Introduction

 Pvt. J.H. Nicholls.  The absence of cap and collar badges suggests this is a 1914 photo (the army didn't have enough of anything to go around), most likely when he was with the 18th Battalion.

Pvt. J.H. Nicholls.  The absence of cap and collar badges suggests this is a 1914 photo (the army didn't have enough of anything to go around), most likely when he was with the 18th Battalion.

This is a narrative tracing John 'Jack' Henry Nicholls' war service 1914-1917.   There's a brief summary immediately below. Links to some of the original documents from which the story is taken follow, as does a link to a plain timeline.  Below that there is a more detailed version of the story with some of the details fleshed out by images and contemporary documentation.  Having said that, the documentation is incomplete and at times contradictory.  So the narrative is something of a best-guess reconstruction subject to revision as new evidence appears.  (If anyone has any such evidence in the form of letters/diaries or even stories that have been passed down, send it along and I'll incorporate it.)  The narrative has 5 sections: Prelude, St. Eloi, Respite?, The Ypres Salient, and Convalescence.

Summary: J.H. Nicholls had a relatively short but very dramatic, and likely traumatic war.   Having enlisted at the end of October 1914 in Woodstock, he was declared medically unfit and discharged in March of 1915.  He re-enlisted at the beginning of July 1915 and went overseas in October of that year.  After three months training in England, during which he trained as a machine gun crewman, he arrived in France at the beginning of March, 1916.  He joined his Battalion (the 31st 'Alberta') in the field south of Ypres on March 15th.  The 31st was part of the 6th Brigade, itself a part of the 2nd Canadian Division. J.H. Nichols joined D Company with a handful of other reinforcements and marked down to join the Machine Gun section of the Battalion when there was a vacancy.  Within two weeks he found himself at the heart of the largest Canadian battle since the previous April at Ypres, the so-called Battle of the St. Eloi Craters.  The 31st went in and out of the line around St. Eloi for the better part of April and through the first week of May, before moving into reserve to rest and rebuild. It was most likely during this period of reorganization that he transferred from D Company to the Battalion Machine Gun Section, though the precise date is uncertain.   After more than two weeks of reorganization and training they went back into the lines near St. Eloi, which was still a killing field. By the end of May Nicholls had contracted influenza.  He went to the 4th Canadian Field Ambulance and from there to the Second Canadian Divisional Rest Station near Reninghelst Belgium, where he remained for one week.  While he was gone, the 31st moved into the heart of the Ypres Salient, holding positions in the infamous Sanctuary Wood sector.  There they helped stem a significant German advance in the first week of June.  Nicholls returned to the 31st as they were coming out of the line having suffered almost as badly as at St. Eloi.  But just a couple of days later they were sent back in, this time to support a major Canadian offensive aimed at retaking the ground lost the previous week.  During this attack - what has come to be known as the Battle of Mount Sorrel or HIll 62 - Nicholls and his entire machine gun crew were knocked out by a German shell. Nicholls received a shrapnel wound that broke both the bones in his right forearm, and left the line as one of the walking wounded.   Four days later, he turned up in Fulham Military Hospital, Hammersmith, London.  There he had an operation to remove the shrapnel and scrape and set the bones.  Over the next several months he moved from hospital to hospital.  The wound healed to the satisfaction of his doctors, but he struggled to regain mobility in his fingers.  By December it was clear that his impairment would be permanent.   He was declared medically unfit for further service and invalided to Canada.  He arrived in early January 1917 and by the 9th was in the military hospital in London Ontario.  Several months of rehab followed before he was finally cashiered from the army on May 31 1917 with a 25% disability pension.


Resources

 

Prelude

J.H. 'Jack' Nicholls enlisted on October 31, 1914 at Woodstock.  His attestation papers list his place of birth as Truro, Cornwall, England, his age as 20 years 10 months, his address as 512 Mary St. Woodstock, and his profession as plumber.   He stood 5 feet 9 inches tall, with a chest measurement of  33 inches - fully expanded.   He joined the 18th Battalion, Canadian Infantry with the service number 53494 - a relatively low number, which speaks to his early enlistment.  There are no War Diaries for the 18th Battalion until they went overseas in April of 1915, so it is impossible to reconstruct the details of Nicholls first months in the army.  However, there is reason to believe it was not an easy adjustment.  His pay book indicates that his pay was twice mulcted (withheld) between December 1914 and March 1915.   This was a typical army punishment for relatively minor disciplinary infractions. The first took place in December and resulted in the loss of two days' pay. The second and more serious incident spanned nine days in March 1915 when he was listed A.W.L. (Absent Without Leave).  Shortly after this incident he was declared medically unfit and discharged on March 13, 1915.  There is no way to know exactly what transpired in these cases, but several possibilities jump to mind.  Maybe he got bored of barracks life and simply hopped a train back to Woodstock (the 18th was stationed in London) to see his family (Ethel his wife and his son Ray).  Or maybe he had an inkling that the unit would soon be sailing for Europe (they left April 18) and had been refused leave to see his family, so he took matters into his own hands. If so, the Battalion brass may have had him declared medically unfit as a way to rid themselves of a perceived disciplinary concern.  This possibility takes some support from his earlier disciplinary incident in December 1914. Forfeiture of two days pay suggests it was not a particularly serious offence, but it hints at a pattern.  On the other hand such incidents were common and Nicholls may have had a pass to visit his family in March and gotten sick while at home.  If too sick to return to the unit, he would have been declared A.W.L. And if the condition was considered serious, it could have inspired the medical discharge that followed. 

 Badge of the 18th, Western Ontario Battalion.   When Nicholls enlisted in October 1914, such items would have been in short supply, like most every other kind of military materiel.

Badge of the 18th, Western Ontario Battalion.   When Nicholls enlisted in October 1914, such items would have been in short supply, like most every other kind of military materiel.

 The Woodstock armouries, where J.H. Nicholls enlisted (twice).

The Woodstock armouries, where J.H. Nicholls enlisted (twice).

 In any event, he was a free man in March of 1915 and not exactly on death's door.  Ruth, Jack and Ethel's second child was conceived shortly thereafter.   And only a few months later, about the time the pregnancy would have been confirmed, he re-enlisted on July 1 1915 and was accepted as fit. The timing begs a question: why enlist with a child on the way?   Numerous explanations again come to mind.  It may have been his intewnt all along to re-enlist when fully recovered from whatever condition rendered him unfit in March.  Alternatively, he may have been experiencing significant social pressure to enlist if his health had recovered. Then again, he may have felt he was missing out on the big adventure - after all, he was still only 22.  Though even adventurous 22 year olds must have been having second thoughts by that point; after all news of the Chlorine Gas attack at Ypres in April would have been fresh in everyone's minds.  Or,  Nicholls may have needed money to support his growing family.  {There could be a hint here in the move from Mary to 822 James Street that happened between his first and second enlistment.  It looks like a move from a fairly nice neighbourhood to a less attractive one - but I'll leave that to someone with a better knowledge of historic Woodstock to decide.)  If he did join up the second time for economic reasons, he would not have been alone. Contrary to assumptions that men flocked to the colours out of pure patriotism, many joined up for economic reasons.  Pay was $25 a month plus separation allowance of $20 for married men, if you were wondering.   Of course, it is equally plausible that all or some combination of these factors led him to re-up.

 34th Battalion shoulder badge

34th Battalion shoulder badge

 S.S. California in 1907.

S.S. California in 1907.

 Shorncliffe Camp -  It was probably more a matter of wooden huts than tents when Nicholls arrived.

Shorncliffe Camp -  It was probably more a matter of wooden huts than tents when Nicholls arrived.

  Whatever his motivation, Nicholls again entered the Canadian Expeditionary Force on July 1, as a member of the 34th Battalion with the new service number 602664.  The fact that his attestation papers list him as only 5 feet 7 inches in height suggest how little attention was paid to such details by medical officers keen to meet a quota.  In August his pay was mulcted again, though no reason is given in his pay book.  But this time he stuck it out and sailed with the 34th aboard the S.S. California on October 23, 1915, arriving in Liverpool on November 1, 1915.  The 34th appears to have been based at Bramshott UK through February 1916.  During this time he received machine gun training. At that stage of the war machine guns were still specialist weapons, with their own specialist knowledge and formations within Brigades and Battalions.  On the second of February, Nicholls went to Shorncliffe Camp and was marked down as a replacement to the 31st 'Alberta' Battalion, which was already at the Front.  After the better part of four weeks at Shorncliffe, during which time he probably learned of the birth of his daughter Ruth, he set out for France on February 29.   Arriving at Le Havre the next day, he went into the Canadian Base Depot there. After nearly two weeks undergoing a final bout of physical and tactical training, he and 11 others set off to the 31st Battalion in Belgium on March 14.  

 31st 'Alberta' Battalion shoulder flash

31st 'Alberta' Battalion shoulder flash

 31st 'Alberta Battalion' Cap badge

31st 'Alberta Battalion' Cap badge

 

St. Eloi

 Map showing the whole scope of Nicholls' active service at the Front.  He joined the 31st east of Kemmel (centre of map where violet and blue lines are closest. His war ended near Zillebeke (at end of yellow CANCORPS on map) 3 months later. In between he got to know places like Bailleul, St Jans Cappel, Locre, Westoutre, Renninghelst, La Clytte, and Dickebusch.

Map showing the whole scope of Nicholls' active service at the Front.  He joined the 31st east of Kemmel (centre of map where violet and blue lines are closest. His war ended near Zillebeke (at end of yellow CANCORPS on map) 3 months later. In between he got to know places like Bailleul, St Jans Cappel, Locre, Westoutre, Renninghelst, La Clytte, and Dickebusch.

DonaldFraser.jpg

In the Field

On March 15, Nichols and 11 others joined the 31st Battalion 'In the Field' near Kemmel in Belgium. (See map below for an overview of the Ypres-Kemmel Sector).  The twelve men were divided among the 4 Companies (A-D) of the Battalion.  Nicholls and 3 others went to D Company, billeted in Kemmel Chateau and Parrain Farm. (See inset map below the image gallery) We are very lucky that one of the most famous Canadian soldier journals of the Great War was written by a member of the 31st, Donald Fraser.  Fraser visited many of the places and witnessed most of the key events Nicholls experienced.   His description of Kemmel (below right) dates from just two days after Nicholls would have first seen it.

 The landscape Nicholls would have seen as he joined the 31st at Kemmel.

The landscape Nicholls would have seen as he joined the 31st at Kemmel.

Kemmel is fast disappearing. The village pump is smashed The Bandstand in the square is wrecked. Shell holes gape in the streets. The houses and stores are being levelled. Our engineers and artillery are helping in the destruction by removing the brick work from the buildings for their own use. The engineer’s dump is gone. Kemmel has become a dead and deserted village.
— Donald Fraser, The Journal of Private Fraser, p. 104.
 A view from Mont Kemmel down over Kemmel Village with the Messines and Wytschaete Ridges on the horizon.

A view from Mont Kemmel down over Kemmel Village with the Messines and Wytschaete Ridges on the horizon.

 The positions where Nicholls joined D Company on March 14. The left box is over Kemmel Chateau. The German Front lines are marked out in Red on the right.  Canadian Front lines, occupied by other companies of the 31st are denoted by the dotted blue line running parallel to the German lines.

The positions where Nicholls joined D Company on March 14. The left box is over Kemmel Chateau. The German Front lines are marked out in Red on the right.  Canadian Front lines, occupied by other companies of the 31st are denoted by the dotted blue line running parallel to the German lines.

When Nicholls joined the 31st, they were in the Front Lines (see map to the right) overlooked by Wytschaete Ridge. His' Company was stationed in Kemmel Chateau,  the ruins of which you can see in the picture above left.  Between Fraser's Journal and the unit War Diary, we can see that Nicholls' first couple days in the Line did not involve any major actions.  Even so, his first trip up to the lines at night (troops on both sides were most active under cover of darkness) must have been like entering an alien world full of bizarre and terrifying sites and sounds. The sodden or half-flooded warren of trenches reeked of rot, sewage, and death.  Slime, refuse, and pitfalls made footing treacherous.  Darkness, the narrow confines of the trenches, and the absence of landmarks made navigation impossibly confusing for new men. Flares cracked, fizzed and spluttered overhead causing mad shadows to run and leap.  And then there were the dangers.  We know, for instance, that rifles, machine guns, whizbangs (shells from small, high-velocity field guns), and torpedoes (shells fired from trench mortars) were very active on the nights of the 16th, 17th, and 18th.  (See image gallery bellow the painting for the most common German weapons Nicholls would have faced.) It would have been a true baptism of fire for the new arrivals, with artillery and machine guns in particular sweeping all the roads leading to the Front - so that even if one passed the gauntlet safely, there was a sense of being trapped in the firing line. 

 A contemporary war artist's impression of 'The Ypres Salient at Night'. (Paul Nash)  Nicholls would have seen something like this on his first trip 'up the line'.

A contemporary war artist's impression of 'The Ypres Salient at Night'. (Paul Nash)  Nicholls would have seen something like this on his first trip 'up the line'.



The Trenches: a primer 

 Simplified cutaway of British trench. Note, with the groundwater so close to the surface in the Ypres Salient, some trench lines were breastworks of timber and sandbags built above ground. German trenches were generally much deeper and stronger than British ones and often sited on more defensible ground.

Simplified cutaway of British trench. Note, with the groundwater so close to the surface in the Ypres Salient, some trench lines were breastworks of timber and sandbags built above ground. German trenches were generally much deeper and stronger than British ones and often sited on more defensible ground.

 Trench maintenance.  Men sitting on the 'Fire-step'.

Trench maintenance.  Men sitting on the 'Fire-step'.

An original film from the summer of 1916. Nicholls was not involved in this battle, but it gives the clearest impression of conditions in the Front at the time.

 A simplified schematic of a trench system.  Front-line trench = Firing trench.

A simplified schematic of a trench system.  Front-line trench = Firing trench.

 Note the 'funk-holes' dug into the front wall of the trench as a refuge from shell fire.  

Note the 'funk-holes' dug into the front wall of the trench as a refuge from shell fire.  



CEF equipment in 1916

At this point the CEF still used the problematic Ross Rifle as their primary infantry weapon.  For machine guns they had the less than ideal Colt Model 1895 for sustained fire roles and the Lewis Gun for more mobile work. For head protection they had only their soft service caps (see portrait of Nicholls above). Gas protection was equally primitive, taking the form of a cloth hood impregnated with gas neutralizing chemicals.

On March 19th the 31st left the front lines for Battalion Reserve in Kemmel Shelters (on the reverse slope of Kemmel Hill west of Kemmel Village).  The next day they had use of the divisional baths -  a much appreciated luxury, though perhaps not as much appreciated as the fresh underwear that followed the bath.  For a short time at least, the men would have been blissfully free of lice.  Through to the 25th the battalion remained in reserve - replenishing supplies, taking on reinforcements (by this point there were 25 newer men in D Company than Nicholls), and providing nightly working parties.  These parties journeyed from reserve to forward areas each night to shore up trenches, dig or repair dugouts, enhance barbed wire entanglements, or simply carry water, rations, and/or ammunition to the fire trenches facing no-man's-land.  It was exhausting work, and potentially even more dangerous than being in the line since it meant a there-and-back-again journey through the gauntlet of MG and artillery fire each night.  It also meant that being 'in reserves' wasn't necessarily much of a respite. D Company provided several such parties between the 20th and 24th.  As a relatively new boy, Nicholls must have been on at least one of them.  This work was no doubt complicated by a nasty spring snowstorm that hit on the 22nd, bringing several inches of snow. 

 

  In his spare time Nicholls probably got up to the kinds of things that most soldiers did: smoked, tinkered with kit, gossiped, gambled, read, wrote letters, visited the YMCA cantina for coffee or hot coco, pulled sentry duty etc.  He may even have slipped away, licitly or illicitly, to one of the local 'estaminets' (cafes in private homes) for a drink and a meal of egg and chips (the local speciality) away from the supervision of officers.   And if he was a particularly adventurous - or wild - there were other diversions on offer as well, despite the best efforts of the local Military Police.  (The War Diary of the Assistant Provost Marshall for the area makes for fascinating reading and paints something of a Wild West atmosphere in terms of interactions between soldiers and civilians, which ranged from friendly, through respectful, to criminal and violent.)  But it's unlikely that as a relatively new man, still learning the ropes at the Front, Nicholls got up to anything overly adventurous.  Besides, he and his unit were back in their familiar lines on the 25th - though rumours of a move to positions a little further north, near the crossroad town of St. Eloi, had already reached them.

Nicholls.SchedulewhileinBillets.March16.png

The next five days D Company split its time between the fire trenches and support trenches (just behind the fire trenches) - each time they went into the line units typically did a stretch in each set of trenches.  Several dramatic incidents took place, including a raid on a German listening post, and a pair of complex and exceedingly violent German barrages. Nicholls did not take part in the raid, but he likely experienced one of the barrages since his company was in the Firing Trench at the time and one of his comrades was wounded.  The War Diary also notes a lot of sniping and generally heavy artillery during this period.  While the general run of artillery fire/sniping would not have the quality of a modern action movie, the slower pace of such fire brought its own terror. Imagine the discomfort of cowering in a funk hole as heavy mortars played along your trench at a rate of 1 shell per minute; or of seeing a comrade struck down by an unseen sniper and never knowing when or where the next one would strike.  Both were common experiences.   And of course, when things really heated up, as in the special barrages mentioned above, or the battle we are about to encounter, the intensity and violence would be beyond Hollywood's best attempts.

On April 1, the Battalion left the Front Lines to go into reserve once more.  This sort of cycling between 'the Line' and 'the Reserves' was standard operating procedure - a recognition that men could only remain effective 'up the Line' for a few days.   On this occasion, the march took them from the firing line back to St. Jans Cappell, then up Mt. Noir and on to Westoutre, Reninghelst and finally Ouderdom.  Fraser describes it as a hot and nasty march, especially up the slopes of Mt. Noir. The strain caused several men to faint.  They arrived in camp (marked Micmac camp on the map below) on April 2.  The next day they were issued with rubber boots and, for the first time,  steel helmets. New gear in hand, the 31st also received orders to proceed to St. Eloi, a little to the north and already a notoriously dangerous spot.   The British had just executed a successful attack, blowing huge subterranean mines beneath the German trenches and moving the line forward several hundred yards.  The 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade (of which the 31st was one of three battalions) was given the job of holding these gains in the face of the inevitable counterattack.

 Micmac camp is marked in red just above and to the right of the '31'.

Micmac camp is marked in red just above and to the right of the '31'.

 A contemporary watercolour of Camp A/Micmac camp.

A contemporary watercolour of Camp A/Micmac camp.

Sporting their new helmets and with rubber boots and kit slung over their shoulders, they set out at 5 PM on the 3rd, only reaching their positions in the confused wrack of trenches around St. Eloi at 2:30 AM on the 4th.

 Canadians marching on the Somme.  This dates from the autumn following Nicholls' injury but still gives a good impression of marching conditions during his service.

Canadians marching on the Somme.  This dates from the autumn following Nicholls' injury but still gives a good impression of marching conditions during his service.

 A.Y. Jackson 'Screened Road A' (1918)

A.Y. Jackson 'Screened Road A' (1918)

Donald Fraser describes the 31st's journey into the Front Lines at St. Eloi on the night of April 3rd 1916: "As the light began to wane we moved out of camp and proceeded up the Ouderdom Road to Hallebast, where we met the Baileul-YPres road.  Turning to the left we passed through Dickebusch, a long straggling village, then on to Vijverhoek, and at Cafe Belge, which was in ruins, we turned to the right and proceeding up a slope and along a moor, headed for Vooremezeele.  Thais was the starting point of our troubles, and being within machine-gun range, the entrance to the danger zone proper.  As the skeleton buildings of the village loomed up in the darkness, it seemed to bespeak war with its attendant horrors and death. A few weird figures flitted out of the gloom and took possession of us, they were the guides to lead us to our hell.  By this time the battalion had dispersed into Companies and was in the process of further disintegration into platoons.  The safety that comes from numbers was vanishing and loneliness began to grip the individual as he realized that everything now depended on a clear eye and steady nerve.  He forgot about the battalion and from now on vision became limited to his platoon and its official commander.  The lieutenant became the general; the sergeant the colonel... By this time no smoking was allowed, not a match to be struck, and silence fell like a pall over all.    Lassitude arising from their late exertions had overtaken the gunners and as we filed along the Convent Wall, the line was in comparative quietude."

Fraser continues:  "A few hundred yards overland and then we stepped down into the communication trench and slowly moved forward. Soon shell holes appear in our path; many direct hits had been made on the trench and walking became difficult.  British Tommies, in the throws of exhaustion, were slowly and laboriously bringing down their human freight of suffering.  Still figures in stretchers commanded the passage and we had to make way.  Anon a wounded man in agony writhed and moaned.  At various intervals along the the trench our dead lay waiting for an opportune time to be taken out for internment [sic]. Onwards we go through Shelley Lane, down into shell holes, clambering up on the other side, into the trenches again, down once more into a hollow, slipping and falling, we curse our way forward, wither we know not and neither do we care. Striving to keep up we struggle desperately in the mire.  At last, when nearly exhausted, we reach the front line.  No. 3 platoon passes along a small trench about twenty-yards long, which runs out from the left junction of the old British line with the new, into an old crater, No. 6, under the impression they were in No. 5, which was recently formed.  From here a short, shallow shell-wrecked trench leads to crater 7, which our bombers take over.  The latter is about forty yards across and very shallow, affording little or no protection and overlooked by the country ahead.  Our crater is about the same size but deeper and some semblance of digging is shown. In the centre is a slimy pool of rotten, stagnant water.  This is the bed of thorns we stepped into about 12:30 on the morning of Aril 4th."

 Map showing the last kilometre or so of  the 31st's route into St. Eloi and the lines held by D Company on the 4th-5th and then on the 6th-8th. The route begins where the pink line appears at the top of the map. Note Shelley Farm obscured by pink line.  Shelley Lane runs south from that point to point 19, below the F in Front Line.  Other British positions in blue.

Map showing the last kilometre or so of  the 31st's route into St. Eloi and the lines held by D Company on the 4th-5th and then on the 6th-8th. The route begins where the pink line appears at the top of the map. Note Shelley Farm obscured by pink line.  Shelley Lane runs south from that point to point 19, below the F in Front Line.  Other British positions in blue.

 The situation when the 31st Battalion entered St. Eloi on March 4th.  At this point J.H. Nicholls and D Company were in the supports behind the front line (marked in red). They would have been by the cluster of buildings and ponds behind this line and stretching off the map to the right.  

The situation when the 31st Battalion entered St. Eloi on March 4th.  At this point J.H. Nicholls and D Company were in the supports behind the front line (marked in red). They would have been by the cluster of buildings and ponds behind this line and stretching off the map to the right.  

Here is the classic description of the St. Eloi battlefield on April 4th from the Journal of Private Donald Fraser (p. 113-4).  Note that the area of the battlefield he describes is exactly that where J. H. Nicholls spent the final three days of the battle.  It was probably even worse to behold when Nicholls arrived there on the night of April 5th/6th.   

 An aerial photograph of roughly the same area shown in the preceding maps.  The four large craters across the bottom correspond to numbers 2-5 on the preceding maps.  Nicholls' Company occupied Craters 6 and 7 (blue) just northeast of 5.  Note how many more craters there are in reality than in the maps.  

An aerial photograph of roughly the same area shown in the preceding maps.  The four large craters across the bottom correspond to numbers 2-5 on the preceding maps.  Nicholls' Company occupied Craters 6 and 7 (blue) just northeast of 5.  Note how many more craters there are in reality than in the maps.  

"When day broke, the sights that met our gaze were so horrible and ghastly that they beggar description.  Heads, arms and legs were protruding from the mud at every yard and dear knows how many bodies the earth swallowed.  Thirty corpses were at least showing in the crater and beneath its clayey waters other victims must be lying killed and drowned.  A young, tall English lieutenant lay stretched in death with a pleasant, peaceful look on his boyish face.  Some mother's son gone to glory... Another English second lieutenant was lying at the edge of the crater, huddled up, with his legs uppermost.  One of the most saddening cases was a stretcher bearer near half a dozen dead Tommies, a little to the right of the trench...  He was sitting with a bandage between his hands in the very act of bandaging his leg, when his life gave out, and his head fell back, his mouth open, and his eyes gazing up to heaven, as if in piteous appeal.  There he sat in a natural posture as if in life, the bandage in his hands and the Red Cross bag by his side.  Lovett was his name and he belonged to the King's Liverpool.  Another strange appalling spectacle was a couple of Tommies sitting on the firing step, the head of one had fallen forward on his chest, and between his fingers he still held a cigarette.  There he was as if asleep, yes, but in a sleep that knows no awakening.  His comrade beside him was in a sitting position but inclining sideways. Both were unmarked and must have met there doom by concussion.  In the support line an Imperial [British soldier] with a Balaclava cap on was lying on a stretcher, dead.  Eight bodies of British soldiers were collected in the crater for burial, when a shell came over and burst amongst them, plastering Webber and Doull with gangrened flesh.  At daybreak one of the bombers [soldiers who specialized in grenade throwing] was shocked to find himself standing between a dead German and English officer, whilst close by was a German private and English Tommy.  What trench mats there were seemed to rest on bodies.  One could not dig anywhere without coming across a human corpse."

The Germans unleashed a devastating barrage on the Canadian positions on the 4th that intensified on the 5th. Experienced British artillery officers observing from hidden posts nearby called it the worst barrage they had ever seen.  It utterly destroyed the Canadian front-line trenches and most of their dugouts, forcing the men to take cover in shell holes in the open.  The Battalion Medical Officer gives a good sense of the effect.  Note his mention of shattered nerves (shell shock) toward the bottom of the page.

31.wardiary.MO.April6.png
 German attack of April 6, 1916. Note that Craters 6 & 7 were the most forward and exposed part of the Canadian Line on the left.

German attack of April 6, 1916. Note that Craters 6 & 7 were the most forward and exposed part of the Canadian Line on the left.

 The commander of D Company, Major P. Daly offers an even clearer idea of what Nicholls experienced in the small hours of April 6th, when the German counterattack came (see documents opposite).

Daly makes the best of things in his account of the battle, as did most of the officers involved.  What he doesn't mention is the gap between his position and those of the next Canadian Battalion, a gap through which hundreds of Germans had already flooded to secure the key craters (2-5) and take back all the ground the British had won only a week before.  Simply put St. Eloi was a defeat.  Though thrown into a bad situation and lacking even a clear idea of their own positions, the relatively inexperienced Canadians found themselves overmatched by better led, more experienced, better supported, and better equipped German troops.  The entire 6th Canadian Brigade had been severely mauled.   The 31st got off marginally better than one of its sister Battalions, the 27th, but still lost 182 men killed(29), wounded(151), and missing(2) out of 727. 70 of those belonged to D Company.

As a side note, while most of the Battalion left the line on the 7th of April, D Company could not be relieved until the night of the 8th on account of their advanced and isolated position.  Moreover, because of the planned relief, no one had organized a resupply of food and water.  This meant another day under fire in the craters, scrounging rations and water from the dead, before they too could return to Camp A.

Daly.Report.St.Eloi.1.png
Daly.Report.St.Eloi.2.png

Contemporary images of St. Eloi

 

Respite?

Even then they were not done with St. Eloi.  As early as the 14th and 15th, the 31st supplied working parties to help clear and rebuild the trenches still held by the 2nd Division.  These parties were so large (400 men) that virtually all of the unwounded, including Nicholls, must have been involved. By day they participated in daily inspection parades and received instruction on the new type of gas masks (box-respirators) soon to be supplied. They also began to integrate large numbers of replacements.  

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This wearing cycle of Line - Reserve - Line - Reserve continued through the first week of May.  While in the line (often in and around Scottish Wood - see red circe on map above - between Dickebusch and Voormeezle) the 31st endured savage artillery barrages, a stand-to for gas attack (gas hoods on!), harassment by enemy aircraft, trenches hardly worth the name or two thirds filled with water, exhaustion, trench foot, false alarms about enemy mining activity, and approach marches so dangerous men could only move in groups of 3 or 4 and with ample separation between groups.  While in reserve, they drilled (musketry, including speedy magazine change was a special point of emphasis) supplied working parties to forward areas, or paraded for inspection visits from the brass - something the men appear to have loathed. 

On May 8th Nicholls' battalion left the line for an extended rest in Divisional Reserve near Reninghelst.  Over the next 16 days, the 31st experienced their longest time away from the line during Nicholls' service.  A lucky few went on long awaited leave or a training course. The remainder had inoculations, divine service, physical drill, Battalion sports (their soccer match against the 29th Battalion ended in a 0-0 draw), and lots and lots of training.   (See document to the right for an example of their daily routine in this period.)  And of course, there were still working parties for the front lines numbering in the hundreds.  Even so, Nicholls and his colleagues must also have enjoyed the offerings of the YMCA as well as the local estaminets on a pretty regular basis during this sojourn at Reninghelst.  With luck (i.e. a pass) they may even have gotten further afield, to the larger centres of Poperinghe or Bailleul where there were recreational opportunities to suit virtually any taste.

 Daily training routine of 31st while in Divisional Reserve in May 1916.

Daily training routine of 31st while in Divisional Reserve in May 1916.

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On the night of May 22, they left Divisional Reserve and moved forward to Battalion Reserve near Scottish Wood.  On the 27th they went back into the trenches near Voormezeele - facing the usual dangers of rifle fire, machine guns, and artillery.  On the 29th, a dramatic dogfight between a British Scout plane and a German reconnaissance plane drew the entire Battalion's attention.  After a prolonged duel, the British aircraft spun toward the ground, righted itself briefly and then crashed to the earth in the trenches held by the 31st, who inspected the wreckage and recovered the body.  That same evening, the Machine Gun Section took part in a ploy to stop a German position from sending up flares that allowed their machine guns to sweep the main road south toward Lille with dangerous accuracy.  If Nicholls did not take part in this action, as a member of the MG Section, he must have known all about it.

 Field Ambulance, Ypres Salient 1916

Field Ambulance, Ypres Salient 1916

Over the next two days, the 31st received visits from the Corps Commander, General Julian Byng, and the Divisional Commander General Turner.  By then Nicholls must already have been feeling unwell.  For, on the 31st, he reported sick was diagnosed with influenza and sent to the 4th Canadian Field Ambulance at Ouderdom.  It must have been a proper case as well, for the Medical Officer of the 31st was a real stickler when it came weeding out shirkers.  From the Field Ambulance, Nicholls proceeded to the 2nd Canadian Divisional Rest Station in Reninghelst.  He remained there for the best part of a week.  When he left to rejoin his unit on June 7th, the 31st had moved north, into the heart of the Ypres Salient.

 

Ypres Salient

The 31st moved into the Ypres Salient on June 1st.  The ruined town had long since become a byword for danger, but it is unlikely any of the 31st had any inkling of what was in store for them in the next week as the ruins hove into view.

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Private Fraser describes Ypres as approached from the West, along the road from Poperinghe. "Presently we leave the shade of the trees and at cross roads we view the approach to Ypres.  On the right the fields give a sense of openness and we miss the friendly protection of the trees.  On our left is a huge building , encircled in parts by a wall. A number of gaping holes in the latter forcibly tell us to hurry on.  The building on the whole is not nearly as badly damaged as those we have already passed.  Being isolated on the outskirts of the town it has a commanding appearance and readily arrests our attention as a landmark beyond the ordinary.  It is the Seminary.   Further along on the right side of the road is a stretch of houses completely destroyed.  Continuing on we enter the town passing over both railways and canal.  The former is still used at night to transport  troops between the town and Poperinghe, but the latter is dry for the locks and banks have been smashed by shell fire.  Ypres, strangely silent, with its gaunt, skeleton buildings frowning down upon you is a dead city and the city of the dead.  Beneath its crumbling walls and accumulated debris, many bodies of soldiers and civilians lie entombed. The noxious and peculiar odours emanating from the buried cellars arise from the dead.  Words fail to express the destruction of this city... The square was studiously avoided and little bunches travelled through the narrowest streets on their journey through the Lille or Menin gate.  Perhaps this was the best time to view Ypres in its ruined splendour, if such a term can be applied, for as months rolled on shelling continued buildings rapidly disappeared into dust, settling down till in many places scarcely the outline could be discernible." (Journal of Private Fraser p. 154-5.)

 Map of Ypres, showing where Fraser entered the city and where he left it (the Lille gate at the south of the city); the route in between those two points is speculative but consistent with his description of avoiding the square. 

Map of Ypres, showing where Fraser entered the city and where he left it (the Lille gate at the south of the city); the route in between those two points is speculative but consistent with his description of avoiding the square. 

 A.Y. Jackson (yes, that A.Y. Jackson) 'Houses of Ypres'.  Jackson was wounded in the same battle as J.H. Nicholls, but 1 week earlier. While recovering from his wounds he was tapped to become a War Artist.

A.Y. Jackson (yes, that A.Y. Jackson) 'Houses of Ypres'.  Jackson was wounded in the same battle as J.H. Nicholls, but 1 week earlier. While recovering from his wounds he was tapped to become a War Artist.

On June 2nd, the Germans launched a major attack on the Canadian lines holding the high ground east of Ypres - overrunning Canadian positions on Hill 62 and through much of Sanctuary Wood. They continued to push forward, threatening to break through over the next few days.  On the 5th the 31st was sent in to plug the line south of the Menin Road and through Sanctuary Wood.

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 Green line shows Fraser's route from Ypres to Zillebeke.  Canadian positions in blue.

Green line shows Fraser's route from Ypres to Zillebeke.  Canadian positions in blue.

Private Fraser describes the trip from Ypres to the Front Lines of the Salient near Hill 60 on June 7th.  He was on a party taking rations to the front via wagon. "We leave Ypres by the Lille road. Three quarters of a mile further on we pass Shrapnel Corner.  Another hundred yards or so we take a road that branches off to the left.  The going here was heavy.  Small shell holes, and ruts caused by the traffic over a sodden surface, tried the horses to the limit.  The road was more undulating than usual and this added to the strain.  A few shells came over our heads on the way to Shrapnel Corner.  We zig-zag our way along a sheltered road, till we debouch on the open.  On the right we can make out a long ridge, the southernmost part of which is Hill 60.  For the first time I observe a communication trench [a trench running between the rear areas and the Front Line 'firing' trenches] below us, at the right side of the road and soldiers passing along it.  The truth dawned upon me that we were within range and view of the enemy, so I changed my position by getting on the sheltered side of the limber.  Shortly after this stray bullets whistled around causing us to emit muffled oaths.  On reaching Zillebeke, instead of turning to the left, we continue on, pausing where a road led up to the [Observatory] ridge on our right."  [Journal of Private Fraser p. 155.]

 The view Fraser had when he 'debouched into the open' on his way to Zillebeke.

The view Fraser had when he 'debouched into the open' on his way to Zillebeke.

Nicholls left the Rest Station on the 7th and rejoined his unit the next day.  They were just leaving the Front line trenches for billets in Ypres, having successfully held off the final German attacks.  Their success came at great cost - with nearly 170 killed and wounded. Moreover, 43 men presented themselves to the Medical Officer with shaken nerves - i.e. borderline shell shock - the next day.  Even so, the next night the 31st sent 300 men to work in the Front Lines.  So recently returned from rest, Nicholls would certainly have been on that working party.  And on the 11th of June the whole Battalion, went back to the Front lines between the Menin Road and HIll 62.  The unit was still severely under strength and the weather was appalling - steady rain and strong, raw winds.

 View toward the front lines on the high ground between Hooge and Sanctuary Wood, with HIll 62 just out of Frame on the right.  As seen from roughly grid square 17 on the map below.  By the time Nicholls arrived, the British Front Line marked on the map had been taken by the Germans.

View toward the front lines on the high ground between Hooge and Sanctuary Wood, with HIll 62 just out of Frame on the right.  As seen from roughly grid square 17 on the map below.  By the time Nicholls arrived, the British Front Line marked on the map had been taken by the Germans.

 Otto Dix' painting of view from German Lines toward Ypres.

Otto Dix' painting of view from German Lines toward Ypres.

 Paul Nash, 'The Menin Road' (1917) . The 31st was stationed south of this road (i.e. the near side).

Paul Nash, 'The Menin Road' (1917) . The 31st was stationed south of this road (i.e. the near side).

The 31st went into what had formerly been the Reserve Trenches between the Menin Road and Sanctuary Wood, but were now the Front Line trenches on June 11th. (See map below) The weather was terrible: steady rain and strong, raw winds.

 The 31st occupied the brown line from 74R on the Menin Road (running across map at an angle near top) to S.P. (Strong Point) 14.  The two blue slashes between 65R and Gourock Rd. appear to be MG positions described in the War Diary.  Nicholls was likely in one of those positions on the 13th.  Some trenches aren't numbered on this map.  64R, 63R, 62R etc. would follow the brown line south from 65r to the intersection with Durham Lane. R stands for 'reserve'.

The 31st occupied the brown line from 74R on the Menin Road (running across map at an angle near top) to S.P. (Strong Point) 14.  The two blue slashes between 65R and Gourock Rd. appear to be MG positions described in the War Diary.  Nicholls was likely in one of those positions on the 13th.  Some trenches aren't numbered on this map.  64R, 63R, 62R etc. would follow the brown line south from 65r to the intersection with Durham Lane. R stands for 'reserve'.

Images of Sanctuary Wood and Hill 62 (Tor Top)

 Canadian counter attack on Mount Sorrell/Hill 62, June 13th, 1916.  Nicholls' approximate position at bottom edge of blue circle.

Canadian counter attack on Mount Sorrell/Hill 62, June 13th, 1916.  Nicholls' approximate position at bottom edge of blue circle.

 On this tour, the 31st had a specific job to do beyond just holding ground; they were to support the Canadian counter attack on the high ground of HIll 62 and Mount Sorrel to their right, set for June 13.  This support took the form of a deception by means of a smokescreen and heavy rifle and MG fire designed to make the Germans think the attack was coming from the 31st's positions.   Because the MGs played a central role in this deception plan, Nicholls would have been directly involved in the action on the 13th.  As a private, it is unlikely that he was the man on the trigger.  More likely he was handling ammunition resupply or assisting with barrel changes.

The counter attack kicked off with a major artillery shoot at 12:45 PM.  It lasted till 3:45, during which time the 31st set off its smoke bombs, engaged in rapid rifle fire, and swept the German lines with MGs.   The deception worked and the counterattack went in with very little response from the German artillery, whose attention was fixed on the 31st.  Unfortunately for the 31st and for Nicholls in particular, this meant that the majority of German shells fell on their positions.  This continued through most of the day and some time in the late afternoon or evening, Nicholls' gun position came under fire.

"Two of our Colt guns, in Trench 63, near Sanctuary Wood, were put out of action along with one of the crews."  31st War Diary. 

That is a pretty anodyne description of what must have been a horrific experience.  The appalling impact of shrapnel and shell fragments on the human body was one of the abiding horrors imprinted on veterans of the First World War. Two men on the crew were killed outright and others, like Nicholls, were wounded.  The scene must have been appalling. (I'll spare you any imagery, but it is there to be found via a Google search if you feel the need to see the reality for yourself.)

 

Hit in the forearm by shrapnel, Nicholls would have been patched up with the field dressing sewn into his tunic pocket and sent off to the Battalion Dressing Station with those of his wounded colleagues who could still walk.  For him it meant a journey of roughly two kilometres, first along the communication trenches and then along the Menin Road toward Ypres.  But despite the pain, his spirits, and those of his comrades who could walk were likely quite high. They had what were known as 'Blighty Ones': wounds serious enough to warrant a trip to England for treatment but not so serious as to be immediately life threatening.  Strange as it might seem to us, such wounds were seen as a sort of blessing, for they meant an escape from the privations and dangers of the trenches.  The Battalion Dressing Station was at Menin Mill, between Hellfire Corner and the Menin Gate.  At that point he entered the complex system of hospitals and transport dedicated to the care of casualties; the only specific we know is that he passed through the #13 Canadian General Hospital in Hastings. By the 17th he was in hospital in London.  

 The first stage of Nicholls' evacuation:  from Trench 63 he would have moved almost due west, through Zouave Wood and carrying on till he met the road between Zillebeke and Hellfire Corner. He would have followed the road north before cutting northwest toward the Menin Mill Area.

The first stage of Nicholls' evacuation:  from Trench 63 he would have moved almost due west, through Zouave Wood and carrying on till he met the road between Zillebeke and Hellfire Corner. He would have followed the road north before cutting northwest toward the Menin Mill Area.

 The Medical Officer of the 31st set up the Battalion Dressing Station near Menin Mill, alongside several other formations.  It would have been far more chaotic than the scene above.  The Medical Officer of the 31st describes 'a constant stream of casualties'. 

The Medical Officer of the 31st set up the Battalion Dressing Station near Menin Mill, alongside several other formations.  It would have been far more chaotic than the scene above.  The Medical Officer of the 31st describes 'a constant stream of casualties'. 

 Interior of Canadian Field Ambulance Ward, June 1916.  

Interior of Canadian Field Ambulance Ward, June 1916.  

 The page of the War Diary where Nicholls is listed as wounded. It lists him wounded on the 14th.  However, in all of Nicholls' communications with doctors in the following months he said he was wounded on the 13th.  It may be that the details of the casualties didn't make their way up the chain of command until the 14th or that there was simply a transcription error as the war diarist compiled all the casualty reports from various sub-units of the battalion into a single list.  

The page of the War Diary where Nicholls is listed as wounded. It lists him wounded on the 14th.  However, in all of Nicholls' communications with doctors in the following months he said he was wounded on the 13th.  It may be that the details of the casualties didn't make their way up the chain of command until the 14th or that there was simply a transcription error as the war diarist compiled all the casualty reports from various sub-units of the battalion into a single list.  

 

Convalescence

Having journeyed by some combination of motor ambulances, trains, hospital ship, more trains and more motor ambulances, Nicholls turned up in Fulham Military Hospital, Hammersmith London on June 17th.   His intake form notes that his wound card characterized his injury as 'severe' but there didn't seem to be 'anything in it'.  Two days later the diagnosis changed and he had an operation to remove shrapnel and scrape the bone.  His medical forms note as well that the shrapnel fractured both bones in his forearm.  He spent the next two months at FMH as the wound healed. He would have worn the blue flannel uniform of a convalescing enlisted man (see below) - a common sight throughout the UK.  It isn't likely he saw that much of London and its many blandishments until the last few weeks of his time in Fulham. Even then there would have been strict guidelines as to where he could go, when, and for how long.  When he transferred to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital, in Bromley for further treatment at the end of August, he was further out in the suburbs.  But if the routine of hospital life in suburban London was perhaps a little boring, it surely beat the routine at the Front. That said, London wasn't entirely safe from the dangers of the war: several Zeppelin Raids occurred while Nicholls was in hospital in London. 

On arrival at Bromley, it was noted that Nicholls' wound had healed satisfactorily but that movement (both pronation and supination) of the digits was impaired. His doctors prescribed "Epsom for massage & passive movement & P[hysical] T[herapy].  Two weeks later (Sept. 16) he was transferred to Granville Canadian Special Hospital, Ramsgate/Broadstairs.

Granville Special Hospital, in the seaside town of Broadstairs in Kent, focused on the treatment of orthopaedic cases, such as Nicholls, and shell shock.  There he would have seen not only men with far more severe physical injuries than his, but also those suffering from the most severe symptoms of 'Shell Shock' or Neurasthenia as it was then called. There he underwent more therapy in an attempt to improve the mobility in his hand.  Presumably he was able to roam the town within certain limits and passed his time with a variety of structured activities in addition to his therapies.  But after nearly two months of treatment there had been little improvement.  Neither Faradism nor Galvanism could provoke his fingers to extend.  His final diagnosis was Post Interosseus Nerve Lesion, coupled with an 'anterior bowing deformity of the forearm'.  

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 S.S. Andania

S.S. Andania

Both Nicholls' doctors and the officers on his Medical Board agreed that his impairment was likely to be 'permanent'.  As a result he was marked down to be sent back to Canada and eventually cashiered from the army.   He set sail from Liverpool aboard the S.S. Andania on December 16, 6 months after he was wounded, 9 months since he joined the 31st, and 13 months since he arrived in England.  By January 9th, 1917 he was at the Military Hospitals Canadian Commission facility in London, having landed at Quebec, where his wound was reassessed and he was prescribed further convalescent care.  Several months of therapy followed, during which Nicholls likely received frequent visits from his young family.  Though he experienced a marginal improvement in the mobility of his fingers, it was not enough to render him fit for further service.   As a result, on May 31 1916 he was discharged Class 3 and released from service with a 25% disability pension. 

 

Supplemental  Media

The following movie dates from the summer of 1916.  Nicholls had already been in the UK for several weeks when it was filmed, but it provides the best indication of conditions/activities at the Front in this period.