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[VC]Henry James Nicholas VC, MM

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BerichtGeplaatst: 07 Aug 2008 5:44    Onderwerp: [VC]Henry James Nicholas VC, MM Reageer met quote

Henry James Nicholas VC, MM

Henry James Nicholas was born on June 11, 1891, in Lincoln, a small country township near Christchurch, New Zealand. His parents were Richard Henry Nicholas and Hannah (nťe Day). Richard Nicholas was born in Cornwall and in New Zealand worked at Lincoln, close to Christchurch, as an engine driver. There were three other children: Frederick Charles (1887-1951), Ernest (1895-1939) and Mabel May (later Sutton).

The Nicholas family moved into Christchurch before Henry started school and lived in the suburb of Linwood. Henry attended East Christchurch School and later the Christchurch Normal School. On leaving school he was apprenticed as a carpenter. He worked for a few months around the Canterbury provincial district when he had completed his apprenticeship and then moved to Australia to find work.
Enlisting & training

He moved back to New Zealand after World War One began, volunteered for active service and enlisted in the 1st Battalion of the Canterbury Infantry Regiment in February 1916 at the age of 24. He was assigned to the 12th (Nelson) Company which left New Zealand as part of the 13th Reinforcements in May 1916 after about 15 weeks of elementary military training.

Private Henry Nicholas arrived with the 13th Reinforcements at Sling Camp, near Bulford, Salisbury Plain, England, on 12 August 1916. He would immediately have started a period of hard training, which began at 6.30am and lasted until 9.00pm each day. The camp had good rifle ranges, a live bombing ground and a chamber for training in the event of gas attacks.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Division was incurring heavy casualties at the Battle of the Somme (July-October 1916) and demand for reinforcements was great. The training period was reduced to an intensive course lasting between eight to 28 days and the men were then sent straight to France. It appears Nicholas was sent to France on September 16, 1916.

Fighting at Messines

He was probably involved in operations at Flers-Corcelette, Morval and Le Transloy. Over the winter of 1916-17 the Canterbury Battalions were engaged in trench warfare in the Sailly-sur-la-Lys sector, and, at the end of February 1917, in the sector before Messines and at Ploegsteert Wood. On June 7, 1917 the Canterbury battalions took part in the successful attack on the very strong defensive position on Messines Ridge.

The Canterbury battalions continued fighting in the Messines sector until the beginning of September 1917 when they were moved back from the battle zone for three weeks' special training in preparation for became known as the Third Battle of Ypres. On October 12, Nicholas's battalion (1st Canterbury) took part (with the 2nd Battalion) in the Passchendaele attack. The casualties of the 1st and 2nd Battalions were 31 officers and 739 other ranks - most of the officers and more than 60 per cent of the men who went into the attack.

However, not all of the time was spent in the trenches. An incomplete diary for 1917 records events in a sporting competition in mid-September, probably at the time when his battalion was in special training (as above). These included running and sprinting races, long jump and high jump, a boat race, tug of war ("1 team per coy [company]"), a relay race, "bomb throwing 3 throws each", and a pillow fight on a greasy pole.
Attack on the spur

This diary also contains a number of names and addresses of other men in the New Zealand and Australian forces (including his younger brother Ernest who was in the New Zealand Rifle Brigade), family and friends in New Zealand, as well as people whom he had presumably met or visited in England and Scotland while on leave; these included families and single ladies.

In late November the 1st and 2nd Canterbury Battalions joined the 3rd Canterbury Battalion in the line in the Polygon Wood sector of the Ypres Salient. The winter was dreadful for the troops - vast stretches of mud littered with shell-holes full of water. On 3 December the 1st Battalion attacked the Polderhoek Chateau spur."

It was during this action that Private Nicholas won the Canterbury Regiment's first Victoria Cross. The original commendation, written in a field notebook by his commanding officer, Lieutenant H. Johnston of the 12th Nelson Company, reads: "24213 Pt. Henry James Nicholas. When his section was being held up by heavy Machine Gun and Rifle fire from an enemy strongpoint on 3/12/17, he unassisted rushed the position, threw a bomb which inflicted several casualties, shot the officer from the parapet, then entered the position and rushed the remaining occupants with the bayonet. His action was one of unexemplified bravery, which resulted in the capture of the Machine Gun, 4 wounded prisoners, and the killing of 1 officer & 10 huns. His fearless example and devotion to duty, commands him to special recognition."
The citation

The official citation for the Victoria Cross, gazetted in The Times, 8 January 1918, reads: "War Office, 11th January, 1918. His Majesty the King has been pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the under mentioned Officers, Non-commissioned Officers, and Men, for the most conspicuous bravery:

No. 24213 Pte. Henry James Nicholas, New Zealand Infantry

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty, in attack. Private Nicholas, who was one of a Lewis-gun section, had orders to form a defensive flank to the right of the advance, which was subsequently checked by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire from an enemy strong point. Whereupon, followed by the remainder of his section at an interval of about 25 yards, Private Nicholas rushed forward alone, shot the officer in command of' the strongpoint, and overcame the remainder of the garrison of sixteen by means of bombs and bayonet, capturing four wounded prisoners and a machine gun. He captured the strongpoint practically single-handed and thereby saved many casualties. Subsequently, when the advance had reached its limit, Private Nicholas collected ammunition under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire. His exceptional valour and coolness throughout the operations afforded an inspiring example to all."

Nicholas was on leave from December 10 to 27 after being promoted to the rank of corporal following his actions at Polderhoek. On promotion his pay increased from two shillings a week to two shillings and nine pence. In 1961 a friend named Joe Baigent, stated that Nicholas was gassed shortly after the Polderhoek action and spent some time in hospital at Walton-on-Thames, England, and this may account for his leave absence. He was back in France from December 28 until June 28 the following year when again he went on leave in England. He was promoted to lance sergeant on 21 May with a pay increase to three shillings and three pence. His rank was raised to sergeant on 28 May and his pay increased to three shillings and sixpence.
Well-known boxer

During July he was formally invested with the Victoria Cross in London. On July 12 he attended an "Entertainment to Wounded and Other Soldiers", given by the United Wards Club of the City of London, at the "Kursino", Hampton Court. On August 8, before returning to the Front, he deposited his Victoria Cross for safekeeping with the New Zealand Record Office in Southampton Row, London. He also paid a visit to Spink & Son, in Piccadilly, to order a miniature medal, probably for the VC. He also may have visited a photographer, Swaine, in New Bond Street at this time. It is probable that this was for his official photograph, wearing the Victoria Cross.

According to Baigent, Henry Nicholas was an enthusiastic and capable boxer who had been well known in the ring in Canterbury and in Australia before the War. Sometime in 1918 he was runner-up in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces Divisional Boxing Middleweight Championships and received a bronze medal for his efforts (now also in the collection at the Canterbury Museum).
Death near Le Quesnoy

Henry Nicholas's life came to an end three weeks before the First World War ended. The Military Medal was awarded posthumously for his bravery in action during the fight for the bridgeheads at the River Ecaillon near the village of Beaudignies on October 23, 1918. At this time his company was under heavy machine-gun fire from the high ground east of Le Quesnoy. Nicholas was buried on October 29, 1918 by the Bishop of Nelson at Vertigneul Churchyard, Romeries.

He is commemorated in Christchurch, New Zealand, on a headstone at the Bromley cemetery plot which is shared with his mother, Hannah, who died in 1932, his older brother Frederick Charles (1887-1951) and his younger brother Ernest (1895-1939).

In March 2007 Henry James Nicholas VC, MM, was publicly recognised for the first time in New Zealand in a sculpture near the Christchurch Bridge of Remembrance which in turns commemorates so many of his comrades and fellow countrymen who lost their lives in the two world wars. The plaque is pictured left.

© Jennifer Quťrťe 2007 (Senior Curator, Canterbury Museum)
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