Newspapers of the day wrote that the crowd that gathered along downtown streets in St. John’s 100 years ago today to welcome home a young and humble Sgt. Tommy Ricketts from the First World War had not been seen up to that time.
Word had spread that Ricketts would disembark from the SS Corsican, which had brought Royal Newfoundland Regiment soldiers home. The ship arrived in St. John’s harbour the evening before to an expected reception that included fireworks, ships bells and anxious crowds, but the delay in soldiers disembarking had left many waiting hours in the cold and they became disgruntled.
But by the next day, a Saturday, the mood had changed as the young hero came ashore.
At only 17 years of age Ricketts was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery — the youngest person in the British Army to have received Britain’s highest military honour.
A Daily News article described the scene: “As soon as he reached the Furness-Withy pier, he was taken by some of the war veterans and borne on their shoulders to Water Street. His appearance was the signal for an outburst of cheering from the thousands of citizens who were present to do him honour, and it was several minutes before it ceased.”
The article states that a sleigh with a pair of horses had been rigged up to parade Ricketts through the streets, but a number of young men unharnessed the horses and pulled the sleigh themselves.
With the Victoria Cross pinned to his uniform, it was the first time the medal was on display in Newfoundland.
“Thousands also grasped his hand as he passed along, and considered this a high honour,” the article reads. “Never before has St. John’s witnessed such numbers in the streets.”
Later in the article it notes: “The young hero is of very reserved disposition, as evidenced by the fact that instead of taking rooms at the Crosbie (hotel), as proposed to him, he preferred to take up quarters with Mrs. McDonald, 53 Colonial St., with whom he boarded before going overseas, and who is justly proud of the honour conferred on her.”
It was The Evening Telegram, however, that obtained the first interview with Ricketts, while he was still on the SS Corsican. A young Evening Telegram reporter named Joey Smallwood — who later became the province’s first premier — secured himself a spot on a boat carrying officials out to the anchored Corsican to greet the troops that Friday evening.
A story appeared in the next day’s Evening Telegram. Though there was no byline applied to the story, it’s assumed that reports are correct that it was indeed Smallwood’s work.
In the article, Ricketts, originally from White Bay, tells how he was motivated in the act that won him the Victoria Cross by the death of his brother, Pte. George Ricketts, in an earlier battle.
Ricketts and his section commander, Lance Cpl. Matthew Brazil, volunteered to advance with a Lewis gun in an attempt to outflank a German battery near the village of Drie-Masten while their fellow soldiers were pinned down in a small ditch on a farmer’s field.
Advancing by short rushes under heavy machine gun fire, the Lewis gun ammunition ran out while Ricketts and Brazil were still 300 yards from the German battery.
Ricketts doubled back to get more ammunition, all the while being targeted by the Germans. Returning to the Lewis gun with the ammunition, he found that Brazil had moved forward.
Still under heavy fire, Ricketts reloaded the Lewis gun and, by accurate shooting at the enemy battery, drove their gun teams into a partly destroyed farmhouse. Ricketts continued to advance by shooting his Lewis gun from the hip. The Germans surrendered.
Brazil was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his courage that day. Though he was likely aboard the SS Corsican at the same time, the focus was on Ricketts, a Victoria Cross winner.
After the war, Ricketts settled in the St. John's area, and Brazil went back to Spaniard's Bay. Ricketts tired of the fame of being a Victoria Cross winner and pursued education. He became a pharmacist in St. John’s and rarely spoke about the war.
He and Brazil remained close friends.
Ricketts’ granddaughter, Catherine Soplet, said that when the stories appeared in the newspapers after the soldiers arrived home, many of them could not read them.
“Smallwood’s story with its 72-point mighty headlines was published to greet my grandfather when he disembarked, but he could not read them,” Soplet said. “In a time when there was low literacy, most of those troops could not read what was written about them, including Tommy Ricketts himself.
“The reason Joey Smallwood had the hutzpah to go out and scoop that story was so he could not only report the story, but demonstrate his value to his newspaper, because he was dirt poor. He needed that story to come out because it spoke for all of them. As a person who was reading and writing and coming out of poverty, Joey Smallwood knew exactly what was going on.”
Soplet said her grandmother once told her that Smallwood had wanted Tommy Ricketts to run for politics.
“My grandmother said, ‘Joey Smallwood was a Liberal and Tommy was a Conservative, and that was the end of the discussion.’”