Sunday, October 23, 2011

Henry Nicholas: Christchurch's Only WWI VC

I'm breathless these days after just a 100m sprint to my car in the rain, so I find it impossible to imagine how a fully-kitted soldier can charge through mud, water, bleak winter weather and heavy machinegun fire...and still do what Henry James Nicholas of Canterbury did in WWI.
Born in Lincoln on 11 June 1891 to Richard and Hannah Nicholas, Henry was educated in Christchurch and apprenticed to a builder. He was well known in NZ amateur boxing circles as "one of the most scientific featherweight boxers that ever entered the ring". Part of the 1910 Canterbury team at the annual Boxing Assn tournament, Henry won a gold medal for his display.
With his brother Ernest serving at the front and elder Frederick repatriated after being wounded at Gallipoli, it was a given that Henry too would step up. He doffed his carpenter's apron and shipped out with the NZEF's 13th Reinforcements Canterbury Infantry Battalion C Company at the end of May 1916...
[When thinking about The Great War, Passchendaele has became a byword for its horrors: mud, shell craters, barbed wire, soldiers mown down in waves. The capture of the Belgian village of Passchendaele near Ypres in Flanders, cost thousands of lives including many NZers. Messines Ridge leading to the village was the site of the worst loss of life in NZ’s history since 1840.
The NZ Division's major operations in Belgium began in June 1917 with the capture of Messines Ridge: the battle for Passchendaele climaxed in early October. But in December at nearby Polderhoek, the kiwis suffered another costly setback. By its final withdrawal from the Ypres front line in Feb.1918, the NZ Division had suffered more than 18,000 casualties (incl.around 5000 deaths) and won three Victoria Crosses (VCs) for bravery.
Back home, many NZ communities raised funds for Belgian war refugees and provided comforts for our soldiers at the front. In the years following 1917, NZ remembered Passchendaele and other battles in many ways: this plaque, now in the Christchurch railway station, was proudly attached to a steam locomotive from 1925-1967. But that’s getting ahead of the story...]
Henry Nicholas arrived in France in Sept.1916 and saw action at the Somme. He was involved in many of the actions fought by the NZ Division in 1917, including Messines Ridge. He missed Passchendaele due to illness, but rejoined the ranks in time for the Polderhoek attack on Dec.3rd...
During the advance, Nicholas's Lewis gun section was held up by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire. He single-handedly rushed the enemy position, threw a grenade and shot the officer, then charged the remaining occupants with his bayonet. When the smoke cleared 12 Germans lay dead, and four prisoners were taken. His commanding officer noted 'His fearless example and devotion to duty commands him to special recognition.'
In July 1918, while on leave in England, #24213 Pte Henry James Nicholas was presented with his VC by King George V.
After returning to the front in Sept.1918, the Canterbury Regiment was charged with holding the town of Beaudignies, near Le Quesnoy. Today in history 23 October, a German patrol blundered into Nicholas's post on a flank guarding a bridge. During the skirmish, Nicholas was hit in the head by heavy machine-gun fire (just 19 days before Armistice Day and the end of the war). He was posthumously awarded the Military Medal for bravery.
Henry was buried in the French cemetery at Beaudignies. However, as the battalion wished to show greater respect, his body was reinterred with full military honours in the Vertigneul churchyard in northern France. The service was conducted by the Bishop of Nelson with a brigadier-general and other officers as pall-bearers.
In honour of Henry's exploits, a Chch. women's group made a banner depicting St George slaying the dragon, which still drapes a wall inside the church at Vertigneul.
His medals were sent to his mother Hannah after the war. She bequeathed them to the Canterbury Museum, which received them after her death in 1932.
In March 2007, a memorial to Henry was unveiled in the Park of Remembrance in Christchurch. The larger-than-life bronze statue by Mark Whyte is mounted on a stone gifted from Le Quesnoy, and survived the earthquakes unscathed.
A special plaque to honour Sgt Henry James Nicholas VC MM was unveiled in Belgium in Sept.2008. It's to the south of Polygon Wood, close to where Nicholas won the VC, and was erected by the grateful folk of Zonnebeke.
[As the Park of Remembrance is not designed to glorify war, Nicholas's statue does not carry any weapons, to ensure we consider the loss and effect that war has on us all...]


Stix said...

This hero was a relation of mine.

What a man.

Peter A Nicholas

Writer Of The Purple Sage... said...

Peter, I'm very pleased to have written this about your ancestor - hope you and your family enjoyed reading it.