John Pascal Rickman
It is a sad reflection on life that it is frequently not until death that we learn of friends’ and acquaintances’ achievements during the course of their lifetime. Every monument in the churchyard has its own unique story to tell of the person buried beneath.
Standing between the Lych Gate and the West Door is the gravestone of Annie Maude Rickman who died on 14 February 1967 aged 88. Annie was the daughter of a grazier from Tumut in New South Wales. The twentieth century was no more than a few years old when a young, physically frail Englishman by the name of William Francis Rickman came into her life. He had been sent to Australia in the belief that the climate would be good for his health. They married and came to England where, in 1906, William was appointed vicar of Powerstock. He died at an early age, probably in Beaminster in 1925 when the records show his incumbency ended. They had one son, John Pascal, born in 1911 and also a daughter, Ruth.
John went up to Oxford from where he dropped out. It may have been at university that he became radicalised, as so many were in the 1930s as a reaction to the threat of fascism in Europe.
In late 1936 Maude took passage to Australia on an extended visit to meet relatives and avoid the Powerstock winter. Whilst his mother was away, John told his sister he was going to Paris to work on one of the ‘Aid for Spain’ committees. It was not until spring 1937 that the sister discovered her brother had gone to Spain and not Paris and that he had been killed, aged 26, at the Battle of Jarama, 6-27 February 1937. The Battle of Jarama was an attempt by General Francisco Franco’s forces to dislodge the Republican lines along the River Jarama, just east of Madrid. The outcome was said to be an “indecisive strategic Nationalist victory”.
Rickman had been one of 2500 Britons to have fought under the Republican banner of the International Brigade against Franco’s Nationalist forces. He was one of many internationalists to die in what they believed to have been the front line of the war against fascism.
At the time, his mother was aboard ship returning to Powerstock from Sydney. Ruth met her mother off the Southampton boat train at Victoria Station. “John is dead”, she said, explaining the circumstances. On hearing the news Maude paused and simply said: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” and that was the end of the matter.
At the base of Maude’s stone memorial cross in Powerstock Churchyard, below ‘Beloved Wife of William Francis Rickman’ the Rickmans’ only son is remembered: ‘John Pascal Rickman who was killed in Spain in April 1937. He gave his life in the cause of freedom’.
The Spanish Civil War had been a nasty, vicious war fought between Communists and Fascists. The division was not that precise but reflects the fact that the former had been supported by the USSR and the latter by Germany and Italy. The idea that John Rickman had died ‘in the cause of freedom’ rings hollow today. Neither the Fascists nor Communists had contributed to peace and world order and both would, in one way or another, engage our own nation in terrible conflict whether physically or doctrinally. His had been one of countless wasted lives. There was a move among a number in Powerstock to include his name among the names of men of the Parish who had given their lives for their country in the First and Second World Wars, mentioned and remembered on Remembrance Sunday. It proved to be an impossible fit. He had not fought for his country. For John Pascal Rickman, who never returned home to Powerstock, all there is to remember him by is simply his name on his mother’s gravestone.
I recollect the Latin master at school admitting to having been smitten by Marxist ideology at University. “We all did it”, he explained, “it formed an essential step in our growing up”. Some, of course, never did ‘grow up’. The fact remains that John Rickman sacrificed his life for something in which he held strong beliefs; something worthy of recognition. The Church Wardens have agreed that the appropriate place for that recognition is during the Intercessions on the third Sunday in November.