Newfoundland's heroes in the Great War

Published on December 18, 2012
Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts

Editor's note: TC Media and The Compass would like to thank Edward Roberts for his contributions to our publication. We have published just under 50 Past Imperfect columns on a bi-weekly basis over the past two years, and each offered some valuable insight into this province's colourful and sometimes contentious history. This marks the final instalment of Past Imperfect, at least for now, as Mr. Roberts works on other literary projects.

Thomas Ricketts, one of the only two Newfoundlanders to have earned the Victoria Cross (VC) - the British Empire's supreme award for gallantry - is rightly regarded as one of the pre-eminent heroes of the Great War of 1914-18.

The other Newfoundlander, John Bernard Croak from Little Bay, in Notre Dame Bay, also won a VC; on Aug. 8, 1918, while serving with the Canadian army. He died of his wounds later that day.

Ricketts was only 17 on Oct. 14 1918, the morning that he demonstrated "the most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty" for which he won the British Empire's highest decoration. France, Britain's ally, awarded him the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, to honour his courage further.

Several of his comrades were also commended for their gallantry that morning. Matthew Brazil, Thomas Corbin, Samuel Greenslade and Arthur Whalen won the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), second only to the Victoria Cross. Lt. Albert Newman was awarded the Military Cross (MC), while Richard Power received the Military Medal (MM). Power had won a DCM only 11 days earlier.

Not most decorated

Their actions still stand as proof of the finest traditions of our regiment.

But, it takes nothing away from their gallantry and courage to recall that Ricketts and his comrades were not the regiment's only heroes. These other soldiers exemplify the finest traditions of the regiment, and they, too, deserve to be remembered.

Ricketts is the only member of the regiment to have won the Victoria Cross, but he was not the regiment's most decorated soldier.

That honour belongs to Bertram Butler. A Blue Puttee (he was No. 146), Butler was commissioned as a lieutenant on Oct. 4, 1914, the day he and his comrades sailed for England. He fought at Gallipoli, and accompanied his comrades to France.

By now a captain, he was appointed the battalion's intelligence officer. On June 26, 1916, he led a raid on the German trenches at Beaumont Hamel, seeking prisoners and any other information that could help to prepare for the planned attack - the July Drive. His mission was to destroy the barbed-wire fields in front of the German trenches.

The limited success of the raid led to a second one, on June 27. Again, Capt. Butler led the raiding party. He was awarded the Military Cross (MC) in acknowledgment of his gallantry.

Stayed close to regiment

Butler served throughout the war, and fought in the engagements at Gueudecourt, Sailly-Saillisel, and Cambrai. He earned a Bar to his MC - a second award - at Gueudecourt, in October 1916.

A year later, at Masnières during the Battle of Cambrai, he won the Distinguished Service Order (second only to the VC, and equivalent to the DCM awarded to the rank-and-file soldiers) for leading an attack in which he and his comrades captured a machine gun. And he was Mentioned in Dispatches - an official commendation by the High Command - in April 1918.

Butler returned to Newfoundland after the war, and worked at the paper mill in Corner Brook for many years. He maintained his affiliation with the regiment, and served as its honorary lieutenant-colonel from 1952 to 1957.

James Forbes-Robertson, then a lieutenant-colonel and commanding officer of the Newfoundlanders, was one of the "10 men who saved Monchy," in April 1917. He won the DSO that morning, while Lt. Kevin Keegan won the MC, and the seven Newfoundland soldiers with them won the MM.

The 10th soldier, Victor Parsons, was a member of the Essex Regiment. He, too, won the MM.

Forbes-Robinson had earlier received the MC, and subsequently won both the VC and a Bar to his DSO, becoming one of the most highly decorated of all soldiers in the British Army during the war, while Keegan earned a Bar to his MC in Flanders, in the fall of 1917.

A Harbour Grace connection

Only a handful of soldiers ever won four gallantry decorations. Edward Slattery, from Harbour Grace, was among them. He was decorated with the DCM and the MM with two Bars, while serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He died of wounds on April 30, 1918 and is buried in France.

Another gallant Newfoundlander, Albert Taylor, a young man from Charleston, Bonavista Bay, won three decorations - the Distinguished Conduct Medal and a Military Cross and a Bar. He paid the supreme sacrifice in October 1918, less than a month before the end of the war, when he died of wounds suffered during the regiment's final advance through Flanders.

Eight soldiers who wore the Caribou Badge were decorated twice, each with a MM and a Bar; while Cyril Gardner won a DCM and a Bar; and six officers, including Albert Taylor, won Bars to their MC.

But, significantly, the only gallantry decorations awarded at Beaumont Hamel, the engagement at which the Newfoundland Regiment was decimated on July 1, 1916, were given to soldiers who served as medical orderlies in the battle. Privates Stewart Dewling and Thomas McGrath from St. John's and John Cox from Harbour Breton were honoured with the MM.

The regiment's official historian, Col. G.W.L. Nicholson, says that Lt.-Col. A.L. Hadow, the battalion's commanding officer that day, decided that "in honour of our gallant dead and wounded, it would be invidious to recommend any survivors with the exception of the medical orderlies, who had done gallant work."

Hadow went on to say that he "considered it impossible to single out any individual for bravery on that day."

Ed Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002-2008. He can be reached by email at the following: