Thomas (Tommy) Ricketts, soldier, pharmacist, Victoria Cross recipient (born 15 April 1901 in Middle Arm, White Bay, NL; died 10 February 1967 in St. John’s). During the First World War, Private Tommy Ricketts was the youngest soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for bravery among troops of the British Empire.
Tommy Ricketts was the son of John, a fisherman, and Amelia. As a youngster, he served in the Church Lads’ Brigade, an early cadet movement in Newfoundland.
In September 1916, in the midst of the First World War, Ricketts lied about his age to get into the army and enrolled in the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment (later called the Royal Newfoundland Regiment). He stated his age as 18 years and 3 months, much older than his real age of 15.
Tommy Ricketts went overseas in April of the next year, arriving in France in June. In August, shortly after his arrival on the Western Front, Ricketts saw his first action during an attack across the Steenbeek, a small stream in Belgium. Later, in the fighting at Marcoing near Cambrai, France, in November 1917, he was wounded in the leg. In September 1918, the regiment was transferred to the 9th (Scottish) Division, with which it fought for the rest of the war.
Bravery at Ledeghem
On 14 October 1918, Ricketts was in action at Ledeghem, east of Ypres, in Belgium. During an early morning attack in heavy ground mist, the regiment, led on the right by Ricketts’s B Company, initially drove the Germans back and captured three enemy pillboxes, or reinforced gun emplacements. By mid-morning the mist lifted, revealing the Wulfdambeek, a stream two metres deep that had to be crossed in full view of the enemy. The regiment crossed, in the process sustaining heavy losses, and advanced another 900 metres when the troops were pinned down by enemy shelling. The unit had outrun its own artillery support and casualties began to mount.
Ricketts’s platoon commander, Lieutenant Stanley Newman, with a small group of men and a Lewis gun (light machine gun) detachment that included Ricketts, went forward to try and outflank the German gun position. When they advanced as far as they could, Ricketts volunteered to go forward with his section commander, Lance Corporal Matthew Brazil, in a further attempt at outflanking the German position.
The two soldiers advanced in quick rushes, under heavy enemy fire, until they were about 275 metres from the German battery. Then they ran out of ammunition. The enemy realized this and began bringing up reinforcements. Volunteering again, Ricketts dashed 90 metres back towards his unit’s lines, picked up some ammunition and returned to his section commander, all under heavy fire. With the additional ammunition, Ricketts and Brazil, the only two unwounded Newfoundlanders remaining in Lt. Newman's small group, forced the Germans back to some nearby farm buildings.
As a result, Ricketts’s platoon advanced on the enemy without sustaining any more casualties. In the process, they captured four field guns, four machine guns and eight prisoners, soon afterwards adding a fifth field gun to the tally.
For his heroism, Tommy Ricketts was awarded the Victoria Cross. Later, the French government also presented him with the Croix de Guerre with gold star. For his part in this battle, Brazil received the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Ricketts’s VC investiture was held on 19 January 1919 at Sandringham, England, the country estate of King George V. The ceremony was a private one, as the King and Queen were in mourning for their youngest teenaged son Prince John, who had died the day before from the complications of a medical condition. Rather than delay Ricketts’s return to Newfoundland and demobilization, the King agreed to a special investiture.
The king read aloud the citation for the award, published in the London Gazette two weeks earlier, then pinned the VC on Ricketts’s chest. Turning to the small group in attendance, he remarked, “This is the youngest VC in my army.” The next day the King wrote in his diary, “Yesterday I gave the VC to Private Ricketts, Newfoundland Regiment, who is only 17 1/2 now, a splendid boy.”
Did you know?
At 17 years old, Newfoundlander Tommy Ricketts was the youngest soldier to receive the Victoria Cross during the First World War. He wasn’t, however, the youngest recipient ever. John Travers “Jack” Cornwell, an English sailor in the Royal Navy, was posthumously awarded the VC for his valour during the Battle of Jutland in 1916; he was only 16 when he died. Hospital apprentice Andrew Fitzgibbon, born in India, was 15 years old when he braved enemy fire to help a wounded man during the Second Opium War (1860). He was awarded the VC for his “great coolness and courage” in 1861. Thomas Flynn, an Irish drummer in the British army, was only 15 when he engaged in hand-to-hand combat during the Indian Mutiny of 1857; he was later awarded the VC for “conspicuous gallantry.”
Tommy Ricketts was promoted to sergeant at the end of January and arrived in St John’s in early February to a tumultuous reception. One of the first people to greet him was a young newspaper reporter from The Evening Telegram who rowed out to the troopship as it lay in harbour overnight before disembarking its soldiers the next morning. Ricketts was his usual shy and retiring self, but the reporter managed to get the story of his wartime exploit out of him and spent the rest of the night writing it up. The next day, the story appeared under the largest banner headlines possible: “Deeds that Won The Empire! How Ricketts Won the VC. The Hero interviewed by The Telegram.”
Ricketts returned to school, entered Bishop Feild College in 1920, followed by Memorial University College. On graduation, he was employed at McMurdo’s drugstore, where he passed his pharmacy exams. He eventually opened his own St. John's drugstore on Water Street at the corner of Job.
Ricketts continued to shun publicity, and even seemed to draw further into a protective shell. He refused to give interviews, have his photograph taken or appear in public, even during royal visits. He did however, travel to London in 1929 to attend a reunion of VC recipients.
In February 1967, Ricketts, who was not a healthy man, collapsed and died of a heart attack on the floor of his store. The hero who survived two years of fighting on the Western Front was two months short of his 66th birthday.
The young reporter who interviewed the returning war hero 48 years earlier was now Premier of Newfoundland, and Joey Smallwood and his government decreed a full state funeral to honour Ricketts. After his funeral at St. Thomas’ Church, he was buried in the Anglican Cemetery on Forest Road. Engraved at the foot of Ricketts’s tombstone is the motto of the Church Lads’ Brigade—“Fight the Good Fight.”