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.
A self-confessed 'dreamer' with a romantic sensibility, Skirth was very fond of literature, and in particular poetry; he took with him to the Western Front a much-annotated copy of Francis Turner Palgrave's Golden Treasury. His favourite poets were John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. He had an intense love of beauty, which he found all around him in music, architecture and the natural world. On the Western Front, he wrote, he was "deprived of the one thing that to me was as precious as life itself, my love of beauty".
Although Skirth had volunteered for the Army in 1915, as an idealistic patriot, convinced that "King and Country" were causes worth fighting for, it was not long before he became disillusioned with the war and the army. He attributed this to a combination of his sensitive character, his Christian upbringing and sense of right and wrong, and, most significantly, the horror of his war experiences.
After the war, Skirth remained a convinced pacifist for the rest of his life. He believed that Britain should not have declared war on Germany in 1939 and claimed that he would rather surrender and face occupation than take up arms against a hostile force. Writing in the early 1970s, he expressed hope that the next generation of political leaders would not make the same mistakes as their forebears.