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Page history last edited by Lenore Frost 3 years, 6 months ago

Volunteers of Essendon and Flemington, 1914-1918


Nickelson E F    Sapper    2282    Ernest Frederick            2 FCE    19    Metal polisher    Single    C of E        Address:    Ascot Vale, St Leonards Rd, 163   

Next of Kin:    Nickelson, Arthur, father 163 St Leonards Rd, Ascot Vale   

Enlisted:    3 Aug 1915       

Embarked:     A72 Beltana 9 Nov 1915 (Sydney)   

Prior service: 6 F Coy, AE

Awards: Mentioned in Despatches


Date of death:  25/10/1917

CWGC: "Son of Arthur and Alice Nickelson, of "Ophir," 5, Latrobe St, Moonee Ponds, Victoria,

Australia. Native of Plumstead, Kent, England".



Sapper Ernest Frederick Nickelson


Rod Martin


Originally from Woolwich in the east end of London, but by then living in St Leonard’s Road, Ascot Vale, metal polisher Ernie Nickelson was nineteen when he joined the military with his parents’ permission.  He was a small, slight man, weighing only fifty-nine kilos and standing only 165 centimetres tall.  However, his date of enrolment (3 August 1915) indicates that he was by then fully aware of the risk he was taking by joining up.  The copious lists of the dead from Gallipoli had begun appearing in the newspapers the previous month and men were starting to rethink the idea of enlisting.  In fact, July 1915 saw the greatest number of volunteers since the heady days of August 1914.  By the end of August 1915, numbers were down to around one-quarter of July’s figure.


Those men who enlisted after July were given a special, unofficial title.  They were ’Fair Dinkums’, men who knew that the conflict in Turkey was no picnic, yet who were ready to serve anyway.  When they arrived in the Middle East they joined the ‘Dinkum Aussies’, those who had enlisted early and fought at Gallipoli.  8 700 of them had already died.


When he signed up, Ernie was allocated to 11 Reinforcements of 2 Field Company, Australian Engineers. He had previously spent four months in the engineers’ militia, so he knew what he was signing up for. He did his training in Sydney, probably at the engineers’ school, and embarked on A72 HMAT Beltana on 9 November 1915.  At that time, he and his compatriots expected to go to Gallipoli.  However, by the time they arrived at Suez, the peninsula had been evacuated.  Now all the troops were based at Tel el Kebir, on the edge of the Nile delta.




Ernie’s rank was sapper:  a private soldier who performs a variety of military engineering duties such as bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, demolitions, field defences and general construction, including roads.  The sappers provide much of the infrastructure necessary for the infantry to do its job effectively.  On the Western Front, sappers also dug many of the narrow trenches that pointed towards the enemy’s line (‘saps’).  This, of course, was very dangerous work.


Ernie joined 2 Field Company at Tel el Kebir in January 1916.  It, in turn, was attached to 1 Australian Division.  The first task he may have been involved in was that of building a pontoon bridge across a local canal.  Alternatively, he may have been laying concrete floors or erecting showers or mess huts.  If he wasn’t doing one or more of these things, he was probably doing daily exercises in rifle and company drill.  When backs were against the wall, metaphorically speaking, engineers had to take up arms and act as infantrymen.  By 25 January, the whole company had transferred to Serapeum on the Suez Canal.  There was a fear that, now the Gallipoli Peninsula had been evacuated, the Turks could reinforce their troops in Sinai and attack and capture the canal.  The company camped a mile east of the canal and began to construct defensive trenches and works.


Animal transport moving along a pontoon bridge across the Suez Canal, Serapeum 1916  (AWM H02789)


Construction work moved slowly through January and into February due to the scarcity of necessary materials.  On 18 February, an aeroplane dropped a note to the effect that an armed enemy party had been seen not far away, to the east.  6 Battalion manned the newly constructed trenches overnight as a result, but nothing eventuated.  Ernie’s company commander, meanwhile, had noted that, owing to the monotony and sameness of their work, as well as the uninteresting nature of their surroundings (desert as far as the eye could see), ‘there was a marked tendency of the men towards staleness.’  In consequence,  someone came up with the idea of holding a sports meeting. This was held on 26 February and was pronounced a ‘complete success, all benefiting from the marked break it made in the usual routine.’


Once the Australian forces had been reorganised and enlarged with the new recruits from home, it was decided that 1 Anzac Corps and its attachments would move to the Western Front in March 1916.  Accordingly, and after a visit to the camp by the Prince of Wales and General Birdwood on the nineteenth, the unit moved to Alexandria on 23 March, embarked on HMT Simla and cast off at 10.30 pm.


The Prince of Wales visiting Australian troops, Egypt 1916 (AWM C00739)


Ernie and his compatriots arrived in Marseilles on 30 March and entrained in the afternoon, heading north.  At that stage, their destination was unknown.  However, it had been decided to take the division to the area near Armentières, a relatively quiet part of the Western Front, dubbed ‘the nursery sector’.  The newly arrived troops were sent there to acclimatise themselves to the realities of the front without being placed in too much danger too soon.  However, the men had to get there first.  They travelled via Boulogne to Steenbecque, arriving on 2 April.  After detraining, they had to march nineteen kilometres, over cobbled streets in the main, headed for their destination at Steenwercke.  The company commander noted that, after being used to the sands of the desert, the men felt the hard surfaces ‘severely’.


2 Field Company stayed at Steenwercke, in training and carrying out general duties (‘fatigues’) until the second Anzac Day, 25 April.  It then moved towards Fleurbaix, near the German-occupied village of Fromelles, arriving on 30 April.  The company spent the months of May and June providing infrastructure for 2 Australian Infantry Brigade, a component of 1 Australian Division.  Ernie and the others were engaged in constructing trenches, machine gun posts, dressing stations and specially designed trench locations for a new weapon code-named the ‘Rodger’.  This writer suspects that the weapon was the Stokes portable mortar, which came into operation later in  1916.  Up to that time, it was considered a secret weapon and, like the tank, would have had a code name to disguise its nature.  Quite a lot of the work on the sites for this new weapon had to be done at night by the sappers, using hand labour.  All the while, of course, the Germans were shelling the trenches with high explosive, shrapnel and gas shells.  Life was not easy for the sappers!


On 9 July 1916 2 Field Company, as part of 1 Anzac Corps, was ordered to leave Fleurbaix and move towards Albert, a town in the Somme river valley.  The Battle of the Somme, probably the greatest battle of the war, had begun on 1 July when British forces and a smaller number of French ones had attacked along a wide front, hoping to push the Germans back from territory they had occupied in 1914.  The battle was not going well for the Allies.  Territory had been taken, but the human cost was high.  The British Army suffered 50 000 casualties on the first day, 20 000 of them deaths.  By mid-July, British troops had failed to gain ground at a strategically important point called Pozières Ridge, and the intention of British commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig was to use reinforcing Australian troops in a further attempt to take the strong point.  1 Australian Division began the attack on Pozières village on 23 July.  While they were in action, 2 Field Company began digging communication trenches at nearby Contalmaison.


Contalmaison, Somme Valley, 1916  (AWM P07670.013) 


The first sapper of the unit died at around 3.00 am the next morning as a result of German shelling.  Over the following two days, men were involved in repairing and strengthening tram lines that ran from behind the front to the trenches, facilitating the supply of arms, ammunition and other equipment to troops in the front line.  On 23 July, some men were sent to Pozières to dig new connecting and communication trenches.  At first, the task was relatively easy because the continual German bombardment was passing over the sappers’ heads.  However, after 1.00 pm, the shelling intensified and work was stopped after 4.00 pm after a sergeant and two sappers had been killed and three others wounded.  Work was resumed after 5.00 pm when the shellfire lessened in intensity, the men digging out blocked saps and deepening trenches.  Six sappers were sent up to a concrete-reinforced, captured German strong point in order to construct two machine gun posts inside it.  They had to break through the steel-reinforced wall in two places (‘a very tedious task’) to gain access, and they then had to erect sandbag pedestals once inside.  All the while, the Germans continued to shell the area. 


As the infantry inched forward, the sappers moved in behind them, constructing a strong point from materials taken from destroyed German fortifications.  Shelling again became heavy and another sapper was killed.  At around 5.00 pm, during an attempt to mark out the ground for another strong point, a shell fell near the group of officers charged with the tasks.  Some were injured and the major in charge was shot through the neck by a German sniper.  He fell into a crater.


Meanwhile, not far away, other members of the company were repairing trenches or roads damaged by the movement of ambulances and trucks along them as well as by  German shells.  These roads were used by ambulances to evacuate the wounded as well as by trucks bringing ammunition and stores up to the front.   As a result, it was imperative that they be repaired as soon as possible.  That was the job of the sappers.


On 24 July, most of the company was ordered back to Albert.  One section, however, remained at the front, repairing the tramways that were used to cart supplies up to the front lines.  German shelling was very heavy, and it damaged much of the reconstruction work done the previous day.  A number of casualties were sustained during the day, including two men killed.  When the men reached Albert, they were ‘thoroughly fatigued and worn out.’


Sappers were very flexible!  The loading of a heavy howitzer at Pozières in July 1916.  

The man on the far left is a sapper.  (AWM EZ0147)


1 Division was withdrawn from Pozières on 25 July.  It had taken a foothold in the ruins of the village, but had suffered grievously as a result, incurring 5 285 casualties.  2 Field Company lost six killed, fifteen wounded and four shell-shocked.  The company moved back as well, travelling to a rest camp at Bonneville, there to be congratulated for their fine efforts by Major-General ‘Hooky’ Walker.


On 15 August, 1 Division was called back to Pozières to relieve 4 Division.  The battle was still going on.  At the same time, 2 Field Company moved forward to La Boisselles, coming under heavy shellfire.  The men were involved mainly in repairing and creating new trenches, and ensuring that communication facilities were kept in working order.  When they were relieved again on the twenty-first, the company had lost a further two killed, eight wounded and six shell-shocked.  The remainder were reported as being ‘greatly fatigued and nerve racked, the latter was due to the heavy barrages through which they were compelled to pass through [sic] in the course of the duties.’


On 26 August the unit left for Reninghelst in Belgium.  The men were close to the Ypres salient (a bulge in the front line), and some of them were sent there to restore and repair trenches.  Others were employed in repairing an important transport road that was constantly being shelled, and thus contained many shell holes that had to be filled in.  They stayed in the Ypres area for the rest of the month and though September, carrying out much of the repair work in wet weather.  Because of the naturally marshy soils in Belgian Flanders, this work would have been extremely difficult in most cases.


In mid-October, the unit moved south again, ending up in Longueval, France, north-east of the town of Albert, and north of the Somme.  Winter was coming on, and the weather was cold and wet.  The men worked on improving the trenches in the area, fortifying them, laying duckboards, and improving drainage systems.  In the middle of November, they moved to nearby Mametz to do the same kind of work there.  The Battle of the Somme petered out during this month as the weather grew more inclement.  The men would not have known it at the time but they were about to experience what was described as the worst winter in Western Europe in forty years.  Both side hunkered down in their trenches and dugouts, trying to protect themselves from the freezing conditions as much as possible.


Filling a water cart on the Somme, January 1917 (AWM E00174)


Nevertheless, the men had to be careful because the Germans were still alert enough to score a hit when they could achieve it.  In the middle of December, when working on some captured German dugouts at the newly named Fritz’s Folly, Ernie and the others had to work at night because of the proximity of the enemy trenches.  They were working on the construction of some fortified posts when Christmas came.  As the war diary contains no mention of a break or a special treat for Christmas, we have to assume that the celebrations must have been low key or non-existent. 

The type of work the sappers did on dugouts.  (AWM: 2 Field Company War Diary December 1916)


This sort of work continued into January 1917, most of it done in the area of Fricourt, east of Albert, the ground heavily covered with snow, the weather icy cold.  There was some danger involved, as evidenced by the fact that one man was killed and four injured during that month.  A change of routine and scenery came during the next month.  Suffering manpower shortages, the Germans decided to pull their front line back to the heavily fortified Siegfried (Hindenburg) Line.  This would remove dangerously extended salients , all of which had to be stocked with defending troops.  The territory left behind would be ceded to the Allies, but no danger of  positional deterioration was perceived by the German commanders. The Allies, naturally, moved forward tentatively, trying to avoid heavy German shelling and mines and booby-traps that were left by the enemy to make their occupation a difficult one.  On 10 February, Ernie and the others moved north, through Albert, towards Bazentin.  There they worked on a dugout that was to become the new brigade headquarters.  On the twenty-fifth of the month, it was noticed that the Germans had moved back further, so the sappers were ordered to prepare to move forward, looking for land mines and reconnoitring roads.  They then laid duckboard tracks that facilitated access to the new forward lines.  This went on into March, all other work being suspended because the Germans continued to move back.


2 Field Company was relieved on 6 March and moved to a camp at Fricourt.  There the men trained in the use of rifles (‘musketry’) and rifle grenades.  As noted above, in times of need (and they came with Germany’s last offensive a year later), all soldiers become infantry, ready to defend their positions.  Hence the need to be proficient in the use of weaponry.  On the twentieth, the company moved to Méaulte, south of Albert, and became involved in building piers in the river and trestle bridges.  Soon after, the men moved to the area around Fricourt and were employed in various activities there.  By the end of April, they were involved in erecting machine gun posts along the front line at Fremicourt, further north and north-east of the previously German-held town of Bapaume.  This work was far more dangerous, as evidenced by the war diary report that one man had been killed and ten sent to hospital.   The work went on into May, one man being wounded by a machine gun bullet from a hostile aircraft on the eighth.  Throughout the month, the sappers moved around the district east of Albert, quite often having to take their huts with them, carrying out various construction and repair duties as well as military training.


At the beginning of June 1917 Ernie was granted two weeks of leave.  In all probability, he headed for London.  If so, it would have been his one and only time in the big city, and we can hope that he enjoyed many of the forms of entertainment that the capital had to offer.  He was probably back with his unit by 20 June.  At that time, it was located at Bray sur Somme, on the northern bank of the river.  His comrades had been busy building pontoon bridges and making pontoon rafts.  They carried this work on until the end of the month.  On the thirtieth, one group was assigned the task of painting supply wagons.  The rest of the men were taken on a route march ‘to harden their feet.’  The commander obviously felt that they were becoming a bit soft!  These route marches continued during the first three days of July.  The men’s feet had probably hardened up (or blistered!) a bit after that.  If not, then their attitudes most certainly would have!  However, as it was the height of the northern summer, they probably appreciated the swimming parades that were conducted each afternoon.  Towards the end of the month, however, the company was on the move northwards by train.  By 28 July, the men were billeted near Caestre, close to the Belgian border.  The much anticipated Third Battle of Ypres was scheduled to begin on the thirty-first of the month.  After the end of the Battle of the Somme, Sir Douglas Haig decided to take the main battle ground back to Belgium, whence the war had begun in 1914.  Ostensibly, he wanted to capture the German-held part of the Belgian coast, especially the submarine pens located near Ostend.  This would take the pressure off the trans-Atlantic convoys that were transporting American troops and supplies to the Western Front.  He also argued that success in this venture would demoralise the Germans and likely cause the collapse of their army.  The eastern part of the push was aimed at capturing the strategic village of  Passchendaele, a name often used to describe Third Ypres.  2 Field Company was obviously chosen to provide support to the troops operating from the salient east of the town of Ypres.


For the remainder of August, however, the company remained in northern France, doing construction and repair work, training, and assisting the local farmers to bring in the harvest.  The men finally left for Belgium on 8 September, arriving a Dickebusch, near Ypres, the next day.  They were put to work on the tenth, most of them constructing regimental aid and relay posts, grenade dumps and dressing stations adjacent to the road running from Ypres east to Menin.  A major attack by the Australians, devised by Generals Sir Herbert Plumer and John Monash, was planned for the twentieth, weather permitting ( and the weather was generally terrible, and had been since the first day of the battle at the end of July).


Sappers constructing dugouts near Zonnebeeke, Belgium, October 1917 (AWM E01242)


The work in the area continued on up to 20 September.  On that day, the weather was thankfully clear.  The company was held in wait while the infantry went forward.  The sappers then followed in the van to construct temporary shelters and communication lines.  The danger of their position is reflected in the fact that two men were killed by snipers before 6.00 am.  By the end of the day, another man had been killed and twelve were wounded.


The ‘bite and hold’ attack was a success, the Germans being driven back to nearby Polygon Wood. The sappers remained in the captured territory until the twenty-fifth, repairing captured trenches and constructing strong posts.  The work was still dangerous.  On 22 September, another man was killed and one gassed.  When the men were relieved, they moved to nearby Steenvoorde, travelling out from there on a daily basis to construct dugouts that were to be used as the brigade headquarters and dressing stations.  By the end of the month, the weather had deteriorated once more.

Menin Road ,near Westhoek, October 1917.      (AWM E01197)


For much of October 1917, 2 Field Company worked in the area near Westhoek Ridge, laying duckboards for roads and tracks, and tramways for the carting of supplies up to the front line.  On the ninth, some of the men even erected a prisoner-of-war cage.  The Germans were still bombarding the area heavily.  On 12 October, two men were killed and another wounded while working.  The next day, the shellfire was so heavy that work had to be suspended.


On 25 October, a cold and showery day, the men were involved in duckwalk repairs and the construction of a strong point.  As some groups were relieving others, the Germans began shelling their area heavily.  An officer was struck in the left side of his chest and died of his wounds a couple of hours later.  Three sappers were also hit, one of them also dying soon after.  The dead man was Ernie.  He was struck in the chest and spine and had no chance of survival.


His war record does not indicate the reason, but it does tell us that Ernie was mentioned in despatches at the end of the month.  This means that he did some exceptional work sometime during October.  The reporting of this award may have gone some way towards comforting his grieving parents and family.


Ernie was buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, just south of the Belgian town of Poperinge.


(Commonwealth War Graves Commission)





Australian War Memorial

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Google Earth

National Archives of Australia

Travers, Richard: Diggers in France: Australian soldiers on the Western Front,

                             Sydney, ABC Books, 2008




War Service Commemorated

Essendon Town Hall L-R

St Pauls Anglican Church, Ascot Vale*

Regimental Register


No In Memoriam notice in The Argus in 1918

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