As the first official photographer on the Home Front, Horace Nicholls documented the impact of total war on the British people during the First World War. After the war, Nicholls photographed the unveiling of the Cenotaph and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. However, underlying these records of national mourning and collective remembrance there is also a story of personal loss. One hundred years ago, on 9 April, Easter Monday, 1917, Nicholls’ eldest son, George, was killed on the opening day of the Battle of Arras. He was just 22.
In 1914, George had been amongst the first to enlist, joining the Honourable Artillery Company as a private. By early 1917, he was serving as a second lieutenant with the 15th (Warwick) Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery. On 5 April he wrote home:
“Great news! I am going up to the guns tomorrow morning early. I feel so relieved, as life at wagon line is very tedious and uninteresting.”
Three days later, he wrote again:
“I am now with the Battery…I have no news for you except that I am well and very cheerful. My love to everyone. George.”
George was killed the next day.
Every year, from 1905 until 1939, Horace Nicholls compiled a photograph album as a Christmas gift for his wife. In their pages one can see George growing from a boy into a young man. The first page of the 1917 album contains four portraits of George in uniform, captioned “Our dear son George, who fell for his country, Easter Monday, April 9th.”
On the opening pages of the 1919 album is a carefully composed double-page spread of text and images. On the left hand page there is a portrait of George, looking to his left, towards a source of light. On the facing page is a photograph of a wooden cross marking a grave. In what is clearly a heavily retouched image, beams of sunlight pierce the clouds. On the cross can be seen two names, those of George and a comrade, Percy Duckworth, who was killed at the same time.
George Nicholls was initially buried in Ronville British Cemetery, near Arras. The 1920 album contains photographs of this place, showing family members paying their respects. In 1921, George’s body was exhumed and reburied in the nearby Beaurains Road Cemetery. The 1926 album contains photographs of George’s headstone, the newly-completed cemetery and its Cross of Sacrifice, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield.
On George’s headstone is inscribed “He always played the game” - an allusion to Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem Vitaï Lampada (the torch of life), written in 1892.
The last photograph of George’s grave appears at the end of the 1928 album. By this time, the poppy had officially been adopted as a symbol of remembrance. The caption reads: ‘An old comrade visits Beaurains Rd Cemetery Arras during the Great Pilgrimage 1928 and leaves his Haig Poppy.’
The 1924 album includes two official photographs of the war memorial in St Stephen’s Church, Ealing, taken by Nicholls as part of an IWM commission to document London’s war memorials and now part of the IWM’s photographic archive. St Stephen’s Church is only a few minute’s walk away from what was then the Nicholls’ family home in Amherst Avenue. On the memorial, alongside those of dozens of other local men who had given their lives, can be seen the name of George A. Nicholls. A poignant example of how in this instance Nicholls’ photographs blurred the distinctions between the public and private worlds, revealing a personal tragedy that transcends public remembrance.