Son of Florence Octavia Skilton and Thomas Mark Skilton.
Six sons, brothers, served in WW1: John James Skilton (6/2345) kia, Neal Skilton (68848), Philip Robert Skilton (6/2346), Rupert George Skilton (6/722)], Sidney Tom Skilton (7/782), Vincent Mark Skilton (12/3275).
6/2345 Private John James (Jack) Skilton,
Canterbury Regiment, NZEF
18 August 1888 – 16 December 1917
Jack Skilton enlisted on 9 March 1915 while working for Charles Wells, a farmer of Waikawa Bay. According to his enlistment documentation, Jack was 27 years old, 180 cm tall, weighed 78 kgs and had hazel eyes and auburn hair.
Private Skilton served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front over a period of nearly three years, the longest period of service of the five WWI soldiers commemorated on the French Pass memorial. He was wounded in action twice, in September 1916 (Battle of Flers) and June 1917 (Battle of Messines) before being fatally wounded in December 1917, following the fighting to take the chateau at Polderhoek near Lys.
During his service Jack spent almost seven months under medical care, in hospital or convalescing. In November 1917, he went to the UK on leave for three weeks, returning to his battalion nine days before his final, fatal injuries.
Jack came from Onekaka, Golden Bay. His parents, Thomas and Florence Skilton, were well known in the Bay. Every one of their six sons (they did have one daughter, Ellen, the youngest in the family) joined the army: Neal, Sidney and Rupert, Jack’s older brothers; and younger brothers Vincent and Philip.
Five of the brothers served overseas. Vincent sustained an injury during training that rendered him unfit for service. Neal, Sidney, Rupert and Phillip returned to New Zealand. Sidney died at Puramahoi, Collingwood, 1918, as a result of “disease and the effects of war.”
Jack enlisted in March 1915, the same day as his brother Philip. He left New Zealand in June 1915, landed at Suez in July, and on 9 August, embarked for Gallipoli. There, he joined his regiment, the 3rd Battalion of the Canterbury Regiment, 12th Company on 16 August. The Canterbury Battalion had completed its part in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt on Chunuk Bair (6-10 August) during which fellow French Pass recruit, Private Martin Simpson, was killed. In that battle the Canterbury Battalion suffered large casualties: 266 men wounded, 69 killed and 11 missing. Private Jack Skilton was one of a much needed reinforcement of newly trained men.
Canterbury Battalion soldiers digging in at Gallipoli
Conditions at Gallipoli were notoriously bad. The August heat, which often reached the high 30 degrees Celsius, combined with unburied bodies, the resulting flies and stench, a lack of water, poor food and grossly inadequate sanitation facilities meant that disease was just as great a danger to the New Zealand soldiers, if not more, than the enemy.
The next weeks were spent holding positions gained in the brutal August battles. From September to October the Battalion was withdrawn for rest on the Island of Lemnos where the campaign Allied base and medical services were stationed. 85 of the freshest troops and officers remained on the Peninsula while the rest of the battalion undertook training and drills in order to “harden them, after the relaxing life on the Peninsula”, as the battalion history puts it. The reference to ‘relaxing life’ probably indicates the particular military regime necessitated by conditions on the Peninsula, a ‘slackness’ that commanders attempted to drill out of the men after evacuation and before entering the front lines in France and Belgium.
In October, Jack succumbed to jaundice and was evacuated to No 3 Casualty Station at Mudros, on Lemnos Island There was a lot of sickness amongst the Canterbury men at the time, dysentery and rheumatic fever being the most prevalent.
General Hospital, Mudros
Jack did not re-join his battalion on the Peninsula until December 12. At this time preparations for withdrawal of the New Zealanders and Australian troops were being made and Jack’s 12th Company was evacuated at midnight, December 17. The New Zealand Division was back in Egypt’s Alexandria by December 30.
The Western Front
In early April 1916 a refreshed, reinforced New Zealand Division set sail for France. Gallipoli veterans joined new recruits as the New Zealanders settled in behind the lines at Estaires to learn about trench warfare, the dangers of gas and new weapons and armaments. Their next move in early May was into the lines at Armentieres (where another French Pass recruit, Private Frank Hawksworth, was killed, 22 May) to relieve a British Division. At the start of September the NZ Division joined the Somme offensive which had begun at the start of July and didn’t end until mid-November.
Jack was wounded in the field soon afterwards on 19 September 1916. The Canterbury Battalion was part of the New Zealand Division’s contribution to the Battle of Flers, (15-21 Sept) part of the Somme Campaign.
Jack’s military service record notes “19/8/16, GSW (gunshot wound) to thigh” and his admittance to XV Corps Dressing Station. The next day he was transferred to No. 18 General Hospital at Camiers and eight days later, on the 28th, to the Camiers No 5 Convalescent Depot. Six weeks later, on November 16, Jack re-joined the Canterbury Battalion ‘in the field’.
The New Zealand Division was based at Sailly during the bitterly cold winter of 1916-17, the coldest winter for 33 years. Conditions were miserable: snow, frozen mud and heavy rain made for a difficult existence. On 20 January, Jack was attached to Division HQ. On January 27 his record of service notes he is assigned to “re-fusing ammunition”. He remained with DHQ until 14 April when he re-joined his battalion.
In late February 1917 the New Zealand Division had moved to Flanders and in March were assigned the task of capturing Messines Village as their part in Allied plans to capture the strategically important Messines Ridge. In preparation for the battle the whole division worked during the night laying tram lines and digging assembly trenches. Sleep was taken during the day.
The Battle of Messines, notable for heavy use of armaments, began on 7 June. On the 9th Jack was admitted to the No 1 NZ Field Ambulance and then taken to No 11 Casualty Clearing Station. His service record notes beside this entry “shell shock (w)”.This designation indicates a soldier whose incapacitation results from “evidence of direct contact with the effects of explosion,” (w) meaning ‘wounded’. [In contrast were those soldiers labelled “shell shock (sick) – a soldier suffering from the general stress of battle”]
No 4 Stationary Hospital, Arques
On the 10th Jack was admitted to the No 4 Stationary Hospital at Arques, a large facility which had a section for soldiers suffering shell shock, officially named an ‘NYDN’ (not yet diagnosed nervous) treatment centre. To give some idea of the extent of shell shock, during June 1917, 1135 men diagnosed with the condition were admitted to No 4 Stationery Hospital. Treatment at Arques included rest, along with medication to aid sleep, good food and a graduated programme of exercise ending with rather informally conducted route marches. There was no attempt at any other kind of therapy.
After a month at No 7 Convalescent Depot, Boulogne, on the 28 July, Jack was ‘attached to strength’ at the Etaples Base Depot.
Eleven days later (8 August) he re-joined the 12th Company of the Canterburys ‘in the field’. On 12 October, Jack was appointed ‘cook’, joining the 90 or so men who managed administration and food for their comrades.
This role was no sinecure. Battalion meals were cooked at the rear and delivered to the frontline trenches, whenever possible, in large, difficult to manoeuvre ‘dixies’. Those responsible for the deliveries were as vulnerable to shelling, snipers and all the other dangers of the front as men in the trenches.
Hot food on its way to the trenches was carried in 'dixies'
By December 5 the Battalion had moved and was in place near Polygon Wood, Ypres Salient. Much work was required to improve trenches, and communication trenches were in many cases unusable. Deep mud made the necessary duck-walks treacherous, despite the surrounding mud smothering enemy shells. When the frosts began and the ground hardened, men on these duck-walks were even more vulnerable to shelling.
On the night of the 15/16 December the 1st Canterbury Battalion was relieved, moving to Howe Camp. During this time, Jack was wounded in the field and admitted to No 3 NZ Field Ambulance with multiple gunshot wounds (left foot, left forearm, right leg, right knee). He died the next day at the No 3 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station in the field. Jack is buried Lissenthoek, Belgium.
Private Jack Skilton's head stone at Lissenthoek, Belgium AWMM