Eager to go overseas, and never to come home again
I never set foot on the modest front porch and can’t recall if I ever even walked the land, but somehow, I could hear the crunch of the footsteps as if I was there that day 74 years ago.
The thump of shoes on the steps and the rap on the door. The screams and cries of the sisters and kid brother, the resignation of the father who had lost his wife just six years earlier.
I could hear his thick-accented voice — despite never having actually met the man.
Someone likely ran over the road to Aunt Helen’s and Aunt Cubie’s — maybe Uncle Larry, or Laurie, as he was known then.
“Minister of National Defence deeply regrets to inform you that F10517 Leroy Charles Nichols has been officially reported killed in action Nineteenth September 1944 Stop. If any information becomes available, it will be forwarded as received.”
And with that my Uncle Leroy became family lore — mourned by several sisters and a brother for all their lives.
Our home, as others, featured a grainy black-and-white photo of a soldier on the wall — who, apart from the male physique, uniform and moustache — looked just like my mother, Martha.
There weren’t a lot of other mementoes around while I was growing up; I was one of the younger cousins of the family who had never met any of my grandparents, all deceased by the time I arrived, and many things we might have had were destroyed by a house fire when I was a toddler.
So, the trove of documents I sifted through this November were new to me. If such papers exist, they weren’t handed down through my immediate family.
I’d seen the scanty snippet on the Book of Remembrance, but it was while scrolling through that webpage I came across some information about how war records are free on Ancestry.ca.
According to Veterans Affairs Canada’s website, selected military files of the war dead have been digitized by Ancestry.ca through a partnership.
Many people may already know this and many others, not. I had not really done a deep dive into it before.
As happens in families as they branch off, mementos, photos and documents can become lost to the extended family, unless they’re shared somehow through genealogy websites or social media.
Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, the connection seems strongest to the First World War and the fabled heroism and loss, and rightly so.
Back in Nova Scotia, when I was growing up, the Second World War had a huge presence in my family’s life because it was that much more immediate.
My mother, her sisters and brother Larry — who eventually moved to Pouch Cove, N.L., married, raised a family and passed on — had been children of the Depression and then had lived through that dark time of war. They lost a brother. Husbands served overseas or did duty on the home front if not medically accepted for duty.
After their mother died in 1939, they were raised by their immigrant father and worked at the rail car plant that ran the length of the bottom of the town of Trenton, in northeastern Nova Scotia.
He came from Minsk, fleeing the Russian Revolution, and anglicized his name to Charles Nichols, adding Leroy to his first son’s name. (With Leroy’s passing, the fact he never got to have his own children was acknowledged by a sister who named her only son Leroy, and Uncle Larry, who named one of his sons Leroy.)
I deal with documents all the time, and depending on the subject matter, they can be moving, revealing, mundane or explosive.
But what surprised me about sifting through these documents from so long ago was that connection I felt to the moment, the feeling of virtually walking alongside this relative who gave his life to war.
They say my grandfather was stern, but he must have been shaken that Oct. 2. I welled up just looking at the telegram, Leroy’s military mandated will documents and the details of his final pay.
As I said, I never set foot in that wooden A-frame house — a style so typical of Nova Scotia. By the time I came along it was a vacant lot with a lone cherry tree, down Maple Street from Uncle Graham and Aunt Marg’s at the very top of Trenton.
But I saw the telegram deliverer hand it over. Maybe it wasn’t to grandfather. Maybe it was to one of the sisters. They’re all gone now, so I can’t ask.
The writing on some of the family documents looks like my mother’s penmanship; its familiarity misted my eyes.
The siblings of the deceased were all listed — young people then, three just starting married lives. Aunt Dolly’s husband Fred was a soldier himself.
Mom was just 18, Aunt Marg, 20, Aunt Eva, 15, and Uncle Larry, 12. Seeing that list put me right there as they heard the gut-crunching news.
His story was that of a young man, perhaps a bit rowdy, who joined up and spent a good part of the war in training camps in Canada. A typical Eastern Canadian kid — he liked hockey, softball and swimming.
Pte. Nichols joined the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders in 1941, listing his age as 19. He forfeited pay on a few occasions due to going AWOL, but I suspect it wasn’t to avoid duty but perhaps — being a young lad — he’d imbibed too much with his buddies in a Sydney, N.S., tavern, while being posted at Sydney and Fort Petrie.
Or perhaps he’d snuck away to see a girl. I am only just imagining the nature of his indiscretions because it’s also stated that he was intent on doing his duty.
“A few crimes but stability appears to be normal. Eager to be overseas,” reads an appraisal of his physical and intellectual abilities in his personnel selection record from 1943.
Finally, he got his chance in 1944, embarking that July.
And then he was gone, just like that, a few months later. Buried temporarily, and then moved to a plot in a proper Canadian military cemetery in Calais, France.
But they gave good directions to his marker — grave 11, row D, plot 7, close to a school — and one of these days, I’ll go have a visit with him.
The telegram received by the Nichols family in 1944 advising of Pte. Leroy Nichols being killed in action.