By Ashley Dunk
In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Newfoundland’s Private Thomas Ricketts and his selfless bravery demonstrated at Ledeghem, Belgium.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Newfoundland was a dominion of the British Empire. In order to support the British Army and war effort, Newfoundland recruited a volunteer army, garnering enough men to outfit and sustain a battalion throughout the entirety of the war. Two additional battalions were later added: the 2nd Reserve Battalion, mostly stationed at Ayr, Scotland, and the 3rd Battalion, responsible for recruiting and training in St. John’s. In 1917, in recognition of their courageous actions and heroic participation during the battles of Ypres and Cambrai in France, King George V bestowed the regiment with the prefix “Royal”.
Born in Middle Arm, White Bay, Newfoundland, on April 15, 1901, to John and Amelia (Cassels) Ricketts, Thomas Ricketts enlisted with the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment, on September 2, 1916. He was underage—only 15 years old—when he volunteered, but claimed to be 18 on his attestation papers. His deception went unnoticed and he was accepted. He embarked for England with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and during his service was shot in the leg in November 1917. Ricketts returned to his regiment in the spring of 1918, after recovering.
On October 14, 1918, the 1st Battalion was participating in the advance from Ledeghem, east of Ypres, in Belgium. The regiment had been fighting through rolling smoke and mist to push back the Germans and capture enemy pillboxes and weapons. By mid-morning, the mist had burned off, revealing a stream, the Wulfdambeek. Forced to cross it, the regiment was exposed to enemy fire. They suffered heavy casualties and soon after were pinned down by enemy shelling. Unable to call on their own artillery fire to combat the German shelling, the only solution was to disable the enemy battery and weapons and to kill the enemy soldiers.
Ricketts volunteered to run forward with his section commander, toting a Lewis machine gun in an effort to outflank the battery. They rushed forward in short advances under heavy machine gun fire, and soon ran out of ammunition, still 300 yards away from the battery. The Germans saw an opportunity to move up their gun teams to take out the advancing pair while they were vulnerable. Ricketts realized the situation and retreated 100 yards under debilitating machine gun fire to retrieve more ammunition. Upon his return with additional resources, he adeptly handled the Lewis gun, driving the enemy and gun teams back to a nearby farm. With the threats removed, the platoon advanced without casualties and captured four field guns, four machine guns, and eight prisoners. Later, a fifth gun was intercepted and captured.
As recounted in the London Gazette:
By his presence of mind in anticipating the enemy intention and his utter disregard for personal safety, Pte. Ricketts secured the further supply of ammunition which directly resulted in these important captures and undoubtedly saved many lives.
– London Gazette, no. 31108, p. 309, January 6, 1919
Ricketts survived the remainder of the war and was discharged on June 17, 1919, for demobilization. He was invested with the Victoria Cross by King George V on January 19, 1919, at Sandringham, England, when he was only 17 years old, the youngest Victoria Cross army combatant recipient. He returned to Newfoundland a war hero. Upon his return home, he returned to school and later became a pharmacist. In addition to his Victoria Cross, Ricketts was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Golden Star for his gallantry.
He died in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on March 21, 1967.
Rickett’s Victoria Cross and Croix de Guerre is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.
Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file for Private Thomas Ricketts.
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Ashley Dunk was a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.
Well, considering that many VC recipients didn’t survive the actions in which they distinguished themselves, this fellow was both brave and lucky. I’m glad he survived to go on to other things.