The man who never came home

COMMEMORATED: An illustration of Henry Nicholas by Charlie Gates.
COMMEMORATED: An illustration of Henry Nicholas by Charlie Gates.

There is a statue of a man on the banks of Christchurch's Avon River.

He looks towards the Bridge of Remembrance in a casual pose, as if he has returned home after a long time away and seen the war memorial for the first time.

If you live in Christchurch, you have probably passed it many times with no knowledge of the subject's past.

The tragedy of New Zealand war hero Henry Nicholas is that he so nearly made it home to see that view.

Nicholas was awarded Canterbury's only Victoria Cross  in  World War I, honoured for single-handedly taking out a German machinegun post.

Having made it through some of the most deadly encounters of the war, he died just 19 days before the armistice.

To mark 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, this is the story of just one Kiwi soldier caught up in that conflict.

On July 28 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

On August 4, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, bringing New Zealand into the conflict.

A monograph written by historian John Gray when the Nicholas statue was commissioned in 2007 details his early life and wartime experience.

Nicholas was born in Lincoln, just south of Christchurch, in 1891.

He spent two years on the Western Front and was involved in nearly every major New Zealand attack of World War I.

It was Nicholas' actions during an attack on Polderhoek Chateau which won him the Victoria Cross.

The offensive began on December 3, 1917, with gas and smoke bombs dropped ahead of the trench lines to conceal their advance.

The smoke provided no cover as a strong wind blew it away. The exposed troops were taking heavy fire from German machinegun posts and suffered many casualties.

But Nicholas had a plan.

He crept behind a pillbox, shot a German officer in the head, then dropped into the pillbox and killed the remaining 11 Germans with bayonet and bomb in an enclosed space.

Four wounded were taken prisoner and the machinegun was captured.

During his time in the trenches, Nicholas would exchange letters with his girlfriend back home, Ethel Martin.

In August 1918, Ethel wrote a letter to her beloved. 

It was a chatty letter, full of family news and longing for his safe return.

But it never reached him.

It was returned with the word ''deceased'' stamped on the envelope.

Nicholas was killed in France after a German patrol chanced upon his unit in Beaudignies. 

Nicholas was the only New Zealand casualty in the brief skirmish.

His unit faced just one more day of combat before they were sent home.

He was buried at the cemetery at Beaudignies, then exhumed and taken to Vertigneul, where he was buried in the churchyard with full military honours on  October 29, 1918.

He never came home. 

His statue in Christchurch was designed to be a spiritual homecoming for Nicholas.

Its sculptor, Mark Whyte, told The Press in 2007: ''I wanted to show the character of a man who had found himself in a particularly nasty theatre of war.''

"He survived what was basically murder in Polderhoek Wood and now has returned in spirit to see the Bridge of Remembrance, something he never saw in life.''

New Zealand sent 100,000 people to the conflict from a population of just one million.

Nicholas was just one of more than 18,000 New Zealanders killed.

His is one of many stories of death in faraway places that define the New Zealand experience of this brutal conflict.

The Press