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'My grandfather's jaw was shattered, he lost all of his teeth and was badly disfigured at Passchendaele, but the op performed on him paved way for modern plastic surgery'

 

Soldier William Nicholl from Ligoniel, who fought in some of the First World War's bloodiest battles, has a special niche in medical history, as his grandson tells Ivan Little. Now the family are searching for the medals which he won.

It took the Germans a split second to inflict William Nicholl's grievous injuries on him but the courageous Belfast man had to bear the horrific scars of that bloody encounter in one of the Great War's most notorious battles for a lifetime.

And it's now been revealed that the Ligoniel man whose face was horribly disfigured at Passchendaele in 1917 played a central role in the advancement of plastic surgery at the hands of a medic who broke new ground in the treatment of people with similar injuries.

But even though William's contribution to medical science has been recognised, his family in Belfast are still desperately searching for the medals he won during his brief but eventful military career during the First World War.

"We would love to find the medals but so far we've had no luck," says William's 58-year-old grandson David, who still lives in north Belfast.

He and his sister Lesley, who's based in England, have also been on a difficult but 'fascinating' quest to establish exactly what happened to their grandfather, who was born in September 1895.

At the age of 19 he joined the Young Citizens Volunteers and served with the 14th Battalion, the Royal Irish Rifles, who were part of the 36th Ulster Division.

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Michael Davies, his wife Lesley, David and his son Steven Nicholl

After training in Donegal, Randalstown and Sussex, William and his comrades saw action during the fiercest battles of the war.

William survived the Somme and at Messines he fought alongside his two brothers, John and Jim.

John was seriously injured at Messines while Jim was to die three years later in the Middle East and is buried in Basra in Iraq.

William sustained his dreadful injuries at Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest battles of the war, near the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders.

Passchendaele, fought in cloying mud and incessant rain, lasted 103 days and at the end of the battle, the Allies had advanced just five miles, suffering 325,000 dead and wounded while the Germans lost up to 400,000 men.

Just a few weeks ago Prince Charles and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge travelled to Flanders, and Tyne Cot cemetery, for the centenary commemoration of Passchendaele, which is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

David and Lesley went to Flanders to honour their grandfather and to represent him at the tributes to his fallen comrades.

Says David: "He'd never been able to go back in person to pay his respects to his friends who died. So it was an honour for us to return to lay a wreath on his behalf to the men who were left behind.

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So proud: Grandfather William in his uniform

"I'd been there several times before but it was an amazing experience to attend the centenary."

David and Lesley also tried to unravel another mystery of where their grandfather was injured.

David had worked in Belgium 30 years ago and often at weekends he would visit cemeteries and the sites of battlefields.

Inexplicably he was always drawn to the village of Langemarck. "I always had an inclination to go there but I didn't know why. But two days before we went to Flanders this year I found out that my grandfather was hurt near Langemarck.

"His unit were stationed there and while we were able to narrow down the place where he was injured to an area of around 300 or 400 yards, we couldn't pinpoint the precise spot."

David and Lesley also wanted to clear up the confusion over how their grandfather sustained his injuries.

Official records say he was hit by shellfire but David says medical notes say his wounds were caused by a gunshot.

But what is in no doubt is that William's injuries to his face were severe. His jaw was shattered, he lost all his teeth and he was badly disfigured.

He spent months in a Boulogne field hospital that was dubbed 'Dublin' because so many Irish nurses volunteered to work there.

William was later transferred to the newly-opened Queen's Hospital in Sidcup, Kent, and it was there that he came under the pioneering care of Harold Gillies, who has been called the father of plastic surgery.

Gillies and his colleagues developed a range of new techniques designed to treat soldiers wounded on the Western Front.

They carried out more than 11,000 operations on 5,000 injured soldiers, including William Nicholl, who was one of the very first to undergo surgery in 1917, and to be given hope for the future.

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William with his wife Martha

David says: "We've been told that plastic surgery wouldn't be what it is today if it hadn't have been for Gillies and what he learnt from the awful casualties of the First World War."

William was still undergoing medical procedures after the war and the scars of his injuries were always with him.

He returned to Northern Ireland, where he was given a pension of 28 shillings a week after he was declared unfit for military service.

He married his wife Martha in February 1922 and they had five children, setting up home in the Ligoniel area of Belfast.

William was a founder member of the 36th (Ulster) Division Orange lodge, LOL 977 which was set up after soldiers returned from France.

David, whose father was also called William, says that one of his earliest memories of his grandfather in Belfast is of him slurping his tea.

"He couldn't drink it properly because of his injuries. But that wasn't his only idiosyncrasy from the war. He always put his hand over his tea after the cup was handed to him and said it was to keep the dust out, obviously a throwback to the trenches."

William got a job in Harland and Wolff, working night shifts as a gateman, according to David, who recalls his grandfather saying that shipyard bosses didn't want him on duty during the day in case his facial injuries frightened his colleagues.

David says William's disfigurement was hard to miss, adding: "He was horrifically scarred, especially on the right side of his face and he had difficulty speaking, but as kids we just accepted things as they were and we didn't really notice his injuries.

"He was a great man and we worshipped him. He was a very patient person. One of my happiest recollections from my childhood is of him taking the time to explain long division to me."

David's sister Lesley says: "He's both a remarkable man to us and a very unremarkable man in that there were millions of young men like him who went off and faced the horrors of war and came back and just got on with it."

A number of military and medical accounts of Gillies' plastic surgery breakthroughs list the story of William Nicholl.

One says: "William leaves behind a legacy of fifty descendants who might never have lived were it not for those pioneering surgeons in 1917."

During the Second World War, William served his country again. He was a volunteer in the Civil Defence Home Guard and he experienced the devastating Blitz in 1941.

William died in May, 1986, at the age of 90.

"He'd been living and coping on his own," says David. "He was a very proud man and he would have shared some of his wartime experiences with his grandchildren."

But sadly William's grandchildren have never been able to find the medals that their grandfather should have had.

David says: "We think we know what he won but there seems to have been an anomaly in the 14th battalion records over my grandfather's service number. There appear to be two men listed with the 14th battalion with the same number.

"But we are going through all the diaries and paperwork meticulously and it looks like we are peeling the onion back, but it is slow going.

"We would love to trace William's medals so that our families could have them for posterity.

"And if and when we do find them, we will start researching the life and military career of my mother's father who fought at the Somme."

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