Sunday is Armistice Day – Remembrance Day if you like – the 100th anniversary of the end of that four year conflict now known as World War One; the one some had hoped really would be the war to end all wars. It isn’t a day for relitigating the politics, or even for analysing the economics, but for calling to mind and remembering those who died and the sacrifice they made. In most cases, at least from this part of the world, they were volunteers.
I don’t have direct ancestors who died in World War One, or even siblings of my ancestors. But when I reflect on the sacrifices of New Zealand servicemen, I think of my grandmother’s cousin, (temporary) Captain Robert K Nicol of whom I’ve learned a little in the last few years. As it happens (we generally not being a Wellington family), he attended the same primary school as my children, and the same Baptist church congregation that my family is part of today. After all the analysis people like me are prone to, connections like that bring it all closer.
Here is the war memorial bell, still there, at Island Bay school
Robert Nicol probably left school quite young and by the time the war broke out he was a painter – nothing out of the ordinary, and from what accounts there are no particularly special skills.
He served in Gallipoli and then in France (by then a second lieutenant) where in late 1917 he was awarded the Military Cross. The citation for that award read
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When in charge of Stokes mortars in defence of a captured village one of his two gunds was destroyed, so he handed the other on to his Corporal and joined the company, which was in the village. Here he displayed magnificent gallantry and the utmost fearlessness in assisting the company commander, personally leading a bombing party against an enemy counter-attack, and accounting for six of the enemy himself in the desperate hand-to-hand fighting which ensued. His prompt action and fine leadership saved the situation.
The medal was awarded at Buckingham Palace by George V himself.
Nicol was then recruited to serve in a special British Army unit, which came to be known as Dunsterforce (commanded by a Major-General Dunsterville). As a Herald article a few years ago recorded it.
Nicol, assigned the rank of temporary captain, had a solid reputation as a capable officer, handy with the Lewis gun and Stokes mortar and a skilled bomb instructor. It made him a perfect candidate, with 23 other New Zealanders, for special service with the British Army.
With volunteers from Australia, Canada and South Africa, the small band of brothers – the War Office had in mind a secret force of 100 officers and 200 NCOs – had a mission to block the Bolsheviks from the Caucasus.
It was a perilous and risky initiative – the NZ Rifle Brigade History notes the men were told when they assembled that few could hope to come through alive.
After Russia’s exit from the war, Dunsterforce’s role was
After crossing Europe as far as Italy, the soldiers boarded a ship for the Suez Canal and round to Basra before heading up the River Tigris to Baghdad in what was then Mesopotamia. The task set for Dunsterforce was ambitious: to blunt Turkish and German expansion reaching the rich Baku oil fields on the Caspian Sea.
The strategy involved the small Allied unit persuading Georgian, Armenian and Assyrian forces to hold the line against the rampant Turkish armies.
You can read a fair amount about the adventures of Dunsterforce, including the attack on Baku, in various on-line documents, including Appendix V of the official history of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Another branch of Dunsterforce, including Captain Nicol, was in Iran (then Persia)
Hemmed in along the western shores of Lake Urumiah were some 80,000 survivors of the Nestorians, or Christian Assyrians, a thriving people that at the beginning of the war had occupied the fertile lands between the two lakes. Though reduced by repeated massacres they had succeeded in holding their own here against the Turks; but now their ammunition was running short, and utter annihilation stared them in the face. On learning of their predicament the British authorities made arrangements to send up supplies under cover of a sortie by the Assyrians, and, on July 19th, six officers and fifteen non-commissioned officers of Major Starnes’s detachment set off from Bijar with the ammunition, an escort of Hussars from Hamadan accompanying them. They were to be met half-way by a small column of mounted Assyrians, but after waiting at the rendezvous for some days without news of any movement they were unexpectedly joined by the bulk of the Assyrian army, numbering some 10,000, who had inflicted a somewhat severe blow upon the Turks. The engagement, however, had taken longer than was anticipated, and, in the absence of the fighting men, the remainder of the Nestorians became panic-stricken and began to rush southwards along the road on the heels of the army. Now the latter in their turn became infected, and there ensued a frightful and disastrous rout. Presently wounded women and children began to straggle in. This sight was too much for the Dunsters, and three officers and three sergeants, taking Lewis guns and a liberal supply of ammunition packed on baggage-mules, moved back along the human stream until they encountered the Turko-Kurdish brigands at their foul work of slaughter. Fighting, withdrawing, and fighting again, in a series of rearguard actions lasting all through a day and a night, these six brave fellows kept at bay a force of over 200 strong, until the arrival of a detachment of Hussars finally relieved the pressure. In this gallant action Captain R. K. Nicol, M.C., of the Wellington Regiment, lost his life.
A record from a publication of the Western Front Assocation records
Robert Nicol exposed himself to enemy fire whilst gallantly attempting to save the mules which enemy snipers were picking off. His body could not be retrieved from the battlefield.
It was 5 August 1918.
Ours isn’t primarily to judge the right or wrong of the actions, and causes, of those who went before us, but there is something very 21st century about a combat death while trying to get to safety a large party of civilian (religious minority) refugees. Perhaps that is why there have been various articles (including this one) about Nicol – just one soldier among so many – over recent years.
Captain Nicol died in Persia and there was no marked grave. But – strange to realise in this era when relations between Iran and the West have been less than warm – there is Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorial in Teheran (I gather in the grounds of the – large – British Embassy compound). Captain R. K. Nicol is remembered there.
And the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record
And here is how he was remembered back home at church.
At this distance it is easy to focus on the geopolitics, the economics, the peace process, and the next war that came too soon afterwards. But, to me, anyway, this weekend is a time to remember those who served, those who – when circumstances were thrust upon them – exercised such courage, and those who died.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.At the going down of the sun and in the morningWe will remember them.
An article about a new memorial, at Makara cemetery, to the involvement of New Zealanders – including Nicol – in defending the Assyrians, and another recent article about this events.