Plaque to Sergeant Henry Nicholas VC, Flanders Fields, Belgium
By Stephanie Stillaman
On Sunday 14 September personnel from New Zealand Defence Staff in London travelled to Belgium to assist with the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the award of the VC to New Zealand soldier, Private Henry James Nicholas, followed by a Service of Remembrance for New Zealanders who died fighting at Polygon Wood.
Nicholas, a private soldier with the 1st Canterbury Battalion, was awarded his VC for displaying outstanding courage and bravery during an attack by the New Zealand Division on the Polderhoek Chateau on the 3rd of December 1917. He was the first soldier from Canterbury to receive the award.
The German defensive positions, a series of bunkers and fortified shell holes, were based around the ruins of the Polderhoek Chateau and overlooked the New Zealand frontline. The New Zealand assault, aimed at dislodging the Germans from this vital piece of high ground, commenced at noon with heavy artillery fire and problems from the outset. The creeping barrage of artillery fell short in the muddy conditions causing significant casualties among the 1st Otago Battalion, one of two lead battalions in the assault. An icy wind unexpectedly sprung up quickly dispersing any covering smoke and the ground, thick with mud, was torn up by shell holes. The progress of the 1st Otago and 1st Canterbury Battalions was significantly slowed.
Private Nicholas was part of the right flanking company of the assault which took heavy casualties. One enemy strongpoint was particularly difficult and on witnessing the deaths of the section commander and the several men who attempted to storm the machine gun post, Private Nicholas decided to intervene. He signalled for the gun crew to follow him and rushed forward unobserved towards the pillbox. On reaching the parapet Private Nicholas was actually 25 yards (22.86m) ahead of his section. Alone, but undeterred, he shot the German commander who confronted him at point-blank range and jumped down among the remaining 15 Germans. Using a combination of Mills bombs, German stick grenades and the bayonet, he was able to kill 11 and capture four wounded survivors along with their machine gun. The attacking New Zealanders were eventually forced to dig-in and Nicholas went up and down his company’s frontline collecting and redistributing ammunition until the German counterattacks were finally driven off. His VC was gazetted on 8 January 1918.
After the Polderhoek attack Private Nicholas remained with his company, reaching the rank of Sergeant. Tragically, Nicholas was killed only 19 days before the Armistice near Le Quesnoy, France, in a minor skirmish for which he was awarded the Military Medal for again displaying gallantry in the field. The Divisional History describes Nicholas as “in every respect a particularly fine soldier and man… setting always an invaluable example of steadfastness and faithfulness”.
The plaque commemorating Private Nicholas’ daring and courage, erected by the community of Zonnebeke and the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels, overlooks the land the New Zealanders assaulted in 1917. Today this area is rich green fields and gentle, undulating farmland. It is vastly different from the mud-covered wasteland of 90 years ago.
Roughly 350 local Belgians, a handful of dignitaries and the NZDS ceremonial support crew gathered under the bright, blue Belgian sky to hear Lieutenant Colonel Boswell’s eulogy to Private Nicholas’ brave actions and to witness the unveiling of the plaque in his honour by New Zealand’s Ambassador to Belgium, His Excellency, Mr Peter Kennedy. Two members of Ngati Ranana, (Nadell Karatea-Kokiri and Raechel Filiata), performed a poignant waiata tautoko in support of the unveiling and the Reverend Niki Francis, Minister of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, blessed the site. Wreaths were laid by the Ambassador for New Zealand and His Worship, the Mayor of Zonnebeke, Mr Dirk Cadoen.
After the unveiling ceremony, the general public and the official dignitaries were given a battlefield tour by representatives from the Memorial Museum in Zonnebeke through Polygon Wood to Buttes New British Cemetery, where the New Zealand Service of Remembrance was held.
The New Zealand Memorial to the Missing resides in the tranquil and beautifully manicured setting of Buttes New British Cemetery. The rows of headstones, a stark white against the backdrop of vibrant green and carefully tended flowers and shrubs, hold vigil to the fallen 168 New Zealand soldiers buried here. The names of a further 383 New Zealanders are inscribed on the walls of the Memorial to the Missing.
The Service of Remembrance was conducted by Reverend Niki Francis and held in front of the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing. The Ensign, Captain Aimee Bywater-Lutman of the New Zealand Army and the Guard formed from the Barracks of Ieper were located immediately to the right of the Memorial. The invited guests were seated to the left of the Memorial and the Zonnebeke Harmony Band was located behind them. This afforded the almost 450 members of the public, who were able to stand on slightly raised ground, a good view of the ceremony.
The Service was performed impeccably by everyone involved. From the Karanga for the official guests, through to the poignant reflection played by New Zealand Piper Paul Turner and the moving account of ‘Life in the Trenches’ given by Charlotte Whiting, to the playing of ‘The Last Post’ and ‘Reveille’ by the buglers from the Last Post Association. Wreaths were laid by the Ambassador to New Zealand, the Major of Zonnebeke and representatives of the New Zealand and Belgian Defence Forces. Brigadier Whiting, Defence Advisor to the United Kingdom, recited the Ode in both Maori and English. The Service concluded with the National Anthems of Belgium and New Zealand and a blessing by Reverend Niki Francis.
The Service of Remembrance was a collaborative effort by the NZDS on behalf of the New Zealand Defence Force, various Belgian agencies, particularly the Memorial Museum of Zonnebeke and the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels. It represented the enduring friendship New Zealand has with Belgium.
Lieutenant Colonel Boswell, who planned and organised the two ceremonies, said, “it’s quite humbling to be given the opportunity to both honour the New Zealanders who fought in this sector some 90 years ago and to remember those who still remain here today”.