Harold George Skitt was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, on 3rd August 1895 the only son of Annie Jane Skitt [née Skitt] and her husband and cousin, George Morris Skitt, a tobacco manufacturer.
Harold was educated at Shrewsbury High School, which he attended between the years 1907-10, and then Wellington College1 where he was in the Officers Training Corps [OTC]. He left in 1913 with an excellent athletic record to take up a place at Manchester University to study Dentistry and where he also served within the ranks of the OTC.
Whilst in the final year of his university studies Harold applied to join the Officer Cadet Battalion, which he joined at Oxford on 7th June 1917, as prior to this he had been exempted from military service. Three months later he was commissioned into the rank of Second-Lieutenant in 10th (Reserve) Battalion, Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) and posted to their barracks in Armagh.
Two months later on 14th December a medical board diagnosed possible pneumonia and debility and he was re-categorised as fit for ‘Home service’ duties only: class ‘C’. On 4th March 1918 he attended a further medical board in Belfast, and when asked the date and origin of his debility, answered that it first occurred three years ago whilst at Wellington College. These two statements taken together do not ring true as he left Wellington in 1913. Harold’s recollection of either the date or origin must have been incorrect. The Medical Officer [MO] amended his fitness category from ‘C’ to ‘A’ with no definite disease present, thereby paving the way for overseas service.
In April 1918 the Battalion left Armagh and relocated to Rugeley where it was absorbed by the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion. Harold was then posted to the regular 1st Battalion who had been in France since August 1914 as part of the B.E.F.,-The Old Contemptibles2 and he arrived there himself on 20th April 1918.
Back in England however the Ministry of National Service had growing evidence of a potential problem with the number of qualified dentists likely to be available at the end of the war. They urgently wrote to the War Office on 20th August requesting the release of 113 final year dental students from military service to prevent a feared post-war shortage: the name of Harold Skitt appeared on the list. After due consideration the War Office agreed to their request, but release would come too late for Harold.
At 3.00pm on 28th September 1918 Harold and the rest of the 1st Battalion arrived on the outskirts of what remained of the town of YPRES. After a brief night’s sleep they left at 4.00am the following day and marched slowly up the MENIN ROAD to WHITE CHATEAU and then onward to WESTHOEK. This march was made extremely difficult due to ‘traffic congestion’ on what was left of the road; mud, shell holes, with the corpses of rotting animals and human flesh all around! Upon arrival they received fresh orders and proceeded to GLENCOURSE WOOD.
Orders were received that the Battalion was to attack HILL 41 at 6.15am on Tuesday 1st October 1918 from the west, and if successful to exploit the advance on a line running north of COUTRAI. As time was limited only a hasty moonlight reconnaissance was made. Heavy resistance was encountered on the Hill by Machine Gun and Trench Mortar fire but TWIG FARM was captured with 28 PoW’s taken. The support company moved up to reinforce the attack but casualties were so heavy that further progress was not made.
At 11.30am the enemy made a determined counter-attack on the line but was driven off by heavy fire. At 6.40pm the enemy counter-attacked once again after very heavy artillery and Machine Gun preparation, with the intention of recapturing TWIG FARM. Fortunately ‘C’ Company, who were holding this post, managed to drive them off but took many casualties in the process.
At some point during the attack on HILL 41 Second-Lieutenant Harold George Skitt, 1st Battalion, Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) was killed in action along with 4 of his brother officers. He was 23 years old and was buried locally south-east of Dadizeele. His Commanding Officer said of him “He died when leading his platoon in an attack of very great importance in Flanders, and I can tell you, as some small measure of comfort, that the attack was a successful one, and that the enemy was driven from his position.”
Following his son’s death a period of correspondence took place between George Skitt and the War Office concerning ‘missing’ personal effects belonging to Harold; a story that seemed to be all too familiar by this stage of the war. As the War Office dragged their feet George became increasingly impatient for a response, reminding them in the final letter that exists in the file on this matter, that it is the third time he has had occasion to write!
In October 1920 the family received a letter from the Director of Graves Registration & Enquiries advising them that their sons body was to be exhumed and reburied in a new cemetery. This was in line with French and Belgium government policy to remove all scattered graves and existing cemeteries with less than 40 burials to new locations.
The body of Second-Lieutenant Harold Skitt was reburied in a religious ceremony with full military honours in Dadizeele New British Cemetery in Belgium. He is also commemorated on the Manchester University Roll of Honour.
The Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment was raised 1793 and formerly disbanded in 1969 as 3rd Battalion, Royal Irish Rangers.