Tuesday 11 November 2014

Captain George Nice

Until this September, I'd never seen a photograph of my paternal grandfather, George Nice. I only knew that he was posted by the British army to Secunderabad, India, where my father was born in 1912, and after that he served throughout the First World War, where he suffered mustard gas poisoning and was something of an invalid for the rest of his life. Strange, isn't it, that my father had nothing to show my mother of his past life, not even a picture, and was so secretive that only after his death did we find out that he had an elder brother, George - the name he took despite being christened Cyril - who died of tuberculosis (when I was up for my BCG jab, Dad kept completely stumm).

My father was two decades older than my mother, of that more rigid and unrevealing generation, but even for a man of his age seems to have been remarkably unforthcoming. He became an invalid after a stroke when I was 10 and died five years later, so the longer chats that might have come with maturity never happened. I think I understand: that the fact he never talked about his work as a London fireman in the Second World War must have been to bury unimaginable horrors, while the death of his brother must have been so painful, and loaded him with responsibilities as the eldest son, the new 'George' to look after his by all accounts formidable mother. There was another brother, Harry, an older sister, Hilda and a younger, Edith, who kept the family heirlooms in boxes barely touched until this year.

So it was to her daughter, my beloved cousin Diana in Reading, and Diana's husband Lee, who'd put together a kind of 'presentation' for me, that I went while my mother was staying there a couple of months ago. Lee first presented me with the photo from which the above detail is taken and asked me to guess the identity of my grandfather. The above standard-bearer wasn't my first choice.

He stands, if I've got it right, between Lord Jellicoe and General Gourand, at a Whitehall Remembrance Day ceremony. A second photo, less damaged, shows another scene from the same event.

From what I can make out, he served in the army until 1920 but maintained his duties with the British Legion until his death on 16 March 1944. There's a very touching and personal letter from Major Sir Brunel Cohen to his widow, my grandmother (whom I also never knew), which concludes thus:

I have known him for so long, 22 years, I think, and I would assure you that we shall miss him in the Legion more than I can say. He has been ill for so long and I have always admired his pluck in sticking to his job under such hardship and difficulty. A man of unimpeachable integrity!

I'm going to wind the clock back slowly. There are programmes from four Albert Hall ceremonies of remembrance, such large-scale events in the 1930s. This one took place on this day in 1937.

Here it looks as if my grandfather had gone to a commemoration on the battlefield itself, though there's no date or details.

He became a captain in 1920. He'd gone to France in December 1914 as a second lieutenant in the Fifth (formerly Seventh) Dragoon Guards, received one commendation for valour signed by Churchill and ended up with a special medal in addition to the three awarded to most soldiers who lasted the duration (known as 'Pip, Squeak and Wilfred'; if you got two, they were 'Mutt and Jeff').

The History of the 5th Dragoon Guards published by Blackwood in 1924 gives the details of the action which led to the most prized of the medals, describing events on April 7 1918 in Fampoux Field to the east of Athies:

Second Lieutenant Nice of A Squadron was afterwards awarded the Croix de Guerre for his gallantry in reconnoitring under heavy rifle and machine gun fire to try and find a route for the regiment to make a further advance in the direction of Greenland Hill.

Here's the other side of the Croix de Guerre:

and, quite confoundingly, I also identified a fifth medal as a German iron cross. The mind whirls at this and so much else. How did he come by it? Who will ever know?

Around the war, my grandfather served in Cairo, Secunderabad and Palestine. Slightly curious that I've been to all three places, though I sought out Secunderabad, now a chaotic suburb of Hyderabad, because it always had a magic ring to it when I was a child, knowing that Dad was born there and looking it up in an atlas. Not surprisingly I jumped at this picture, which shows ever stern-looking Elizabeth and George with two of their offspring.

But the children must be Hilda and George Junior, and the location is probably Cairo, because we also came across George's birth certificate, D.O.B. 16 January 1910, Abbasiyeh Garrison.

My father, Cyril, followed two years later. And here he is, seated and serious in front of his Mama, with George the cheeky chappie, young Harry - who went on to serve in the Second World War with the Chindits in Burma, ending up in a prisoner of war camp, an event which scarred him for life - and Hilda (Edith was yet to be born).

Closing in, I have to admit he looks very much like a picture of me with teddy and model racing car aged five, though in my case the serious look may be unidentified myopia. You're spared that pic since I haven't scanned it, but here's Dad again.

Among the papers we also found a photo of Dad in his late teens, signed to Hilda, in which he looks so handsome and happy. But this is about Captain George, so back to the Dragoons. The all-important horse:

and George, third from right, in cod-medieval garb for I know not reason

on the back of which card he's written, which shows he must have had some sense of humour, this to his beloved:

Two more shots will do, a group photo of the Seventh Dragoon Guards in their Abbasiyeh Garrison,  Cairo, before the First World War

amd another after it, of riding instructors, which clearly Captain George became, in 1920.

You can imagine the tumult of imagination this triggered in a grandson who now had some puzzle pieces to join together. I hope it's just the beginning of finding out more about my father's side of the family; it's only a shame I left it until this special year to embark on the discovery. Praise be to a blog, then, for enshrining the information. There isn't a lot about the Nices on the web - only a few 18th century American soldiers, and it's a common name out there, so tracing our Nices back, as we have done for the Parrises - earliest known ancestor a Huguenot refugee from the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, Jean de Paris - is the next duty.


wanderer said...

Wonderful, and your good fortune to have.

This seems a pertinent time to thank David Damant for putting me onto Michael Howard's The First World War - A Very Short Introduction. Brilliant, concise and I couldn't put it down.

And also a heads up on Richard Flanagna's (Man Booker Winner 2014) The Narrow Road to the Deep North in which I am now immersed - the Thai Burma death railway which Mr Flanagan's father survived.

David said...

Isn't personal history so fragile, wanderer - just a few overlooked boxes in an attic and something of a life can be reconstructed. Publicly, there would otherwise be nothing but that short entry in the book on the Fifth Dragoons.

Narrow Road very much down on the list now. First I need to work my way through yet another book on Napoleon's Russian campaign, just ordered up and sounding promising, for my Prokofiev War and Peace classes. We've finally got to the war scenes after six classes, though Graham Vick's imminent visit will postpone them for another week.

Susan Scheid said...

Your comment that "personal history is so fragile" sums up beautifully the poignancy of this post. Personal histories give us an intimate window into history that nothing else can match. Every jot of this post is precious, but I will single out one: the card. First the front of it and the unsolved mystery it contains, then the back, the handwriting as well as the message—and the card itself, a lost art, isn't it, as is, pretty much, the art of handwritten correspondence of any type. Well, one more: the iron cross, his possession of which contains another mystery. The period in which your grandfather lived was particularly rich in incident, and every small thing tells us much. Yes, as you say, “Praise be to a blog, then, for enshrining the information.”

David said...

You get it, Sue. Films and books which see 'history' through the personal, the 'everyday', appeal to me most - Jung Chang's Wild Swans and Zhang Yimou's To Live remain perhaps the most vividly lodged in the memory. The strangeness here is the fragmentary history, all reconstructed from the boxes of papers and photos and medals, with not even a skeleton biography to flesh out.

I still like the art of the postcard, even the pretext of prim thankyous for supper, say, and I was hoping that taking cheques from my students, those near-redundant means of payments, would yield a few accompanying cards (they did).

Rich in incident, indeed; the Chinese curse 'may you live in interesting times' was never more true than for my grandfather's generation, enduring one World War only to live on to another (and a great sadness for me is that he died before the dawn). I think, too, of my dear friend Trude Winik - I may be repeating myself here - who as a child lost her father in the First World War and as an adult the rest of her family (brother, sister, mother) to the camps in the Second.

As for the suffering Cap'n George endured, we can reconstruct nothing between the lines of these official pics as to what it was like in the trenches, on the front line. But the imagination can try.

Anonymous said...

David, I like your word "enshrine." What good use of a blog! Even for someone unrelated to your grandfather and father, it is fascinating, being able to pour closely over these photos and physical connections to your own family's history. Though this post is not long, nor the pictures many, they concisely convey the atmosphere of a time period. The photos speak of their context in so many ways, not just the dress, but the way people posed, and the way they held their faces for photographs.

You bring about a lot of memory and emotion for me, personally, because of the time period involved, though my family history was very different. The photographs are so evocative, but what mostly affects me is the postcard. Seeing the handwriting. It must be the way they taught writing in school then, distinctive from the way I was taught: the writing could be my own father's or mother's. Born just after the turn of the last century, they learned that very precise style and maintained it their whole lives. Even learning earlier that we both had fathers named George says something about the era; obviously, it would have been a popular name at the time. My father's younger sister was also Edith, and I never understood the choice, as I never meet people named Edith now; I hadn't considered that it might have been popular then, as well. So many details whose meanings get lost through the years!

Like Sue, I find the postcard staying with me. We should all at some time receive notes (even emailed ones!) as nice as that. By the way, very much looking forward to a day when you might share the photo "with teddy and model racing car aged five." If there's a Very Special Bear in your story, it would be lovely to meet him. -- Elizabeth

David said...

Indeed, Elizabeth, what very Victorian names - in the Nice instance, Hilda, George, Cyril, Harold and Edith. How it pains me to think that I used to mock the fact that my father shucked off the 'Cyril' to be known as 'George': it was only last month that I found out the name of the brother who, as Edith told us after my dad's death, had died in his teens of TB. It now makes total sense: ma - called of course Elizabeth - would have expected Cyril to become the head of the family and take his dead brother's name.

Special ted was called Leddy and - as the picture reveals - was a she, always sporting a dress of sorts (I especially liked trussing her up in my christening clothes). Peterkins was favourite until he got left out on my potty on the rockery in the rain the night we came back from holiday and lost his squeak. Leddy ended up with stuffing coming out where the patches gave way and only one eye; she shares a plastic bag in one of the cupboards with Peterkins, Binkybonks and - I blush to confess - Golly, a 'present' I think from Robinson's Jam (or was that the badge collection?)

Laurent said...

This is wonderful and love these old photos of a time gone by. So many details here and there, a little treasure you have there.

Laurent said...

Cyril is also my father's name and he changed it to Denis instead, why I do not know. I think he thought to old sounding.

David said...

Thanks, Laurent; certainly a treasury of the otherwise irretrievable past to me. 'Denis' sounds a little old-fashioned to me too, as does 'George', though both are improved - adding an 's' in the latter case, of course - in French. Even 'Kevin' sounds better with that accent. 'Laurent', of course, I think a very poetic name.

Anonymous said...

you may be releated to the eminent international barrister, chambers in The Temple, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC. You may even get a cheaper brief out of it one day if you are, though all lawyers are notorious sharks. By the way, have you ever been one for the Lord Mayor's Show(2nd Sat in November)? I didn't think it was my bag until I saw it all in 1979 - at the end I was laughing and clapping like a five year old. I recommend Sir John Keegan's readable, well-researched study The First World War.
John Graham, Edinburgh

David said...

There are, John, I believe, a few lawyers around doing good for the world, like our dear friend Gwendolen.

I also share my surname with an astrophysics professor at Princeton and a rapper. That's the American side of the family, where there are plenty of Nices.

Went to the Lord Mayor's show a couple of times as a kid and loved it - but then I also kept a Silver Jubilee scrapbook, so you can see how long it took me to acquire a conscience. Hard to take the ceremony seriously after Jeremy Deller's ironic incorporation of footage into his short-film gem English Magic.

Note taken of Keegan's book.

David Damant said...

Anyone with a conscience supports good government structures. The United Kingdom is a republic ( unlike the States which is an {elective} monarchy) - run by parliament. the Cabinet and the PM. The Head of Government is separate from the Head of State which is hereditary. The monarch reigns but does not rule and is the perfect way to keep the republic in order. The monarchy is a device, and a very effective one at that. It has elements of celebrity culture but the existence of so many ( often worthless) celebrities shows how powerful is the human urge to follow human icons and how useful it is to attach that urge to something practical.

I knew John Keegan - he was very wise and human and these characteristics informed his histories

David said...

Not entirely sure where this one has come from. I was referring to my conscience over the basic superfluity and budget-eating propensities of the royal family and pomp in general.

David Damant said...

The budget for the Royal Family is complex but a lot of it is due to Government activities - state visits both ways etc - very expensive in other countries also. Not to mention tourist income. As for pomp, well it has great attractions to many, and builds the "celebrity" aspects which help to make it a powerful device. ( George W Bush did not have to curtsey to anyone, if you get my meaning) George V is an interesting case. One could hardly say that he was an attractive personality, but he knew his job.

Anonymous said...

As someone who collects medals to the 5th Dragoon Guards, it's comforting to see that Nice's medals have survived the ages. In addition to being mentioned twice in "The History of the 5th Dragoon Guards", Nice is mentioned eight times in the regiment's WWI War Diary.

Nice served as a private with the 7th Dragoon Guards during the Boer War (regimental number 4563) before being commissioned into the 5th Dragoon Guards on 13 December 1914. He remained with the 5DG until 12 August 1921, reaching the rank of captain.

Nice was present at the Charge at Harbonnieres (8 August 1918), which I've written about. It's an interesting battle; one of the few instances of an actual horse cavalry charge on the Western Front.

David said...

Thanks, Anon. It's always wonderful when more information emerges - as a result of this entry I have learnt rather extraordinary things about the circumstances of grandfather George's birth an early life, which I've been meaning to write about and will one day do so. Now you add further details, though as I don't know your name I can't look up your book or article.

I was offered a relative I could contact to find out more about the Boer service, and of course as the above states I know my grandfather served in Egypt and India before the First World War, and went to Palestine after it. Always happy to know more, so if you want to keep your name anonymous you could always email me another comment which I won't publish.