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The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 1914 - 1919

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

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

"For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in attack. Pte. 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 cheeked 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 twenty-five yards, Pte. Nicholas rushed forward alone, shot the officer in command of the strong-point, and overcame the remainder of the garrison of sixteen by means of bombs and bayonet, capturing four wounded prisoners and a machine-gun.

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"He captured this strong-point practically single-handed, and thereby saved many casualties.

"Subsequently, when the advance had reached its limit, Pte. Nicholas collected ammunition under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire.

"His exceptional valour and coolness throughout the operations affording an inspiring example to all."

The company was thus enabled to get forward to within fifty yards of a pill-box (numbered 19 on our maps) due south of the chateau and on the southern edge of the road above referred to and established a line of posts along the south side of this road, protecting the right flank and facing Gheluvelt. As these posts were established they at once brought rifle and Lewis-gun fire to bear on the enemy defences, and helped the advance materially: in one post a Lewis-gun located and engaged an enemy machine-gun, and put it out of action.

The 1st Company, on the left, had meanwhile advanced under heavy small-arms fire, but was unfortunate in losing, early in the attack, many of its most experienced officers and non-commissioned officers. Eighty yards short of a pill-box (numbered 18 on the map), which lay about seventy-five yards south of the chateau, and midway between the ruins of that building and pill-box number 19, the 1st Company was held up by mutually supporting fire from machine-guns in the chateau and these two pill-boxes. Here Lieutenant E. G. Bristed was killed, while endeavouring to rush pill-box 18.

It was now about 1 p.m., and the Commanding Officer of the battalion sent forward two strong sections of the 13th Company, to assist the 1st and 12th Companies to capture pill-box number 18; but these sections came under very heavy machine-gun fire on leaving the old front line trenches, and lost so heavily that they were unable to help on the advance. Half an hour later, on this being reported, the Commanding Officer sent up to the firing line a full platoon of the same company, but it could not press the attack any further.

The advance was now definitely held up, as the attacking troops had lost the protection of the creeping barrage, with the result that the enemy machine-gunners were able to continue page 215 firing without any interference from our shrapnel. The 1st Canterbury Battalion's firing line now ran about eighty yards west of the chateau and the line of pill-boxes running south from it (Nos. 18 and 19), till it crossed the road on the south of the chateau grounds, and then ran parallel to and about fifty yards to the south of the road till it crossed our old front line. On the left, the 1st Otago Battalion had advanced its line level with the 1st Canterbury Battalion, but was also unable to move any further forward. In order to hold the little ground they had won, both battalions began to dig in on the line reached by their leading companies. The 2nd Company of the 1st Canterbury Battalion was ordered up from the tower to Chord Trench, and came through a heavy barrage of 5-9-inch shells, which, however, fortunately cost the company only one man.

At 2.30 p.m. small parties of the enemy were observed to be moving to the bed of the Seherriabeek, to the south of the front line from which our attack had been made, and to be concentrating there, apparently for a counter-attack. A light trench mortar of the 2nd Battery was promptly brought into position at the right flank of our old front line, and its fire caused the enemy to bolt from their position without waiting to take their rifles or equipment. Our Lewis-guns were trained on the enemy as he fled, and inflicted severe casualties, to judge from the activity of stretcher-bearers for some hours afterwards. About 4.30 p.m. a party of about forty of the enemy approached pillbox 18, but was scattered by Lewis-gun fire.

The work of consolidation was pushed on. During the afternoon, the brigadier sent orders that pill-boxes 18 and 19 were to be captured under cover of darkness: the Commanding Officers of the Canterbury and Otago Battalions had already discussed whether it was advisable to attempt this, and had decided against it, on account of the heavy casualties already sustained, and the risk of losing the few troops now available in reserve. On this being represented to the brigadier, he cancelled his orders. At midnight the two Commanding Officers again discussed the question of attacking the chateau and pill-boxes; but by this time the moon had risen and visibility was good, and the enemy was also very much on the alert. They therefore decided that page 216 an attack could result only in additional casualties. Before dawn of the 4th the Canterbury Battalion had dug a continuous line of trenches along its whole front, and had begun a communication trench across the old No-Man's-Land, near the right flank; and this trench also was completed during the day.

Another enemy counter-attack threatened at 8.30 a.m. on the 4th, when his troops were observed massing astride the Becelaere-Gheluvelt road, about a thousand yards east of the Polderhoek Chateau. On the artillery being informed of this, it opened fire and dispersed the enemy troops, who retreated towards Becelaere. Otherwise the day passed quietly, except for an enemy barrage on the left flank at 2 p.m., which was not, however, followed by any infantry action. During the night, the 1st and 12th Companies were relieved by the 2nd Company and a platoon of the 13th Company, and moved back to the old front line and Chord trench. The same night a party from the Pioneer Battalion dug a support trench seventy yards in rear of the new front line.

Next day the enemy began to shell the old front line at 10.30 a.m., and continued to do so all day. During the afternoon the fire increased in volume and extent, and became intense over the whole sector. At 2.10 p.m. abnormal movement was noticed round the chateau, and a counter-attack was expected but did not take place. The enemy's shelling continued, and being well directed at our new positions caused numerous casualties; our artillery's reply could not lessen the enemy's fire, until at 5 p.m. it brought down a heavy barrage on his infantry's positions. After the barrage had lasted an hour and a half, the enemy's fire ceased. From subsequent intelligence reports, it appears that this barrage caught the enemy massing for a counter-attack, caused him heavy casualties, and forced him to retire: but apparently his movements were invisible to the front line troops.

During the night the 2nd Battalion of the Bedford Regiment relieved the two New Zealand battalions, which marched to Birr Cross road and there entrained on light railway trucks. At about 1.30 a.m. on the 6th they arrived at Howe Camp, two miles south-west of Ypres.

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The casualties of the battalion during the attack are not given in its diary, but those for the month of December were as follows:
Officers.Other Ranks.
There was no use attempting to disguise the fact that the attack had failed, and that on the whole the opposition encountered, though stiff, was no greater than the opposition which New Zealand troops had successfully overcome on many previous occasions. The attack had been held up neither by mud nor by wire. The 2nd Brigade official report on the operation gives the following reasons for the failure:—
(a)Inadequacy of training. Though several days (November 27th to 30th, both inclusive) were devoted to practice over ground especially marked out for the purpose, all reports go to show that the men were not 'intensively' trained to the necessary standard. They started off with considerable elan, and there was no lack of natural courage and grit once a line was formed and the course of action obvious. But a large proportion of officers and men were reinforcement drafts quite unfamiliar with hostile shelling or our own barrage fire. When the experienced officers and other ranks became casualties, many falling in the most gallant efforts to push forward, the new hands—already to some extent demoralized by the short shooting of the 18-pounder battery referred to above—were at a loss and failed to show the necessary qualities of dash, determination, and readiness for self-sacrifice which were indispensable factors for success in this operation. A glaring instance was shown by the troops of the right battalion leaving the assembly trenches too soon, by their returning to them, and on their starting forward again by their page 218 pressing into our own barrage. All competent observers lay stress on this lack of training, and there is no question but that this is the main reason for the failure.
"(b)The strength of the enemy defences. The mutually supporting pill-boxes were mostly undamaged by our artillery. The volume of machine-gun fire from in front and from Gheluvelt was heavy.
(c)The isolated nature of the attack drew intense artillery and machine-gun fire, and its limits were still more clearly defined by the smoke barrage. It merits consideration as to whether a further attempt should not be part of a joint enterprise to include an attack on Gheluvelt and possibly Becelaere."
Other critics add the following reasons:—
(1)The only experienced officers and other ranks who took part in the attack were those who had been in the "B" team at. Passchendaele: practically all the survivors of that battle were sent to the "B" team for the Polderhoek attack.
(2)The period allowed for training for the attack was far too short, and gave neither officers, non-commissioned officers, nor men a chance to know and feel confidence in each other; and it had also been interrupted by wet weather.
(3)A strong westerly breeze dissipated the artillery smoke-screen, which had been put down on the right flank of the attack in order to hide from enemy observers in Gheluvelt the movements of the assaulting troops. The failure of the smoke-screen enabled enemy machine-gunners in Gheluvelt to inflict heavy casualties on the 1st Canterbury Battalion in particular.

It may be noted here that, nine days after the attack, the enemy re-captured the ground which the 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago Battalions had taken on December 3rd.

* Lieutenants W. N. Elliott and E. G. Bristed (on the 3rd), Lieutenant J. A. McQueen, M.C. (on the 11th), and Captain S. L. Serpell, M.C.—Medical Officer—(on the 15th).

Including eleven died of wounds.