Ledeghem 1918 – Ricketts’ V.C.
Continuing the advance from Ypres, the Newfoundland Regiment was called from the reserve on 2 Ocober 1918 to locations along the front just north of Ledeghem, from the train station on the outskirts, and along the rail line. There were no trenches so the troops had to occupy defensive positions as best they could.
In action best described as grinding and unrelenting, the Regiment repulsed German counter-attacks for the next four days. Three Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to Regimental soldiers on 3 October, all involving initiative and resourceful use of Lewis guns in fighting off the attacks and inflicting many casualties. In addition that day, five Military Medals were awarded for outstanding individual actions in throwing back the enemy attacks and also for maintaining communications under fire.
On the night of 6/7 October the Regiment was relieved and retired to an area near Keiberg for much needed rest, hot food, and hot water.
The next phase of the battle for the Regiment began on 14 October, when the Second Army, including the Regiment was to advance and capture the rail line running north of Courtrai, about 7 kilometres to the east.
At dusk on the 13th the Regiment moved to the start line in single file. The enemy artillery apparently had this path zeroed in, but casualties were reduced by zig-zagging across the assigned path. They were in position by midnight.
The assault went in at 0535 on the 14th. British artillery supported them from only 200 yards behind; the artillery had to be close to extend artillery support for as long as possible during the anticipated advance of 7 km. Additional support was heavy smoke, and heavy machine guns fired over the Newfoundland heads.
They made a quick start, capturing 3 enemy machine gun pillboxes each holding 15-20 Germans. Suddenly, all went dark. The smoke, combined with a mist, made all the soldiers blind; they could barely see their feet. Every soldier advanced on his own, not knowing who would appear out of the gloom, friend or enemy. Some of the men kept in touch by shouting to each other. On the plus side, the enemy could no longer use their machine guns except to fire wildly into the mist. A good many German prisoners were taken when they were surprised at their breakfast and forced to flee.
By 1000 hours, a breeze had swept away the smoke and mist, and the Regiment found they were now facing a stream too wide to jump and about 6 feet deep (the Wulfdambeek). Under fire from the enemy from the rising ground to the east, the Regiment took many casualties trying to bridge the stream. Most got across by swimming and wading.
After successfully getting to the other side, the Regiment pushed on to the top of the ridge to the De Beurt farm, about 1000 yards from the stream. Here they came under fire from a well-concealed battery of field guns in the woods near Drie -Masten, 600 yards to the Regiment’s right. The enemy was firing point-blank, the gunners aiming simply by sighting over the gun’s barrel. The Regiment had no artillery support because at this point the infantry had advanced farther than the guns’ range. The whole attack was in danger of being halted by this accurate enemy fire.
Lt. Newman of B Company led his platoon to the right to outflank the enemy gun and its escort of machine guns. The platoon had a Lewis gun to suppress this machine gun fire. The gun was handled by Cpl Matthew Brazil, and assisted by 17-year old Pte Thomas Ricketts. They ran forward in short rushes and fired on the enemy guns between rushes. However, only 300 yards from success, they ran low on ammunition. The enemy gun crew seized this opportunity to start hooking up their gun to the horse team and prepared to withdraw.
Pte Ricketts had the presence of mind to realize the situation was critical; he immediately ran back 100 yards under machine gun fire and returned with a fresh load of ammunition. The Lewis gun then drove the enemy and the horse team away, and the platoon was then able to advance, captured four field guns, four machine guns, and 8 prisoners. Thomas Ricketts was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.
In part the citation read:
“Private T. Ricketts was awarded the Victoria Cross for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on October 14,1918. During the advance from Ledeghem the attack was temporarily held up by heavy hostile fire, and the platoon to which he belonged suffered severe casualties from the fire of a battery at point blank range. Private Ricketts at once volunteered to go forward with his Section Commander and a Lewis gun to attempt to outflank the battery. They advanced by short rushes while subject to severe fire from enemy machine guns. When 300 yards away, their ammunition gave out. The enemy, seeing an opportunity to get their field guns away, began to bring up their gun teams. Private Ricketts at once realized the situation. He doubled back 100 yards, procured some ammunition and dashed back to the Lewis gun, and by very accurate fire drove the enemy and their gun teams into a farm. His platoon then advanced without casualties, and captured four field guns, four machine guns and eight prisoners. A fifth field gun was subsequently intercepted by fire and captured. By his presence of mind in anticipating the enemy intention and his utter disregard for personal safety, Private Ricketts secured the further supplies of ammunition which directly resulted in these important captures and undoubtedly saved many lives.”
The Regiment dug in for the night about 500 yards west of the village of Steenbeek after receiving effective machine gun fire from the enemy. While in this position, they were visited by Brigadier General Freyberg on horseback, who had been checking his brigade located on the Regiment’s right flank. ‘Who are you?’ shouted the Brigadier.
‘Thank god, my left flank is safe’ said Freyberg as he raced off.
It was a good day for the Regiment: they had advanced 3 miles, captured 500 prisoners, 94 machine guns, and 8 field guns. Lt Newman was awarded the Military Cross, and LCpl Brazil, Ricketts’ section commander, the Military Medal. However, success was paid through heavy casualties. The next morning, on the 15th, there were only 300 rifles in the Regiment.
The Regiment reverted to a reserve role on 15 October as the advance continued, and several Belgian towns were liberated to the joy of the inhabitants. The Regiment ended the day located at St. Catherine Cappelle, about 3 miles north of Courtrai just west of the railway, which set the stage for the next phase, crossing the River Lys, which had been converted to a canal.