On a war-torn, muddied farmer’s field in Belgium 100 years ago on Sunday, two young Newfoundland and Labrador soldiers carried out acts of bravery and selflessness few today can comprehend.
Sgt. Thomas Ricketts and Lance Cpl. Matthew Brazil of the Newfoundland Regiment (later to become the Royal Newfoundland Regiment) volunteered to go forward after their platoon suffered casualties while pinned down by the fire of an enemy battery.
Ricketts and Brazil advanced with a Lewis gun in an attempt to outflank the German battery near the village of Drie-Masten.
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. While Brazil took up a forward position for covering fire, Ricketts doubled back to get more ammunition all the while being targeted by the Germans. Returning to the Lewis gun with the ammunition, and still under heavy fire, he loaded it, and by accurate shooting at the enemy battery drove their gun teams onto a farm and into a barn. Ricketts continued to advance upon the enemy by shooting his Lewis gun from the hip and took the Germans prisoner.
Ricketts, originally from White Bay, and Brazil from Spaniard’s Bay, are credited with saving many lives and allowing their platoon to continue the advance and capture four field guns, four machine guns and take eight prisoners.
Ricketts, 17, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the battle, and Brazil was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
After the war, Ricketts settled in the St. John’s area and Brazil went back to Spaniard’s Bay. The two would always be close friends and would see each other often.
Two events on Sunday commemorated Ricketts and Brazil.
At The Rooms, Brazil’s First World War medals — including the Distinguished Conduct Medal — were unveiled in a display next to the Ricketts’ medals display.
The two soldiers and friends, were together again.
It was an emotional event for Brazil’s daughters Joan Ryan, 83, and Eileen Woodford, 79. The family has loaned the medals to The Rooms for the current display.
“There are no words to explain how I feel about being here,” said Joan. “We are very much honoured. My father was such a hero.”
Eileen said it is time both men’s medals were displayed together.
“Tommy Ricketts and my father were friends forever,” she said. “My father didn’t talk too much about the war.”
The Brazil daughters said Brazil often visited Ricketts, who had become a pharmacist, at his drug store in St. John’s.
“If he had a sore throat or anything, he went to see Tommy Ricketts at the drug store,” Eileen said.
Brazil died on Feb. 6, 1958. In the days Brazil was in hospital leading up to his death, the daughters say Tommy Ricketts was often at his side.
In Conception Bay South on Sunday, on land once owned by Tommy Ricketts and now entrusted to the Kiwanis Club of Kelligrews, the Kiwanis Tommy Ricketts Memorial Peace Park was unveiled.
The site includes a series of interpretative panels and a small amphitheatre. Upon completion next year, it will have a memorial garden featuring a monument of Ricketts as a young soldier.
A large crowd attended the ceremony that included an honour guard, the Royal Newfoundland Regimental Band, and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Mounted Unit.
Ricketts’ granddaughter, Catherine Soplet, also attended the C.B.S. event.
“It’s a very moving moment for me to be standing on land my grandfather once owned and it’s a terrific tribute to how people in Newfoundland and Labrador feel about his memory,” Soplet said.
“When I was six, in 1966 in the summer, it was the last visit I had with my grandfather — he died in February 1967. My favourite memory is of him paring paper-thin slivers of Cracker Barrel cheese and feeding a morsel to me, and then feeding a morsel to Blackie the cat, and he kept Blackie the Cat thinking the other morsel was for her, as well.
“My grandfather loved children.”
The Town of Conception Bay South, the Kiwanis Club of Kelligrews, the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 50, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Advisory Council, the Kelligrews Ecological Enhancement Program, and other community groups partnered on the park project.