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Giving an unknown soldier his name back

A photo of the painting Brendan Collins found in a central Newfoundland antique shop of the unknown soldier who fought in the First World War.
A photo of the painting Brendan Collins found in a central Newfoundland antique shop of the unknown soldier who fought in the First World War.

While browsing through the NL classified ads one evening in June 2017, I saw an ad showing a portrait of a First World War soldier in an oval frame with bubble glass, hanging on a wall in an antique shop in central Newfoundland.

I thought, ‘what a shame for a picture of a soldier who fought for our freedom to end up in such a way.’

I called the owner to find out who the soldier was, where he was from, and how much the picture cost.

The only information he had was written on the reverse of the photo – the numbers 8359, the name Mrs. MJ Nichols, and the address Digby, Nova Scotia. He sold it to me for $150.

I knew the job ahead wasn’t going to be an easy one, but I had to try and find his identity. Who knew – I might be lucky.

I found three soldiers from three regiments with the 8359 service number – two from Norfolk, England and one from Newfoundland.

After contacting staff at a Norfolk archive library with no luck, I thought maybe he was a Newfoundlander, since the portrait was here. The Telegram put the picture and a request in their paper. I thought perhaps I would get a hit, but no such luck.

Mr. Ian Walsh, past president of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #33 in Placentia took a scan of the cap badge and sent it to Mr. Frank Gogos, curator of the RNR Museum in St. John’s, who said it showed it was from the 112th Battalion Nova Scotia Regiment of Windsor, N.S.

It’s hard to read, but this was the only clue Collins had to go on when starting his search - the numbers 8359, the name Mrs. MJ Nichols, and the address Digby, Nova Scotia.

I then sent a scan of his cap badge to the National Archives in Ottawa, and they confirmed that information.

Going back to the Nichols’ surname, I found there were 201 Nichols soldiers in the First World War. After posting the photo in the Digby Courier and on a local radio station, hoping to find someone with a connection to it, I received no response.

Going through the Nichols attestation papers, I settled on a William Carey Nichols from Acaciaville and finally found his only child, a daughter, living in Maine. I called her, explained my quest and she sent me a post-First World War photo of her dad. After she saw my copy, she confirmed the portrait wasn’t her father.

Back to square one.

After going back to the CEF Attestation papers, I came up with a Harry Raymond Nichols, from Deep Brook. Could the Mrs. MJ Nichols on the reverse site of the portrait be his mother?

After searching through endless records of Nova Scotia births, deaths, and marriages, at long last, I came across a death record for James Manning Nichols (1859-1941), and also his wife Mary J. Nichols (1861-1949).

I knew at that moment I was on the right track.

I found all of this man’s siblings. Harry had a twin sister named Harriet who married a Dennis Basil Wright. I finally found a Wright family tree from Nova Scotia created by Doug Goff, and in it the names of Harriet’s sons.

The portrait Mr. Goff, had hanging in his office. He confirmed the soldier was indeed his uncle, Harry Raymond Nichols, his mother Harriet’s brother.

After contacting Goff and telling him my story, he sent me a picture of ‘Uncle Harry,’ whom he had hanging on his office wall forever. He sent copies of both pictures to Harriet’s sons who confirmed my unknown soldiers identity by saying, “you’ve found your man.”

What I found out about the man in the photo is as follows: Harry Raymond Nichols immigrated to the United States in 1923 and settled in Somerville, MA. His next-door sweetheart, Marion Mabel McLelland, immigrated to the U.S. in 1925, and they married in 1927. Marion was a teacher and later worked as a sales lady in a department store. Harry Raymond worked as a bookkeeper for a telegraph company. They had no children and both died in the U.S.

Wonderful. Case solved!

The soldier finally has his name back. The next thing to do is try to get him back home to his rightful owner.

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