Thomas Ricketts, V.C. was an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances. As the youngest army soldier ever awarded the Victoria Cross, his enlistment in The Royal Newfoundland Regiment on September 2, 1916 at age 15 and his decision to fight overseas was life changing.
Following a path taken by hundreds of others, Ricketts’ own journey took an notable turn in October 1918 when he participated in a battle near the Belgian village of Drie-Masten during the advance from Ledgehem. It was for his actions during this battle that he was recognized with the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.
Developing a memorial park to recognize Thomas Ricketts, V.C. has been an active goal of the Kiwanis Club of Kelligrews for several years, and it became a shared vision for project partners the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 50, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Advisory Council, the Kelligrews Ecological Enhancement Program, the Conception Bay South Parks Commission, and the Town of Conception Bay South.
Thomas Ricketts, V.C.’s connection to Conception Bay South is rooted in his legacy to Kiwanis through his sale of land to the organization in 1956. The land was sold to the service club with the intention that it be used for the betterment of the community through programming and activities aimed primarily at youth and children of all abilities and mobility levels. This is fitting, as Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to improving the world, one child and one community at a time.
The Kiwanis Club of Kelligrews retains ownership of this land and has used it to create a welcoming space for families by providing a ball field, playground, and building which are often used for community events.
When a platoon under Lt. Stanley Newman were unable to advance any further against the murderous gunfire from a German strong point, L/Cpl Matthew Brazil and Pte Thomas Ricketts willingly stepped forward. Taking a Lewis Machine Gun and extra ammunition pans packed in special carriers they continued to move forward first attracting the attention of a sniper who fired several rounds before suddenly four machine guns and one artillery piece erupted, unleashing withering fire aimed directly at them. Moving in short 10 yard rushes they sprinted ahead as Tommy fired the Lewis Gun from his hip, then they dropped, caught their breath, got up and went another 10 yards while firing the Lewis Gun. They moved approximately 200 yards across a ploughed field with little cover, to bring them within 300 yards of their target.
Ricketts fired on the Germans but quickly exhausted the remainder of the Lewis Gun ammunition. The Germans immediately seized the opportunity to bring up their horses and wagons to remove the guns. Ricketts seeing that the Germans were moving up their gun teams made a hasty decision to double back for the dropped magazine carriers some 100 yards behind them. Ricketts was seeking revenge for the death of his brother George at Cambrai and he was determined it was now down to me or them. Leaving Brazil in the forward position laying down sporadic covering fire along with Newman’s platoon, Ricketts took flight in search of the carriers. How he managed to dodge the fire from four German machine guns and an artillery piece firing point blank, concentrating their fire solely on him was nothing short of miraculous.
Ricketts picked up two Lewis Gun magazine carriers. The Germans seeing Ricketts returning with more ammunition turned their attention on him once again in desperation to save the situation. With a spray of bullets and artillery shells chasing him across the fire swept ground Ricketts repeated the miraculous 100 yard sprint for a second time carrying the extra load.
Ricketts safely returned to the spot he had left the Lewis Gun. He loaded the gun and through accurate fire on the German gun crews drove the survivors into a nearby farmhouse. He dashed forward to the farmhouse firing the Lewis Gun from the hip in bursts, poked it in through the door and captured eight prisoners, four artillery guns and four machine guns.
Older brother, Pte. George Ricketts, Regimental # 1703 enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment in 1915. At the Battle of Cambrai both brothers saw action together. Thomas was wounded on the first day, George would be killed on December 3rd, 1917. The death of his brother made a deep and lasting impression on Thomas.
The Victoria Cross, instituted 1856 by Queen Victoria, is the Commonwealth’s premier military decoration for gallantry. It is awarded in recognition of the most exceptional bravery displayed in the presence of the enemy, although in rare instances the decoration has been given to mark other courageous acts. The first recipients saw action in the Crimean War.
The French Croix de Guerre is a military decoration of France. It was also commonly bestowed on foreign military forces allied to France. The Croix de Guerre may either be awarded as an individual or unit award to those soldiers who distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with the enemy. The medal is awarded to those who have been “mentioned in dispatches”, meaning a heroic deed or deeds were performed meriting a citation from an individual’s headquarters unit.
British War Medal – The silver medal was awarded to officers and men of the British and Imperial Forces who either entered a theatre of war or entered service overseas between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918 inclusive. This was later extended to services in Russia, Siberia and some other areas in 1919 and 1920. Approximately 6.5 million British War Medals were issued.
Allied Victory Medal – The British medal was designed by W. McMillan. The front depicts a winged classical figure representing victory. Approximately 5.7 million victory medals were issued. Eligibility for this medal was more restrictive and not everyone who received the British War Medal also received the Victory Medal. To earn the Victory Medal a Newfoundland soldier would have had to have entered a a theatre of war in France, Belgium or Gallipoli.
The Distinguished Conduct Medal, or DCM, was established in 1854 by Queen Victoria as a decoration for gallantry in the field by other ranks of the British Army. It is the oldest British award for gallantry and was a second level military decoration (second only to the Victoria Cross), until it was discontinued in 1993. The medal was also awarded to non-commissioned military personnel of other Commonwealth Dominions and Colonies.
The historical communities that now make up The Town of Conception Bay South sent many young men overseas to serve in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment as well as the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserves, Newfoundland Forestry Corps and the Newfoundland Mercantile Marine.
DAWE , Harvey
HISCOCK, Edward H.
HISCOCK, William James
MERCER, Charles H.
FAGAN, William James
PORTER, William Richard
Horse Cove Line, Topsail
KENNEDY, James John
TILLEY, Robert William
TILLEY, Joseph william
BUTLER, Henry Albert
HENNESSEY, James John
HOSKINS , Lawrence Amour
LeDREW, Bertram W.
TILLEY, William Joseph
GREENSLADE, Reginald A.
MARTIN, Robert Berkely
SMITH, Robert J.
Also served in the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve until April 1915
SNOW, John Edward
Middle Bight, Kelligrews
BUTLER, Thomas Charles
DAWE, Charles Henry
BARNES, Cyril Gordon
BUTLER, Alexander J
HIBBS , William James
HIBBS, John Leslie
HICKEY, William Francis
NEVILLE, Gregory Joseph
O’BRIEN, Allan Francis
O’BRIEN, Andrew Joseph
O’BRIEN, James John
ANDREWS, David R.
Horse Cove Line, Topsail
CLUNEY, William J.
TILLEY, William Robert
Joined Royal Newfoundland Regiment 1915
Francis , Walter
GREENSLADE, John W.
MARTIN, John R.
SQUIRES, Alexander #8347
SQUIRES, Alexander #8496
The modern Royal Newfoundland Regiment inherits the traditions of previous regiments dating back to the first Royal Newfoundland Regiment formed on 25 April 1795, when Captain Thomas Skinner of the Royal Engineers, was given permission to raise a fencible infantry company consisting of six hundred men, making the Regiment one of the oldest in Canada. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry fought valiantly during the War of 1812. Over the next century a number of regiments would be disbanded and re-formed under various names until the Newfoundland Regiment was once again raised at the outbreak of the First World War.
The Newfoundland Regiment fought steadfastly and unfaltering in the face of the enemy in Gallipoli, Beaumont-Hamel, Gueudecourt, Monchyle-Preux, Langemarck, and Poelcapelle.
During the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, the Regiment fought with such valour that their actions were attributed by Field Marshal Douglas Haig and King George V as being the crowning achievement of The Newfoundland Regiment. In December, 1917, the prefix “Royal” was granted for use by the King, to the Newfoundland Regiment, as a tribute to their gallant and stalwart bravery and sacrifice on the field of battle. It was the only time during the war that the prefix was granted to any Regiment in the British Empire and only the third and last time it was bestowed during any war in British history. No higher tribute could be granted to a body of men for their service to the British Empire.
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment continued to fight, gaining accolades during the German Spring Offensive in 1918. That fall, as the closing stages of the war were already set in motion, they joined the march to Germany, fighting their way through the Belgium countryside.
Today, The Royal Newfoundland Regiment proudly carries on the traditions of their predecessors. It is a reserve unit in the Canadian Forces and its existence is enshrined in the Terms of Union. It is the only unit in North America to carry the Gallipoli battle honour which is proudly displayed on their Regimental Colours.
Shortly after Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, the Newfoundland Government, also at war, committed to raise an infantry regiment to aid Great Britain. This regiment would evolve into an elite fighting force that won many accolades including the prefix Royal before the end of the war. Soldiers from all over the country joined the Newfoundland Regiment over the course of four years.
Blue Puttees in training on the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake, Spetember 1914.
Original C Company embarcking for overseas duty winter 1915.
Wounded soldiers in England days after the attack at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916.
Newfoundland War Memorial, Monchy-le-Preux, France, 1920’s
The Newfoundland War Memorial, Masnières, France during contructions in the early 1920’s.
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment leading the 9th (Scottish) Divison over the Rhine River into occupied Germany, December 1918.
Soldiers of The Royal Newfoundland Regiment were awarded a total of 285 medals, bars and mentions in dispatches in WWI.
1 Victoria Cross
2 Companions of the Order of St. Michael and St. George
3 Commander of the Order of the British Empire
3 Distinguished Service Order
8 Officer of the Order of the British Empire
9 Member of the Order of the British Empire
1 Royal Victorian Order
30 Military Cross
6 Bar to the Military Cross
31 Distinguished Conduct Medal
1 Belgian Chevalier de l’Ordre de Leopold II
8 Belgium Croix de Guerre
1 Cavalier of the Order of the Crown of Italy
1 Italian Bronze Medal
1 Russian Medal of St. George
1 Bar to the Distinguished Conduct Medal
106 Military Medal
8 Bar to the Military Medal
17 Meritorious Service Medal
25 Mentioned in Dispatches
10 Honourable Mention to Secretary of State of War
4 French Croix de Guerre
1 French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star
1 French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star
3 French Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star
1 French Medal d’Honneur avec Glaives en Bronze
Total Enlistentment 1914-1918 / Total Enlistentment 1914-1918 6241
In Active Service/ In Active Service 4000 approx
Number of Wounded / Number of Wounded 2314
Total Died in Service / Total Died in Service 1305
Total Casualties / Total Casualties 3619
Newfoundland Regiment section fall of 1917 , front row on left Pte. Thomas Ricketts Regimental # 3102
Thomas Ricketts was born on April 15, 1901 to John and Amelia (Cassels) Ricketts in a
small isolated fishing hamlet of Middle Arm, White Bay. He was the youngest of three children,
he had an older brother George and a sister Rachel. The village of Middle Arm was a
sparsely populated isolated community of a handful of families with no post office or school.
When Thomas Ricketts heard the devastating news of the near annihilation of the Newfoundland
Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916 he rushed to join the war as his
older brother George did a year earlier. This young fisherman was determined to enlist, despite
being under age. Youthful he may have been, but standing at 5’ 6” he could easily pass
for 18. Being a fisherman from an early age would have made him strong and fit; an ideal
candidate for a man hungry regiment.
On September 2, 1916 an underage Tommy Ricketts placed an X on his enlistment papers
claiming to be 18 years and 3 months, physically marking a turning point in his life that
he could never have foreseen.
Ricketts joined The Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the field on July 2, 1917 near Ypres, Belgium. Joining B Company he saw first action in the Battle of Langemarck on August 16, 1917. He would fight twice more before the year was out at the Battle of Poelcapelle on October 9 and the Battle of Cambrai on November 20 where he was wounded in the leg on the first day of the battle. His brother George was killed during the last day of fighting on December 3.
Ricketts rejoined the Regiment in the field four months later. On October 14, 1918 Ricketts took part in action around Ledeghem, Belgium where his actions would be chronicled in the annals of Newfoundland history. It was here that he would advance alongside Cpl Matthew Brazil capturing four machine guns, four artillery and eight prisoners.
More than two months later, in Hilden Germany, on December 23, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment learned Private Thomas Ricketts was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions near Ledeghem, Belgium.
Rickett’s received the Victoria Cross from King George V on January 19, 1919 in a private investiture at the King’s private estate in Sandringham.
Ricketts described his meeting with the King as “one of the most pleasant experiences of my life”. The King wrote in his diary the next day: “Yesterday I gave the V. C. to Private Ricketts, Newfoundland Regiment, who is only 17 ½ now, a splendid boy.”
When Thomas Ricketts stepped off the S. S. Corsican on February 8, 1919 and onto Furness-Withy Pier in St. John’s thousands of people were there to greet him. Ricketts was spotted and the crowd erupted into cheers alerting the Church Lads Brigade Band who then struck the harmonies of the rollicking Regimental quick march The Banks of Newfoundland (Up the Pond). Newfoundland’s war hero was home.
L/Cpl Matthew Brazil was awarded the Distinguished Conduct medal and the French Croix de Guerre for the same action as Pte. Thomas Ricketts on Oct 14, 1918. Brazil was also awarded the Military Medal for gallantry for action in the Spring of 1918.
King George V invited Thomas Ricketts into his private residence to receive the Victoria Cross during a rare private investiture, all the more poignant as the King was in mourning due to the loss of his young son John.
On February 10, 1967, Tommy Ricketts, died from a heart attack while at work in his pharmacy. He was given a state funeral and was buried in the Anglican Cemetery on Forest Road. Pictured here is the honour guard of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment escorting Ricketts to his final resting place.
This memorial to Ricketts action is being erected on a private farm near the location of the German strong point that Ricketts was responsible for capturing.
The Victoria Cross was not Thomas Ricketts’ only legacy. Growing up in an isolated outport he had no education. When Ricketts was interviewed prior to returning home he expressed a deep desire to reverse what he called his “backward” education. This led to several groups raising significant money for scholarships so he could attend school. His rise to popular hero gave him the opportunity to go to school, of which he took full advantage. When he stepped off the S.S. Corsican in St. John’s harbour in February 1919, he could barely sign his name. He stayed in St. John’s and attended Bishop Field College along with other soldiers from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who wished to further their education by taking advantage of support offered by the Civil Re-Establishment Committee.
Ricketts attended Bishop Field College for six years. He joined the Church Lads’ Brigade and immersed himself in his schoolwork. In 1925, he joined the first class of students who inaugurated Memorial College, a school which was built in memory of those who served and died during the Great War. Memorial College would go on to become Memorial University of Newfoundland, one of the largest universities in eastern Canada.
A year after attending Memorial College, Thomas Ricketts began as a pharmacist’s apprentice, eventually becoming a pharmacist himself. An extraordinary transformation of a young man who, when he joined the Newfoundland Regiment in 1916, could not even sign his own name. His strong desire to change his life through education is evident through his own actions and which he also instilled in his children. While the Victoria Cross is a proud achievement for a man who shunned the negative trappings of pride, there can be no greater legacy to leave behind than the gift of education.
Thomas Ricketts along with other soldiers from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment visit a school on Bell Island shortly after his return home. Ricketts is seated in front with white scarf.
The new Bishop Field College opened in 1928 after Thomas Ricketts had passed through. The original building stood on nearby Colonial Street on the same plot of land.
Six members of the Church Lads’ Brigade. Left to Right: Jack Andrews (Royal Newfoundland Regiment CSM John Donald Andrews), Bert Colton (Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve), Robert Downton, Harold Rendell (Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve), Earl Best (Royal Newfoundland Regiment), Thomas Ricketts V.C., C. de G (Royal Newfoundland Regiment).
Thomas Ricketts, taken in his pharmacy late in life. Taken around July 1, as he is wearing a Forget-Me-Not in remembrance of his comrades.
Ricketts Drugs in the 1960’s on the corner of Water Street and Job Street. It was here that Ricketts died of a massive heart attack in February 1967.
On the site of the pharmacy today is a monument to the heroic actions of the only soldier of The Royal Newfoundland Regiment to have been awarded the Victoria Cross.