Hon­ours and agony of the First World War

To­day marks 100 years since the of­fi­cial end of the ‘war to end all wars’

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - LOCAL - BY GLEN WHIFFEN glen.whiffen@thetele­gram.com

One hun­dred years ago on this very day, the of­fi­cial end to the First World War came with the sign­ing of the Armistice in a cramped rail car at the city of Com­piegne, France, by of­fi­cials rep­re­sent­ing the Al­lies and Ger­many.

Sig­na­tures scrawled on a piece of pa­per. Blood­shed ended.

Dubbed in the news­pa­pers of the time as the war to end all wars — it surely wasn’t — but it was an end to four years of hell on Earth that would leave deep, painful phys­i­cal and emo­tional scars on those who sur­vived the war, and on their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, that ex­ist to this very day.

The Evening Tele­gram on Nov. 11, 1918 car­ried a head­line in bold across page 5 “GER­MANY HAS SUR­REN­DERED.”

In New­found­land and Labrador, the loss was crip­pling. A young gen­er­a­tion of men was wiped out and wounded. There were few out­ports and com­mu­ni­ties that didn’t lose a young per­son. Sol­diers re­turn­ing were im­mensely changed ei­ther phys­i­cally af­ter be­ing wounded, or men­tally.

Lin­ger­ing for life­times were the rum­ble of guns, the whistling of ar­tillery, the swoosh of hot lead bul­lets fly­ing all around. The pound­ing of earth, blind­ing show­ers of dirt and mud sur­round­ing the cries of those hit. The blood and body parts.

They pushed on with a re­luc­tant li­cence to kill, or be killed.

What those young men saw on the bat­tle­field, how they con­tin­ued on out of duty to King and Coun­try, the courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion shown, has never been matched.

A world war did what you’d imag­ine it would do — it changed the world and the peo­ple in it. It was free­dom at a great cost.

It changed New­found­land and Labrador, and set it on an eco­nomic down­turn. Some would ar­gue it never fully re­cov­ered.

But in the weeks and months fol­low­ing the end of the war, it was a time for cel­e­bra­tion.

The Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment had done New­found­land and Labrador proud.

An en­try in the reg­i­men­tal di­ary in Fe­bru­ary 1918 records a note from Field Mar­shall Sir Dou­glas Haig, Com­man­der in Chief of the British armies in France, con­grat­u­lat­ing the reg­i­ment on be­ing granted the ti­tle of “Royal” by the King.

“I have much plea­sure in in­form­ing you that His Majesty the King, in view of the mag­nif­i­cent brav­ery and res­o­lute de­ter­mi­na­tion shown by all ranks, has been gra­ciously pleased to ap­prove of the grant of the ti­tle ‘Royal’ to the New­found­land Reg­i­ment. Please ac­cept and con­vey to all ranks my warm­est con­grat­u­la­tions that your achieve­ments have met with such well-earned recog­ni­tion. Of­fi­cial in­ti­ma­tion will be sent you, and this is merely a per­sonal mes­sage from my­self to your gal­lant reg­i­ment.”

And it was also a time peo­ple wanted to know more about in­di­vid­ual he­roes such as Sgt. Tommy Rick­etts and Lance Cpl. Matthew Brazil.

With their pla­toon pinned down by en­emy fire and suf­fer­ing ca­su­al­ties, Rick­etts and Brazil vol­un­teered to go for­ward to out­flank a Ger­man bat­tery. Their brav­ery re­sulted in not only driv­ing the Ger­man bat­tery back, but the tak­ing of pris­on­ers.

Rick­etts, only 17 years of age at the time, was awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross for his ac­tions, and Brazil was awarded the Dis­tin­guished Con­duct Medal.

Rick­etts was the youngest per­son in the British Army to have re­ceived Bri­tain’s high­est mil­i­tary hon­our.

Ex­cite­ment grew in St. John’s, and the rest of New­found­land and Labrador, when word spread of Rick­etts com­ing home.

He was on­board the SS Cor­si­can that was bring­ing New­found­land Reg­i­ment sol­diers home. The ship ar­rived at St. John’s har­bour the evening of Feb. 7, 1919 to a re­cep­tion that in­cluded fire­works, ships bells, and anx­ious crowds.

A young Evening Tele­gram re­porter named Joey Small­wood re­port­edly was able to se­cure him­self a spot on a small boat car­ry­ing of­fi­cials out to the an­chored Cor­si­can to greet the troops, and start trans­fer­ring troops to shore.

Small­wood’s aim was to se­cure an in­ter­view with Rick­etts.

A story ap­peared in the next day’s pa­per, though there was no by­line ap­plied to the story, it’s as­sumed that re­ports are cor­rect that it was in­deed Small­wood’s work. Small­wood would later be­come fa­mous for lead­ing New­found­land into Con­fed­er­a­tion with Canada and be­com­ing the prov­ince’s first pre­mier.

The in­ter­view was the first of only a few that Rick­etts would grant in his life­time.

In the ar­ti­cle, it noted it took a half hour for Small­wood to find Rick­etts among the “kha­ki­clad, cheer­ing men.”

Rick­etts told his story “with that straight­for­ward­ness and sim­plic­ity that al­ways de­notes the sol­dier,” the ar­ti­cle stated and that, “it is plainly ev­i­dent that he can see noth­ing spe­cially un­usual in the brav­ery he ex­hib­ited on the bat­tle­field.”

In the ar­ti­cle Rick­etts, orig­i­nally from White Bay, tells how he was mo­ti­vated in the act by the death of his brother, Pte. Ge­orge Rick­etts, that oc­curred in an ear­lier bat­tle.

Rick­etts and Brazil ad­vanced with a Lewis gun in an at­tempt to out­flank the Ger­man bat­tery near the vil­lage of Drie-mas­ten while their fel­low sol­diers were pinned down in a small ditch on the farmer’s filed.

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 onto a farm­house. Rick­etts con­tin­ued to ad­vance upon the en­emy by shoot­ing his Lewis gun from the hip and took the Ger­mans pris­oner.

Rick­etts 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, while the pla­toon went on to reach its ob­jec­tive which was a sec­tion of the rail­way line.

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 only wanted to get an ed­u­ca­tion. He would go on the be­come a phar­ma­cist in St. John’s and rarely speak about the war.

He and Brazil would re­main close friends.

This year, as part of a dis­play at The Rooms in St. John’s, the war medals of Rick­etts and Brazil are on dis­play to­gether.

Brazil’s daugh­ters Joan Ryan, 83, and Eileen Wood­ford, 79, said there were no words to de­scribe the feel­ing of see­ing their fa­ther hon­oured in such a way.

The daugh­ters said their fa­ther of­ten vis­ited Rick­etts when he came to St. John’s.

“My fa­ther didn’t talk too much about the war,” Eileen said. “If he had a sore throat or any­thing, he went to see Tommy Rick­etts at the drug store.”

The daugh­ters noted that Brazil died on Feb. 6, 1958. In the days Brazil was in hos­pi­tal lead­ing up to his death, the daugh­ters say Rick­etts was of­ten at his side.

As New­found­land’s econ­omy sank into re­ces­sion, the real im­pact of the heavy fi­nan­cial bur­den of the war and the loss of so many youth set in.

One won­ders what Rick­etts and Brazil, and other vet­er­ans spoke about when they met up.

The true cost of the First World War to what was then a colony of Great Bri­tain was and is still de­bated since the end of the war.

New­found­land is re­ported to have con­trib­uted $15 mil­lion to the war ef­fort, quite a sig­nif­i­cant amount in those years. The costs would grow over the years and ul­ti­mately lead to New­found­land’s in­de­pen­dence, and later Con­fed­er­a­tion.

A world war did what you’d imag­ine it would do — it changed the world and the peo­ple in it. It was free­dom at a great cost. It changed New­found­land and Labrador, and set it on an eco­nomic down­turn. Some would ar­gue it never fully re­cov­ered.

GLEN WHIFFEN/THE TELE­GRAM

Ge­orge Rick­etts, grand­son of Sgt. Tommy Rick­etts, meets Joan Ryan, daugh­ter of Lance Cpl. Matthew Brazil for the first time at The Rooms in St. John’s in Oc­to­ber. The First World War is still hav­ing an im­pact on fam­i­lies di­rectly af­fected by the war.

GLEN WHIFFEN/THE TELE­GRAM

One of the in­ter­pre­ta­tive pan­els at the Ki­wa­nis Tommy Rick­etts Me­mo­rial Peace Park in C.B.S. shows the var­i­ous units young New­found­lan­ders en­listed for dur­ing the First World War.

GLEN WHIFFEN/THE TELE­GRAM

At The Rooms in St. John’s, the war medals of Sgt. Tommy Rick­etts — in­clud­ing his Vic­to­ria Cross — and Lance Cpl. Matthew Brazil — in­clud­ing his Dis­tin­guished Con­duct Medal — are on dis­play to­gether.

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