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The Nicholls Brother’s Clarinets

Written by Brenden Shirley, Curator of Accoutrements, Social History and Medical

This article is about a pair of clarinets which have recently been donated to the museum and the story of the two brothers from Dunedin that owned them, 8/680 Private Frederick Charles Nicholls and 8/1146 Private Leonard William George Nicholls. Both brothers served with the Otago Infantry Battalion at Gallipoli during World War I. Sadly, only one of them returned home.

2020.69.1 – Clarinet Case of Frederick Charles Nicholls, World War I – National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

Frederick and Leonard Nicholls were the sons of Frederick John and Marion Nicholls of Dunedin. Frederick was the older brother, born on the 8th June 1894, whilst Leonard was born two years later on the 18th September 1896. Prior to the war, Frederick was working as an apprentice carpenter in Dunedin whilst Leonard was working as a warehouse assistant, also in Dunedin.

Both Frederick and Leonard Nicholls served in the Territorial Forces as members of the 4th (Otago) Regimental Band in Dunedin prior to the war. It was whilst in this band that they played these wooden Bohm system clarinets. There clarinets are designed to be dissembled into several parts so that they can be packed away in their leather storage cases when not in use. Both before and after the war, the Regimental band played at various community events including at A & P Shows, dance halls, military funerals, sports events and at convalescent homes. At the outbreak of the war the 4th Otago Regimental band was said to have consisted of 38 members. Although the recruitment of new band members helped keep the band going during the war, in total it was estimated that 54 members of the band served overseas during World War I. Despite this large commitment, only two bandsman died during the war, one of which was Leonard Nicholls.

2020.69.2 – Clarinet of Leonard William George Nicholls, World War I- National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

Both of the Nicholls brothers signed up within the first few weeks of war being declared in 1914; Leonard enlisted on the 16th August and Frederick, one week later, on the 23rd August. Both brothers embarked overseas with the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on the 15th October 1914 and arrived in Egypt on the 3rd December. Upon embarking overseas, Frederick was 20 years old whilst Leonard was only 17.

Private Leonard Nicholls is believed to have taken part in the fateful landing at ANZAC Cove on the morning of the 25th April 1915. He was also involved in the Battle for Chunuk Bair where he was wounded in action (receiving a bullet wound to the chest) and was evacuated to Egypt and admitted to No 2 General Hospital at Cairo on the 12th August 1915. One month later, on the 25th September, he left Egypt on board the S.S.Willochra bound for New Zealand no longer physically fit for service. Unfortunately, whilst on board the troopship, Leonard Nicholls contracted scarlet fever and died on the 2nd October 1915 – he had only just turned 19 years old.

As he had died in transit, Leonard was buried at sea off the coast of Aden. Private Leonard William Nicholls is listed on the Otago Provincial Memorial at Anderson’s Bay Cemetery in Dunedin. This commemorates the 34 local servicemen who were buried at sea during World War I and World War II and who do not have an official grave. Leonard is also recorded on the headstone of his parent’s grave, also in Anderson’s Bay Cemetery, Dunedin.

Photograph of Private Leonard William George Nicholls, published in the Auckland Weekly News in October 1915.

Upon embarkation older brother Frederick Nicholls was recorded as having serving as a stretcher bearer. Whilst it is unknown if he was at the landing in April, we do know that he was at Gallipoli during the attack on Chunuk Bair three month later. Frederick was invalided back to Egypt on the 9th August suffering from influenza (only days before his brother was also evacuated off the peninsula). After his recovery, Frederick rejoined his unit and would go on to serve on the Western Front in France for the next three years before returning home in March 1919. After returning home Frederick got married in 1920, had two children and worked as a builder in Dunedin. He later served as a Corporal in the 4th (Dunedin) Battalion of the National Military Reserve during World War II. Frederick Charles Nicholls died in Dunedin on the 23rd October 1977 age 83.

The clarinets of Leonard and Frederick Nicholls were donated to the National Army Museum in February 2020 by Judy Rowe, the granddaughter of Frederick Nicholls.