Henry James Nicholas VC MM

b. 11/06/1891 Lincoln, New Zealand. d. 23/10/1918 Le Quesnoy, France.

Henry James Nicholas (1891-1918) was born in Lincoln, near Christchurch, New Zealand on the 11th June 1891, one of five children born to Richard and Hannah Nicholas, three boys and two girls. He was educated at Christchurch Normal School and later at Christchurch East School. After completing his schooling, he was apprenticed into the building trade and his enlistment papers state that he was a carpenter, working for the Baker Brothers of Loburn, North Christchurch.

Henry J Nicholas VC MM

Nicholas tried to enlist whilst he was in Australia in 1915, but his application was rejected due to having loose teeth, which could have been a result of boxing which he was reputedly adept at. Frustrated at his inability to join the Army he decided to return to New Zealand and try to enlist there. He applied for enlistment in January 1916, and the following month Nicholas successfully enlisted in the New Zealand Military Forces, and he embarked for Europe three months later with the 13th Reinforcements Battalion to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in France. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion of the Canterbury Regiment with the rank of Private. His brothers, Ernest and Frederick, also served in the Army during the Great War,

Nicholas was involved in an attack on Polderhoek Chateau on 3 December 1917. The chateau stood on top of the Polderhoek Spur, which overlooked the trenches occupied by the 2nd Infantry Brigade, to which Nicholas’s battalion was assigned. The Canterbury and Otago battalions attacked midday but was slowed by heavy machine-gun fire. It was then that Nicholas performed the actions that led to the award of the VC.

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 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 strong-point, and overcame the remainder of the garrison of sixteen with bombs and bayonets, capturing four wounded prisoners and a machine-gun. He captured this strong-point practically single-handed, and thereby saved many casualties. Subsequently, when the advance reached its limit, Private Nicholas collected ammunition under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire.

The advance resumed but ground to a halt 150 yards short of the chateau where the New Zealanders established a new front line. During this phase of the fighting, Nicholas moved along the lines, collecting and distributing ammunition. What was left of the Canterbury and Otago battalions were relieved on the 5th December 1917. The award of the VC to Nicholas was gazetted in January 1918, and he was presented with his VC by King George V at an investiture at Buckingham Palace in July 1918, having been promoted to Sergeant the previous month.

During the Hundred Days Offensive Nicholas added the Military Medal to his medal group for actions performed in late September to early October during operations on Welsh and Bon Avis Ridges. On the 23rd October 1918, he was performing guard duty at a bridge near Le Quesnoy when a German patrol encountered his position. He was killed during the ensuing exchange of gunfire and was buried in the Vertigneul Churchyard on the 29th October 1918. The award of his MM was gazetted in March 1919, and the citation made note of his “fearless leadership and contempt for danger”.

A bronze statue, by the artist Mark Whyte, along with biographical details of Nicholas was erected on the banks of the Avon River on the 7th March 2007, near the Bridge of Remembrance, and in September 2008, a plaque in memory of Nicholas was unveiled by the community of Zonnebeke and the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels, near Geluveld, just south west of the area where Nicholas earned the VC. Nicholas’ Victoria Cross and Military Medal were given by his mother to the Canterbury Museum in 1932, where they remain on display.