much more relevant and therefore likely to turn a profit than they were in the late sixties/early seventies when frankly there was very little interest in the Great War beyond the satirical or academic circles. The book only works to further this message as memoir, not fiction

Barrett acknowledges in his introduction that the account reads more like a novel than a memoir but glibly sidesteps this inconvenient truth by citing Skirth himself who wrote, 'I'm not writing a novel, a play or a film script but of a small part of a Great War in which I participated." Unfortunately as Skirth has been dead for over thirty years so there is no way to challenge this statement.

If any further evidence of the editor's agenda was needed (beyond the title of Michelle Barrett's original work 'Casualties of War') her son's introduction to Skirth's account ends with the sentence; 'As I sit writing the BBC News website has the headline BRITAIN FACES 40 YEAR WAR IN AFGHANISTAN' (his capitalisation).

I guess Twitter and Facebook are not enough to hammer the message home…

Ken

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Although I've supported Ruth since she first raised this memoir on the forum I've become a little uncomfortable at some of the comments made about Skirth in this thread, as opposed to earlier ones on the same topic. As a veteran he is probably entitled to write whatever he wants and as mentioned above Fussell's 'Great War and Modern Memory discusses many of the issues around the literature of the war and memoirs in particular. Skirth may have decided to write as a catharsis for the horrors he had witnessed, to ease his conscience as he faced his own mortality or simply to supplement his pension.

We don't know his motivation, although we are told that writing and rewriting the account became an obsession. We're also told he became angry when his daughter showed it to someone outside the family which suggests he never intended to publish it, or perhaps he did. We'll never know for certain, but we do know the account has been extensively edited to pursue a contemporary agenda.

In this earlier thread at post 17 and 18

http://1914-1918.inv...1

we discussed the possibility the memoir was a fiction.

Like Skirth George Coppard who was writing about the same time could not resist being influenced by the 'Donkeys' and 'Oh What a Lovely War' era of the sixties but unlike Skirth who seems to have been embittered by his experience (or perhaps even his life after the war) he did not seek to denigrate his comrades and his pride shines through his memoir.

Incidentally just to lay it on, and in case we've been asleep for the last fifty years, Jon Snow trots out (sorry!) the familiar quotation in his foreword.

As I understand it the original intention to have the book classified as 'fiction' rather than 'memoir'.

The consequences of the Iraq War and current engagement in Aghanistan mean Skirth becomes much more relevant and therefore likely to turn a profit than they were in the late sixties/early seventies when frankly there was very little interest in the Great War beyond the satirical or academic circles. The book only works to further this message as memoir, not fiction

Barrett acknowledges in his introduction that the account reads more like a novel than a memoir but glibly sidesteps this inconvenient truth by citing Skirth himself who wrote, 'I'm not writing a novel, a play or a film script but of a small part of a Great War in which I participated." Unfortunately as Skirth has been dead for over thirty years so there is no way to challenge this statement.

If any further evidence of the editor's agenda was needed (beyond the title of Michelle Barrett's original work 'Casualties of War') her son's introduction to Skirth's account ends with the sentence; 'As I sit writing the BBC News website has the headline BRITAIN FACES 40 YEAR WAR IN AFGHANISTAN' (his capitalisation).

I guess Twitter and Facebook are not enough to hammer the message home…

Ken

Ken, I'm really sorry if any comments I've made on this, or any other thread have caused you, or anyone else offence, or been disrespectful. It certainly hasn't been my intention to do that.

As you say, Skirth was quite entitled to write about his experiences in any way he saw fit and for his own particular reasons. However, when his work was published, it then became open to criticism, -authenticating & validating the content and the claims made in it, and consequently questioning his motives for writing it in the way that he did. I think exploring Skirth's motives is an integral part of the research I am doing - even if those motives appear a bit unsavoury sometimes. Many people - especially the 'professionals' involved find it very hard to accept all the inaccuracies, because there is no good obvious reason for him having deliberately written such an inaccurate memoir, which thus lends credibility to his claim to have suffered from shell-shock. Now, I am not saying that Skirth did not suffer from shell-shock at some point, but I find the nature & number of his errors suggest something much more deliberate & calculating than them just being the result of a fading memory, a tendency to exaggerate & mental damage due shell-shock. Skirth taught in a high school, I think, up until his early retirement due to hearing loss, so his mental faculties must have been at least reasonable around the time he started writing.

A further point about examining Skirth's motives is that without some reasonable explanation for them, the research I've done looks decidedly biased. It has some bias, obviously, because of my motives for doing it in the first place. However, I have tried to be accurate and not deliberately misrepresent information in my research. I have said that I am not a professional researcher, and am limited by my own lack of expertise (in military matters especially) and have limited access to resources. The help of forum members has been, and is, invaluable in helping me understand particular things, offering alternatives viewpoints, putting me straight where I need to be put straight & challenging my thinking. I am very grateful for all of it.

The reminder that TRT is not the whole memoir, and that Skirth & the publishers are not the same entity, is a timely one, and I accept that I do forget both these things on occasion.

Last night I found another error in TRT. On p.41, referring to Jock Shiels, Skirth says: "He pulled me out of a gas-filled shell hole at Ypres in which I would have died a painful death." This is the same Jock Shiels who Skirth claims died next to him in a shell hole in Ypres in November 1917 (p.101)John Shiels, a Scot like Jock, died 18 July 1917 (CWWGC) - some 4 months earlier. I regard this as one of Skirth's many deliberate contradictions. Other people might argue that they are 2 separate incidents and that Jock & John are not necessarily the same person. Why does Skirth do this sort of thing, and what sort of respect is he showing for Jock/John Shiels?

Perhaps Skirth was trying to make a point about, or had an issue with individual versions of a particular event v. official sources, evidence and so on - he seems to push some things to the point where they can't be 'proved' one way or the other ... ...

Ruth

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Interesting point MB. I know that Vera Brittain, who as a VAD nurse saw a great deal of the suffering of the Great War, and also had to face personal losses at the time, did not become a pacifist until 1936, hoping that the League of Nations would somehow intervene to prevent war. There could well be others from the generation who went through the Great War, who when realising that a European war was possible, had to decide where they stood.I could see why Skirth might not decide to make a stand in the 1920's, but perhaps later in life he might have joined a political group?

I would like to know more about Skirth's life, beyond what' s revealed in 'The Reluctant Tommy'.

In any case, the letter would still not be the independent corroboration that I would look for. If he had really become such a committed pacifist, why did he not join the No More War Movement or the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the 1920s, like many other ex-soldiers who had learned from their experiences?

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Following Ken's point and Ruth's further revelations about Skirth's "recollection" of events, it has to be recognised that this TRT coin does have two sides. One is Skirth's work. The other is the work of the editor/publisher. If we take Skirth's work as having been published without substantive alteration, then we are faced, unfortunately, with the choice of calling him a liar, a traitor, or demented (absent-minded or mistaken at best; paranoid delusional at worst). Yes, we can allow that shell-shock (if he suffered from it) could shake the foundations of memory but it doesn't account for the narcissistic paranoia and libellous hostility evidenced in his writing. He also contradicts that possibility himself. Therefore, given any of those aforementioned choices, then the work of the editor/publisher is little more than a cynical commercial misrepresentation of Skirth and his work, especially since he has taken to the i-net under the user name of TRT and, barring a passing reference to the well-researched rebuttals of Skirth's recollections, continues to push his self-rewarding financial agenda. Either way, either side of this coin is an unattractive aspect. Antony

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Has anyone applied, or in the process of making an application, to the IWM to view Skirth's papers deposited in the archives there? If so, please can they PM me. Many thanks. Michael Bully

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  • 3 weeks later...

Seen that, Pete, and briefly took out a twitter account to counter this unethical and venal promotion by the editor of the so-called "memoirs". Unfortunately, couldn't find out how to call him a liar. Antony

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Any book which masquerades fiction as factual history is pernicious in effect, if not in intent, amongst the unwary. In the case of The Reluctant Tommy it's unclear how much of the blame for such misrepresentation ought to be laid at the door of his posthumous editor Duncan Barrett, rather than at Ronald Skirth's - nor, for that matter, how far Barrett's role is more akin to co-author than editor. I'm sure all will be revealed in the fullness of time.

What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is the intent behind the publication of this work. That, it seems to me, is to present this farrago of improbable fictions as fact in order to promulgate a political agenda held by the editor. I arrive at that conclusion having come across the twitter page operated by the editor of The Reluctant Tommy, in which criticisms of the authenticity of the book's claims to be fact rather than fiction, or of the veracity of some of the opinions in the book, are dismissed as simply attacks by those who don't care for the overt political bias in this factually bereft book. What's going on here becomes clearer when, still tweeting under the moniker of 'The Reluctant Tommy', the editor of the eponymous book also uses that platform to vent his spleen about current political and media events.

All in all it has to be concluded that 'The Reluctant Tommy' is less out of place on a bookshelf which also contains books like editor Barrett's other tomes, Star Trek: The Human Frontier from 2000 and the forthcoming Zippy and Me: The Remarkable Life in Puppets of Rainbow's Ronnie Le Drew, than it is in the library of a student of the Great War.

For those interested in these other twists to this bizarre publication: The Reluctant Tommy Tweets

Bemused George

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>><<

What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is the intent behind the publication of this work. That, it seems to me, is to present this farrago of improbable fictions as fact in order to promulgate a political agenda held by the editor. I arrive at that conclusion having come across the twitter page operated by the editor of The Reluctant Tommy, in which criticisms of the authenticity of the book's claims to be fact rather than fiction, or of the veracity of some of the opinions in the book, are dismissed as simply attacks by those who don't care for the overt political bias in this factually bereft book. What's going on here becomes clearer when, still tweeting under the moniker of 'The Reluctant Tommy', the editor of the eponymous book also uses that platform to vent his spleen about current political and media events.

>><<

Presumably with all the followers he has attracted, this is the first genuine case of "lions led by a donkey"?

David

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Indeed! Though to be fair, some are querying the misrepresentation of the book - albeit to an editor who apparently doesn't want to hear it.

George

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I don't know how Twitter works, So is the book's literary editor pretending to be Ronald Skirth and posting messages to publicise 'TRT' ? I am perplexed !

Talking of publcity- I like the quote from Ian Hislop on the cover of the hardback version of 'TRT' -"Surprisingly uncomfortable and very memorable".

Well yes, but probably not for the reason's that Mr. Hislop intended.

On a more serious note, in the TRT introduction Duncan Barrett (page xvi) mentions

"Readers wishing to consult the original handwritten journals may do so at the Imperial War Museum archive, which also holds the transcript I prepared in the course of producing this book."

Mr. Barrett also mentions that

The original journals come to four volumes, 688 pp in total.

I am very curious to see what has been left out in preparing said transcript.

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The book's editor/publisher/flack has adopted the user name 'The Reluctant Tommy'. Puffery of the most venal sort. Antony

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Hello

I'm trying to unpick Skirth's account of 8th June, 1917 - the day after Messines. He explains that for some unknown reason his battery, 293 SB, did not know where their infantry were & therefore couldn't fire until their position/s had been plotted on a map. He claims that his C.O. sent him & 3 others, "to collect the required information and lay a telephone line from his command post to the new front line." (p.68). He also claims that they did not know the purpose of the mission until later, that 2 of the men weren't telephonists & had never laid a line in their lives, & that he'd been put in charge of carrying a pigeon in a basket. The 2 telephonists, Skirth's chums, died in the mission as did the lieutenant - & the pigeon.

The unit war diary has 293 SB continuing with their bombardment from the previous day un till 8.40 pm & then pulling out to a new position ('Wulverghem' according to Signaller Bennett's diary) & continuing under orders of X group HA.

The History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery p.186 contains a couple of paras indicating the complex nature of communications linking guns/observers/infantry & that the problem of keeping contact with the foremost infantry was still there despite everything that was in place.

Also, Signaller Bennett, 7th June states, "went over to lay out line to O.P. very heavily shelled".

How feasible are Skirth's claims? Any help, or comments would be very much appreciated.

Ruth

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So is the book's literary editor pretending to be Ronald Skirth and posting messages to publicise 'TRT' ?

Nail/Hammer occlusion. Has he being pretending to be Skirth from day one, and 'accidentally on purpose' forgotten where fact and fiction meet? Deliberate? Surely not...

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Ruth

Some thoughts - based on more modern experience so comes with a warning

He explains that for some unknown reason his battery, 293 SB, did not know where their infantry were & therefore couldn't fire until their position/s had been plotted on a map.

Although RGA may not be in direct support of infantry, it is possible the success infantry may have had in penetrating the German lines, meant they were in danger of moving in to fire from RGA targets in depth. Trying to establish the exact position of infantry before firing was often a problem on exercises, one would imagine a great deal more problematical in the poor communications of a pitched battle.

He claims that his C.O. sent him & 3 others, "to collect the required information and lay a telephone line from his command post to the new front line.

Would seem a sensible thing to do - establish communications and find out what is happening

He also claims that they did not know the purpose of the mission until later,

Again possible - unfortunately communications and briefings even in the most professional army may not be effective

that 2 of the men weren't telephonists & had never laid a line in their lives,

2 men to carry the line and unwind it from the drum, trained telephonist (ie Skirth) to join the line. If it was an urgent task, telephonists may have been tied up, so the need would be to find 2 men to effectively be carriers.

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Hi Ruth,

Funnily enough I have just returned from Belgium and last saturday was standing on the ground where 293 were positioned on 7th and then after moving on 8th June. I made the following notes -

The war diary for the battery noted that “the battle has apparently progressed very well and the Messines ridge has been captured”. During the day the OP party had a difficult time of it, 109777 signaller Bennett noted in his diary that he was very heavily shelled whilst carrying line out to the observation post, and the 293rd sustained their first casualty when a member of the OP party gunner Emsley was wounded in the leg by a shell splinter.

With the success of the first day artillery was needed to move forward and the second in command, Captain Gray, went forward to select a new battery position. The next day they moved three and a half kilometres east towards Messines and positioned the guns alongside a sharp bend in the road south west of Wulvergem – map reference 28 T5c 30.20.

The new position is again on low ground and the guns are placed in farm land and face straight ahead at Messines. They were made up to 6 guns and now became X6 and whilst part of the battery moved ammunition from the old position the others tried firing but were obstructed by poor weather and limited communications with the forward observer. On the 12th of June during a heavy thunderstorm more casualties were sustained when a shell fell a little way from the battery where the men were drawing water.

123218 Lewis Cardwell was killed outright and now lies at rest in Khandahar cemetery immediately opposite from what was the position of the 293rd. His grave is surrounded on all sides by the sights, sounds and smells of a working farm and maybe for a 24 year old farmer’s son from Colne in Lancashire it is a fitting place. 123201 Albert Northover a gunner from Yorkshire, later died of wounds whilst gunner Gregg’s was wounded.

- Skirth offers some kind of mangled account of these events?

regards

Sean

ps I'll send you photographs of the positions as they are today when Easyjet find our luggage :angry:

Hello

I'm trying to unpick Skirth's account of 8th June, 1917 - the day after Messines. Ruth

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