THE history of military involvement for many Australian families runs generations-deep, as Townsville’s Phil Nicholson made clear during an interview with the North Queensland Register.
A 2015 OBE "Over Bloody Eighty" recipient Phil said the lineage of the Nicholson’s military history began when his father, Barcaldine-born, Hughenden-raised Ernest Nicholson enlisted for service in World War I on March 13, 1916, at Charters Towers with the 47th Battalion.
“Ernest listed his occupation as ‘selector’ and his only previous military experience was 12 months in the Army Cadets in Townsville,” Phil said.
He set sail for war on September 19, 1916, arriving in England three months later in December.
He moved to a notorious training camp at Etaples in France on March 14, 1917, and then on to his unit in the field eight days later.
Ernest went overseas with the 5th reinforcements of the 47th Battalion and saw his first action with them. He was later transferred to the 48th Battalion in May 1918.
On June 7, 1917, he incurred a gunshot wound to the leg in an attack on Messines. Ernest was soon back in action only to be wounded again two months after re-joining his battalion, suffering a gunshot wound to the forearm and concussion at Passchendaele.
In April 1918, Nicholson transferred to the 48th Battalion. It was with this battalion, in action near Le Verguier on September 18, 1918, that Lance Corporal Nicholson performed an act of courage for which he was awarded the Military Medal. His citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the advance near Le Verguier on September 18, 1918, L/Cpl Nicholson while leading his section forward showed wonderful courage and initiative when his platoon was temporarily held up in front of Dean Corpse by enemy machine gun fire. He led his men with wonderful speed and skill forward to attack the machine gun.
Being unable to take the gun by frontal attack he worked around a bank and rushed the gun from the flank capturing the gun and 12 of the enemy. His fine leadership and great bravery undoubtedly saved many casualties and enabled his platoon to again move ahead with little delay. His work throughout displayed an untiring energy and disregard for personal safety which greatly inspired the members of his section.”
After a spot of leave in March 1919, Ernest caught chicken pox and was admitted to hospital in England.
Phil said it was while in England that Ernest met his wife and Phil’s mother Isabella.
“Soon after meeting mum he boarded the HMS Katoomba on September 25, 1919, for Australia and was discharged on November 9, 1919,” he said.
Upon their arrival back in Australia, Ernest and Isabella learned that the selection in Hughenden that Ernest’s father, Robert had purchased and which Ernest was to take over, had suffered through a long period of drought during his time at war.
“The grass was almost all gone, and the cattle which should have been sold by the bloke who was managing the station while dad was overseas should have been sold off they were pretty emaciated,” Phil said.
Ernest had no choice but to sell the station which by that point was worth virtually nothing to help pay off the tax bill that had accrued.
From that point he began his career a station manager which saw him put in control of several operations around Hughenden. It was a position he thrived in.
In a cruel twist of fate while moving cattle to the Charters Towers show in 1939 there was a disturbance in the mob and while attempting to pacify the cattle Ernest was crushed and killed.
Phil who was four at the time of his father’s death said it was bitter irony that Ernest who’d survived being wounded twice while at war, would lose his life suddenly in peace time.
After his father’s passing, Phil moved with his mother and six siblings to Townsville. It was in 1953 after finishing school and meeting “the love of his life” Norma, that Phil was about to have his commission increased at his job driving trucks for the Townsville-based Cob’s soft drink company when he was conscripted into National Service at age 18.
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and insufficient recruitment numbers for the regular Armed Services, had led to the Menzies Government re-introducing the National service conscription scheme which lasted from 1951 to 1959.
“At the time I was trying to find any way to get out of doing it, I was really enjoying my life at the time.
But go he did, and Phil spent three and half months training at Wacol Army Barracks in Brisbane.
According to Phil being huddled together 24 men to a marquee really molded the men together by the time their training had been completed,
“I built up a great level of camaraderie with my fellow conscripts, and it there was never a dull moment as you got to learn something new every day.
He said it was a testament to the unity and hard work of the Nashos that of the 287,000 that were conscripted, only one was ever dishonourably discharged.
“I honestly feel sorry for those that haven’t experienced some form of military service; it instils a great sense of confidence and discipline. Once you accept discipline as a part of your daily life, you really grow to enjoy and appreciate it.
“While I was initially reluctant about being called up, in hindsight I’d do it all again.”
Phil enjoyed the Nashos so much that he continued on in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) driving ambulances for several years after he was conscripted.
Phil has a wall devoted to various family members of which you can sense he’s rightly proud. His eldest brother Ernie was an infantryman in the Australian militia who formed the first line of defence against the Japanese during the Battle of Milne Bay in 1942 which is considered the first major battle in which Allied troops decisively defeated Japanese land forces during World War II.
Both Phil’s son and grandson have kept the families military tradition alive over more recent years.
“My son Les was heavily involved with the CMF for over 10 years where he went through officer’s training and was on his way to being promoted to Major before he was forced to opt out due to the effects of arthritis.
“Les’s son Tavis (Ernest’s great-grandson) is a PT instructor with the ADF (Australian Defence Force) stationed at Enoggera, Brisbane, helping wounded troops rehabilitate. He has been in the ADF for 10 years now, and was formerly a rifleman who went on tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s currently a Corporal is hoping to be promoted to Sergeant soon).”
With his beloved wife Norma by his side Phil said that anyone who’s unsure of what they want to do with their life should enlist in the ADF.
“I believe that military service gives you many of the requisite skills needed to be successful in just about any sort of career, and has a habit of bringing to the fore the self-confidence that it seems many younger people are lacking these days.”
The North Queensland Register is calling on people from all walks of life to call in regarding their family stories whether it be related to the Anzacs, a multi-generation grazing operation or something else that you think may be of broad interest to readers. To get in touch with us call (07) 47593000 or email editorial team members Reg Burton at email@example.com or Matt Sherrington at firstname.lastname@example.org .au