A thought for the other Tommy

Michael Johansen
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The name on the cover of the service record was Thomas Ricketts, but something was wrong.
The file seemed kind of thin for one of the pre-eminent heroes of Newfoundland and Labrador. After all, the famous young Tommy enlisted underage and went on to be awarded the British Empire's highest military honour for capturing eight enemy soldiers and the four field guns in Belgium before he was even 18 years old. There was bound to be many things written about him in the almost century-old files at the national archives in Ottawa.
The file opened with a puzzle. As was duly recorded on his recruiting form (B, 1915 of the First Newfoundland Regiment), when Thomas Ricketts was asked his age he said it was 23 years and one month. That was repeated on the back, where the recruiting officer had to confirm that Ricketts' "apparent age" was indeed what he had said.
The Ricketts I was seeking information about was 15 years old at the time he joined up (the same recruitment age, it should be noted, as John Babcock, who died recently and was likely the last living Canadian serviceman from the First World War). For officers to pass 15-year-olds off as 18 is one thing, but as 23 seems unlikely.
Other puzzles soon appeared. Ricketts was a fisherman, yes, and was unmarried, but instead of saying he was from Middle Arm, he gave Westport, White Bay, as his full address.
The real shock came at the end of the form, written large in red ink: "Killed in Action 14 10/18" - the day Tommy Ricketts performed the feat that won him his Victoria Cross. Page after brittle page confirmed it. Thomas Ricketts had been killed on Oct. 14, 1918, somewhere in "France or Belgium" (as according to his Field Service report, Army Form B. 2090 A.).
Clearly this was not the man who was to receive the Victoria Cross from the hands of the king of England the following year - he just shared a name and a fateful day with him.
Being official military records, the file held at the archives is sparing of details and provides no other description of the Westport man's death beyond a listing number that could refer to anything.
Ricketts served less than a year, and his record is perfectly clean of offences and punishments. He suffered from a bout of measles at one point, but he recovered after a week or so of hospital rest. The file reveals nothing more about his service until it reports him dead, but a copy of an official letter from the year after the war indicates that Ricketts' mother, a Mrs. Elizabeth Ricketts (who actually calls herself Pittman) of Sop's Arm, was informed that her son's "grave is Near Ledeghem, 4 1⁄4 miles North of Menin."
Three years later, a letter written by the same Elizabeth reveals little more about what her son did, but it does show that he was missed. She was having difficulty raising her family without him.
"What money I want is money enough to keep his sister until she gets old enough to take care of herself," she wrote, in part (with some respectful, but minor spelling corrections). "I think I have said all. Hoping to hear from you soon. I will be thankful if you try to get it for me."
(Her reasonable request appears to have been granted.)
An accident of history took the life of one Thomas Ricketts and made another a hero on the very same day on a battered field near a little town in Belgium.
Both were soldiers of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, both were taking part in the final major offensive of the war, and both were willing to sacrifice everything to help bring it to an end. One lived and is remembered and one died and, unusually, is not - except for when his aging file is discovered by accident on the shelves of the national archives.
However, forgotten or not, for what they both did, both Thomas Ricketts of Newfoundland deserve Canada's deepest gratitude - equally and without reserve.

Organizations: British Empire, Field Service, Army Form

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Belgium, Westport Ottawa Middle Arm White Bay France England Menin Canada

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