Photograph stirs memories

As promised in an earlier post, here is the photograph of my great grandfather William John Nicholls, who served with the 48th Highlanders.

My mother found two postcards that he wrote from Engelskirchen, Germany to his mother and father and soon-to-be wife and later this photo.

My mother remembers that he attended her wedding, coming from British Columbia to Matheson ON (site of a historic fire mentioned earlier on this blog) for the ceremony.

He raised seven children, sometimes alone after two wives died (one in childbirth as she was delivering twins).

If anyone would like to share stories of their ancestors and some of the hardships they endured, please do.

Would also love to hear from any of my family members who would like to share more stories of great-grandpa Nicholls.

And thanks to a blog reader who contributed this 48th Highlanders crest.

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19 thoughts on “Photograph stirs memories

  1. A viewer of this post inquires: Any photographer information?
    Could we have a colour image too, to identify the parts of this traditional Scottish uniform?
    Its distinctive red jacket will appear on TV in Remembrance Day massed bands. Pipes and drums.

    Here’s a try at identifying the various elements –
    Hat: Glengarry.
    Waist: sporran
    Do you know what the tartan is yet ?
    Feet: spats.
    Did you find a little dagger – the skean dhu, worn in top of a knee sock?
    One of our forebears was gassed on Easter Monday, April 9 1917, at Vimy. He died in his
    mid-50s and family felt his life was shortened appreciably by the gas exposure. A dirty
    weapon.. Our 48th ancestor was a medical man, serving overseas in both WWs.

  2. No dagger that I could see in the photo and no name of photographer unfortunately.
    Don’t know the tartan yet.
    Despite being gassed my great-grandfather lived to his mid 70s.
    Hoping to find more information on when and where the gas attack was.

  3. A couple of library books that would help place the Regiment between
    when we find William in Toronto, spring ’18, and in Germany by the
    end of the year, and show where the troops came under a enemy
    gas attack.

    – Dileas; history of the 48th Highlander of Canada, 1929-1956
    Beattie, Kim Toronto / Published by the Regiment 1957 847 p.:ill.
    and
    – 48th Highlanders of Canada, 1891-1928 -maps by E.W. Haldenby.
    Beattie, Kim Toronto : 48th Highlanders of Canada, 1932.

  4. Can any of the experts here share any information or theory about what kind of weapon (sword?) is being held horizontally behind this soldier’s back? Is this a standard issue weapon or a photgrapher’s prop? Is this a standard pose of the period or possibly a statement of defiance or maybe even a somewhat cheeky display of war booty?

    It seems the photograph was taken in all probability in a studio (note backdrop does not line up with foreground.) Anybody know if it was common for photos to be taken in Canada (pre-deployment) or were they taken abroad. Has anybody noticed if other photos in the archives have a similar backdrop? This of course might lead to discovering one having a photo studio or photographer’s name or trademark insignia on the back that can point to further identification information.

  5. Anyone,
    I would definitely say it is taken in a studio. We have a second photo of William with his arms crossed in front of him leaning on a desk or table. It is a posed shot. While William looks quite comfortable, I suspect other soldiers were not as thrilled about posing.
    As the photos were taken before action, doubt any “booty” would be present or appropriate.
    I have sent a query to the 48th Highlanders museum in Toronto to see if someone there can answer a question about the weapon worn.

  6. Yes, pose may not be unusual if compared to others of the period. Could be a standard stance with regimntal sword or firearm. Don’t know if pose signifies something.
    Thanks. Would be interesing if 48th Highlanders Museum had additional info. Would be interesting to see what they could add—possibly they know name of the photo studio if private business, or I might suspect, the name of their regimental photographer if taken internally on base.

    Photos of soldiers with captured armaments, prisoners, and assorted trophies of triumph is not too unusual, quite normal (no doubt, perhaps distasteful, or inappropriate) but we have seen the tendency even with our own troops in the current conflicts.

    Military memorabilia fairs abound with ‘enemy’ mementoes captured or traded as ‘booty’ or ‘amulets’ bestowing luck, protection, or invincibility.

  7. The folks at the museum have promised to do some digging for me about my ancestor but said it will take some time as they have a list of other inquiries as well.
    I will share what they uncover.

  8. Received an email from W.P. (Bud) Gillie answering some of the questions above.
    Much appreciated.

    I discovered your photo of your great grandfather when I was searching for something else on “highlanders” and I went to your blog to find your email address. I was a 48th Highlander from 1977 until 1999. The 48th Highlanders raised 3 separate battalions for the Canadian Expeditionary force: the 15th, the 92nd and 134th and numerous individual companies and drafts. Only the 15th served as a battalion in France due to the high number of casualties and the lack of a system for replacements. At the battle of Second Ypres, fought in April 1915, (the first use of poison gas) less than 100 soldiers were left out of 1000.

    The tartan of the kilt is Davidson, the tunic (jacket) is khaki (brownish green), the hat is called a glengarry, he’s wearing a horsehair sporran, the stick is a photographer’s prop (not military or 48th) and I can answer other questions if you’d like me to. In the second photo he’s wearing what we call a balmoral, others call it a tam o’shanter. There is a movie online of the 15th battalion coming home to Toronto. The 48th has a museum in downtown Toronto in the basement of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (King St and Simcoe).

    And your uncle is wearing a Lorne Scots cap badge.

    W.P. “Bud” Gillie
    former Regimental Sergeant Major
    48th Highlanders of Canada

  9. Received an email from W.P. (Bud) Gillie answering some of the questions above.
    Much appreciated.
    This is wrote he wrote to me:

    I discovered your photo of your great grandfather when I was searching for something else on “highlanders” and I went to your blog to find your email address. I was a 48th Highlander from 1977 until 1999. The 48th Highlanders raised 3 separate battalions for the Canadian Expeditionary force: the 15th, the 92nd and 134th and numerous individual companies and drafts. Only the 15th served as a battalion in France due to the high number of casualties and the lack of a system for replacements. At the battle of Second Ypres, fought in April 1915, (the first use of poison gas) less than 100 soldiers were left out of 1000.

    The tartan of the kilt is Davidson, the tunic (jacket) is khaki (brownish green), the hat is called a glengarry, he’s wearing a horsehair sporran, the stick is a photographer’s prop (not military or 48th) and I can answer other questions if you’d like me to. In the second photo he’s wearing what we call a balmoral, others call it a tam o’shanter. There is a movie online of the 15th battalion coming home to Toronto. The 48th has a museum in downtown Toronto in the basement of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (King St and Simcoe).

    And your uncle is wearing a Lorne Scots cap badge.

    W.P. “Bud” Gillie
    former Regimental Sergeant Major
    48th Highlanders of Canada

  10. Mr. Gillie – that’d be the Toronto regiment and the battalion in which, as young men, writer
    Gregory Clark and artist James Frise served overseas, Can you think of other WW1 names
    that later became well known in Canada ? It’s easier to picture a unit if we know of some
    individuals – many just students – who served in its uniform and lived to re-enter civilian life
    and occupations.
    You mean the men were kept together as a distinct Battalion, rather than being dispersed amid
    other units ? This was a big issue wasn’t it, Canadians kept in identifiable fighting bodies.
    Astounding to meet someone and then realize later he’d been a player in momentous events in
    wartime…Back then few even explained their former military/’war veteran’ status – just too common
    an experience to make a point of socially..
    April ’15’s huge number of “fallen” at Ypres must have been on the mind of Major McCrae on
    May 3 when pondering Lt. Helmer’s diarized desire to get a good sleep and the growing rows on
    rows of grave markers before him he created the Poppy for Remembrance imagery.

  11. I’m not “the” expert on the15th Battalion but there are a group of former 48th Highlanders who are currently becoming just that. Brigadier General (retd) Greg Young, a former Commanding Officer of the 48th Highlanders and a retired history teacher has spearheaded a project to mark the places on the European battlefields where the 15th Bn fought. There’s website that’s under construction and the project has developed in many directions. The link is:

    http://15thbattalioncef.ca/

    The 48th Museum is a truly wonderful museum. It has greatly assisted the 15th Bn Memorial Project team by providing photographs and documents and is currently preparing to loan the Passchendaele Museum items to display in their new addition which will open this summer.

    It’s the stories of the soldiers that are are remarkable. The first Canadian officer to be killed in the war was a 15th Bn officer; his grandson became the Regimental Sergeant Major after me. A father and son serving in the 15th Bn both died on the same day – I can’t imagine the grief that his wife/his mother went through. There are photographic scrapbooks from 15th Bn soldiers who were taken prisoner at Ypres which are odd glimpses of life as a prisoner of war.

    Colonel Currie, author of “The Red Watch”, was the first CO of the 15th Bn was a 48th officer and a Conservative MP. The political connection must have helped because the cap badge is the the 48th badge with an additional banner. Most of the officers and many of men of the 15th Bn were 48th Highanders but there was a large group from central Ontario that were taken on strength in Valcartier.

    As for notable people, off the top of my head I can think of two. Gordon Sinclair, the journalist, was in the home battalion of the 48th. He was sent to meet the train of the 15th Bn when they were coming back to Toronto because soldiers, authorized and unauthorized, left the train to go home. The other is General Howard Graham. He’s the only Chief of the Defence Staff who was not a Regular Army soldier and later he was the head of the Toronto Stock Exchange. He served as a Sgt in the 15th Bn.

    Lt Helmer was from Ottawa. Helmers settled in eastern Ontario after the American Revolution as United Empire Loyalists. I haven’t connected the family tree but I have Helmers on the paternal side of my family. McCrae, a South African War veteran, was a trained artillery officer and had his own .45 Colt but was getting too old to be a combattant officer in 1914. The Reserve training company at the Canadian Forces Health Services Training Center in CFB Borden is “McCrae Company”.

  12. A first class idea, this focussed website. A real gift to those trying to understand our military
    history and what part any of their kin may have played in it.
    There is some urgency as oldtimers are thinning out, those to whom the men and women of the CEF
    are still real in memory – not just historical names and photos Our last survivor of the CEF uncles
    lived into 1980s. The first lived just long enough to see his own son and daughter return from their
    own war.
    -Glad someone is following Alexis Helmer – he seems to slip through the cracks, even his first name
    mangled in a recent film. On the ‘Virtual War Memorial’ – a national treasure of remembrance
    capacity – his identity file has been linked to John McCrae’s and vice versa.
    The diary quote, found in Sir Andrew Macphail’s book, adds poignancy to the voice the poet physician
    gives to our Canadian “Fallen” up to that date about 9 months into that war.

    A question – that kilt and accessories would not have been cheap. Considering how much such as Kathy’s
    kinsman were paid even with the overseas “danger pay”, how could they all afford it ?
    regards.

    • They couldn’t afford it then and they can’t afford it now. Kilted regiments were not authorized by the Canadian government until the very end of the 19th century and that was with the understanding that private funds assisted in covering the costs of clothing the soldiers. Officers bought their own kit so you had to be wealthy to be an officer, which in my opinion, makes the gene pool a little shallow. Colonel Davidson, the first CO, had to pledge $5,000 1891 dollars (it may have been 500; it’s been awhile since I read the list of subscribers) and in his honour the Davidson tartan was adopted.

      In the Second World War the kilt wasn’t worn because it used up too many yards of wool. One kilt, one soldier but the same yardage of wool could put trousers on four soldiers. Today the government gives the regiment a kilt maintenance grant and at one time you could only use it for kilt procurement and maintenance. Everything else for full dress (“scarlets”) bonnets, sporrans, plaids, doublets, etc was paid for from funds raised by the unit. Each soldier buys his own glengarry to wear with his Distinctive Environmental Uniform (DEU supplied by the CF), full dress, blues (individual purchase for officers and Senior NCO’s) or mess kit (individual purchase for officers and Senior NCO’s) . The soldier also buys his/her own belt buckle. They longer you’re in the more you acquire.

      The regiment would have provided the uniform to Pte Nicholls. An army issued 5 button tunic “cutaway” like a doublet in front and a Davidson kilt. They didn’t wear sporrans for the most part overseas because they probably had enough pockets in their tunics to carry essential items.In fact the “pom pom” (or tourie) on his balmoral would have been knit by the Ladies Auxiliary or the IODE chapter. The same with the garters (or flashes) on their socks. The tartan behind the cap badge on his balmoral is a bit of old kilt cut up by the RQMS (regimental quartermaster Sgt) staff. In our field uniforms it’s the only tie to the pomp of “the Glamour Boys” – the regimental nickname in WW2.

  13. Some not-wealthy men got kilts, certainly in the Toronto Scottish. Likely they did not
    share the precise cost of this grandeur with their wives. After the war the question
    was what can you do with it except invite moths – this not being a tartan one..
    Regimental Sgean dhus, one of the spellings, survived too.. handy for cutting
    wedding cakes.
    Another name of interest is Uof T architecture student Eric W Haldenby, who after the
    war was commissioned to design the 48th war monument in Toronto wasn’t he ?

    • Buying a kilt is a real commitment. I always had a good quality issued kilt so I never bought one. You’re right about the wife though. When she found out my socks cost $125 I was told never to mention the cost of shoes again! The rivalry between the 48th and the “horse blankets” still exists but there’s an unspoken bond between the two units.

      As NCO’s we were forbidden to wear a Sgian Dhu. Only the RSM was allowed to wear one. Probably for the same type of reason that the 48th never stood guard on Buckingham Palace in World War 2.

      Two Haldenby brothers served as officers and I believe both were awarded the Military Cross. Colonel Haldenby designed the Monument at the north end of Queen’s Park; his grandson teaches architecture at the University of Western Ontario. There’s a photo of Eric Haldenby with Dr. Banting and other profs at U of T on a website about the memorial tower at U of T. Not sure if he had a hand in that too.

      • Soldiers Tower UofT 1924 by Alwan Mathers and Eric Haldenby.
        You’re just being grand because the Hodden Grey kilted regiment was formed from the 75th
        Battalion after WW1, and 48th goes back to South Africa/Boer one.
        Eric Haldenby, architecture, is at Waterloo isn’t he, not at Western ?
        The sibling is Robert Ellis Haldenby, very close in ago (CEF attestation lookup)
        Hey Kathy hope you are suitably impressed by the regiment with which your kinsman was connected
        Great way to get the feel of the times by learning about the regiment
        in which he served even if you can’t spot references to him personally. Nice for your
        kids to feel a thrill when “their” regiment marches past in technicolour.

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