Nicholson, John (1821-1857) (DNB00)

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NICHOLSON, JOHN (1821–1857), brigadier-general, eldest son of Dr. Alexander Nicholson, a physician of good practice in Dublin, was born in that city on 11 Dec. 1821. Dr. Nicholson died in 1830, leaving a widow, two daughters, and five sons. The family moved to Lisburn, co. Wicklow, where Mrs. Nicholson's mother, Mrs. Hogg, resided, and thence to Delgany, where good private tuition was obtained for the children. Nicholson was afterwards sent to the college at Dungannon. His uncle, James Weir Hogg [q. v.], obtained a cadetship for him in the Bengal infantry. He was commissioned as ensign on 24 Feb. 1839, and embarked for India, arriving in Calcutta in July. He joined for duty at Banáras, and was attached to the 41st native infantry. In December 1839 he was posted to the 27th native infantry at Firozpúr.

In October 1840 he accompanied the regiment to Jalalabad in Afghanistan. In July 1841 he went with the regiment to Peshawar to bring up a convoy under Major Broadfoot, and on the return of the regiment to Jalalabad they were sent on to Kabul, and thence to Ghazni, to join the garrison there under Colonel Palmer. When Ghazni was attacked in December 1841 by the Afghans, young Nicholson took a prominent part in the defence. The garrison was greatly outnumbered, and eventually had to withdraw to the citadel; there it held out until the middle of March, when Palmer felt compelled to make terms, and an agreement was signed with the Afghan leaders, by which a safe-conduct to the Punjab frontier was secured for the British troops. The British force was then placed in quarters in a part of the town just below the citadel. Afghan treachery followed. The British troops were attacked on 7 April. Lieutenants Crawford and Nicholson, with two companies of the 27th native infantry, were in a house on the left of those occupied by the British, and received the first and sharpest attack. They were cut off from the rest; their house was fired by the enemy, and they were driven from room to room, fighting against odds for their lives, until at midnight of 9 April they found themselves exhausted with fatigue, hunger, and thirst, the house nearly burnt down, the ammunition expended, the place full of dead and dying men, and the position no longer tenable. The front was in the hands of the enemy, but Nicholson and Crawford did not lose heart. A hole was dug with bayonets with much labour through the wall of the back of the house, and those who were left of the party managed to join Colonel Palmer. The British troops, however, were ultimately made prisoners, the sepoys reduced to slavery, and the Europeans confined in dungeons and very inhumanly treated. In August they were moved to Kabul, where they joined the other British captives, were kindly treated, and after a few days moved to Bamian. In the meantime Major-general (afterwards Sir) George Pollock [q. v.] and Major-general (afterwards Sir) William Nott [q. v.] were advancing on Kabul, the one from Jalalabad, and the other from Kandahar, and the prisoners, having opened communication with Pollock and bribed their gaolers, on 17 Sept. met the force which Pollock had sent to rescue them.

On the return of the army to India, Nicholson was made adjutant of his regiment on 31 May 1843. In 1845 he passed the interpreters' examination, and was given an appointment in the commissariat. In this capacity he served in the campaign in the Satlaj, and was present at the battle of Firozshah. On the termination of the war Nicholson was selected, with Captain Broome of the artillery, to instruct the troops of the Maharaja of Kashmir. The appointment was made by the governor-general, Lord Hardinge [see Hardinge, Sir Henry, first Viscount], at the request of Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence [q. v.] Nicholson had made the acquaintance of both Henry and George Lawrence in Afghanistan; the latter had been a fellow captive, and the former, now at the head of the council of regency of the Punjab, had not forgotten the young subaltern he had met at Kabul.

Nicholson reached Jammú on 2 April 1846, and remained there with Maharaja Guláb Singh until the end of July, when he accompanied him to Kashmir. The Sikh governor, however, refused to recognise the new maharaja, and Nicholson only avoided capture by hastily making his escape by one of the southern passes. Lawrence himself put down the insurrection, and in November Nicholson was again settled at Kashmir, officiating in the north-west frontier agency. In December Nicholson was appointed an assistant to the resident at Lahore. He left Kashmir on 7 Feb. 1847, and went to Multan on the right bank of the Indus. Later he spent a few weeks with his chief, Henry Lawrence, at Lahore, and in June was sent on a special mission to Amritsar, to report on the general management of that district. In July he was appointed to the charge of the Sind Ságar Doab, a country lying between the Jhelam and the Indus. His first duty was the protection of the people from the chiefs; his next, the care of the army, with attention to discipline and drill. In August he was called upon by Captain James Abbott to move a force upon Simalkand, whose chief had in vain been cited to answer for the murder of women and children at Bakhar. Nicholson arrived on 3 Aug. and took possession. He was promoted captain on 20 March 1848. In the spring of 1848 Mulraj rebelled, and seized Multan. As the summer advanced the rebellion spread, and Nicholson, who at the time was down with fever at Peshawar, hurried from his sick bed to secure Attak. He made a forced march with sixty Peshawar horse and 150 newly raised Muhammadan levies, and arrived at Attak just in time to save the place. From Attak he scoured the country, putting down rebellion and bringing mutinous troops to reason. But he felt uneasy at leaving Attak, and, at his request, Lawrence sent Lieutenant Herbert to him to act as governor of the Attak Fort. On Herbert's arrival on 1 Sept., Nicholson at once started off for the Margalla Pass to stop Sirdar Chattar Singh and his force, and turn them back. The defile was commanded by a tower, which Nicholson endeavoured to storm, leading the assault; but he was wounded, and his men fell back. The garrison were, however, sufficiently scared to evacuate the place during the night.

When the second Sikh war commenced Nicholson's services were invaluable. He provided boats for Sir Joseph Thackwell to cross the Chenab and supplies for his troops, and kept him informed of the movements of the enemy. At Chilianwalah he was with Lord Gough [see Gough, Sir Henry, first Viscount], to whom he rendered services which were cordially acknowledged in the despatch of the commander-in-chief. Again, at the crowning victory of Gujrat, he earned the thanks of his chief. With a party of irregulars on 23 Feb. 1849 he secured nine guns of the enemy. He accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh Gilbert [q. v.] in his pursuit of the Sikhs, and day by day kept Lawrence informed of the movements of the force. For his services he was promoted brevet-major on 7 June 1849. On the annexation of the Punjab, Nicholson was appointed a deputy-commissioner under the Lahore board, of which Sir Henry Lawrence was president. In December 1849 he obtained furlough to Europe, and left Bombay in January 1850, visiting Constantinople and Vienna, and arriving in England at the end of April. During his furlough he visited the chief cities of continental Europe, and studied the military systems of the different powers. He returned to India at the end of 1851, and for the next five years worked as an administrative officer at Bannú, being promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel on 28 Nov. 1854. The character of his frontier administration was very remarkable. He reduced the most ignorant and bloodthirsty people in the Punjab to such a state of order and respect for law that in the last year of his charge there was no crime of murder or highway robbery committed or even attempted. Lord Dalhousie [see Ramsay, James Andrew Broun, 1812–1860] spoke of him at this time as ‘a tower of strength.’ Sir Herbert Benjamin Edwardes [q. v.] thought him as fit to be commissioner of a civil division as general of an army. He personally impressed himself upon the natives to such an extent that he was made a demigod. A brotherhood of fakirs in Hazara abandoned all forms of Asiatic monachism, and commenced the worship of ‘Nikkul Seyn.’ The sect had originated in 1848, when Nicholson was scouring the country between Attak and the Jhelam, making almost incredible marches, and performing prodigies of valour with a mere handful of followers. On meeting Nicholson the members of the sect would fall at his feet as their spiritual guide (guru). In spite of Nicholson's efforts to stop this by imprisonment and whipping, the Nikkul Seynis remained as devoted as ever. The last of the original disciples dug his own grave, and was found dead in Harripur in Hazara in 1858.

When the Indian mutiny broke out and the news of the outbreak at Mirat and the seizure of Delhi reached the Punjab in May 1857, Nicholson was deputy-commissioner at Peshawar. At once movable columns under Chamberlain and Reed were formed, while Cotton, Edwardes, and Nicholson watched the frontier. In May the news of the outbreak of two native regiments at Nawshahra reached Peshawar. The sepoy regiment at Peshawar was at once disarmed, and Nicholson accompanied a column to Mardán to deal with the mutinous 55th native infantry from Nawshahra. No sooner did the force appear near Mardán than the mutineers fled towards the hills of Swat. Nicholson, with a handful of horsemen, pursued and charged them. They broke and dispersed, but the detached parties were followed to the borders of Swat, where a remnant escaped.

On the appointment of Brigadier-general Chamberlain to the post of adjutant-general, Nicholson was selected to succeed him, on 22 June 1857, in the command of the Punjab movable column, with the rank of brigadier-general. He joined the column at Phillaur. There were two suspected sepoy regiments in the force whom it was necessary to disarm without giving them a chance to mutiny and massacre, or to break away beforehand with their arms. Nicholson ordered the whole column to march on Delhi, and so arranged the order of march that the suspected regiments believed themselves to be trusted, but, on arriving at the camping-ground, found themselves in front of the guns and surrounded by the rest of the force. They were at once ordered to pile arms, and only eight men even tried to escape. On 28 June Nicholson, with the movable column, left Phillaur and returned to Amritsar, arriving on 5 July. Here Nicholson heard that a regiment had risen at Jhelam, and that there had been a revolt at Siálkot, in which many Europeans had been murdered. These mutineers, having cast off their allegiance to the British government, were hastening to join the revolutionary party at Delhi. Nicholson determined to intercept them. He made a rapid march with European troops under a July sun to Gurdaspúr. At noon on 12 July he found the rebels at Trimmu Ghaut. In less than half an hour the sepoys were in full retreat towards the Ravi river, leaving over three hundred killed and wounded on the field. Nicholson had no cavalry, and was unable to give chase. He therefore withdrew to Gurdaspúr. The rebels reformed on the other side of the river. Nicholson found on the 14th that the mutineers had taken up a position on an island in the Ravi river, and had run up a battery at the water's edge. By the 16th Nicholson had prepared boats in which to cross to the island. He advanced his guns to the river-bank and opened a heavy fire, drawing the attention of the enemy, while he got his infantry across to one extremity of the island, and, placing himself at their head, advanced upon the enemy. The battery was carried and the gunners bayoneted. Soon the mutineers were all either killed or driven into the water.

Nicholson returned to Amritsar with the column, and then went on to Lahore. He arrived at Lahore on 21 July and received orders to march his force on Delhi without delay. On 24 July he rejoined the movable column. The following day he crossed the Bias river, and pushed on rapidly. When the column approached Karnál he posted on ahead, by desire of General Wilson, who was commanding at Delhi, in order that he might consult with him. After examining all the posts and batteries round Delhi he rejoined his column, and marched with it into the camp at Delhi on 14 Aug.

Apprehending that the enemy were manœuvring to get at the British rear, Nicholson was directed to attack them. He marched out in very wet weather; the way was difficult, and he had to cross two swamps and a deep, broad ford over a branch of the Najafgarh. In the afternoon of 25 Aug. he found the enemy in position on his front and left, extending some two miles from the canal to the town of Najafgarh. Nicholson attacked the left centre, forced the position, and swept down the enemy's line of guns towards the bridge, putting the enemy (six thousand strong) to flight, and capturing thirteen guns and the enemy's camp equipage. Congratulations poured in. General Wilson wrote to thank him. Sir John Lawrence telegraphed from Lahore: ‘I wish I had the power of knighting you on the spot. It should be done.’ In further proof of his appreciation of Nicholson's services, the chief commissioner wrote to him on 9 Sept. that he had recommended him for the appointment of commissioner of Leia.

On the morning of 14 Sept. the assault of Delhi took place, and Nicholson was selected to command the main storming party. The breach was carried, and the column, headed by Nicholson, forced its way over the ramparts into the city, and pushed on. The streets were swarming, and the housetops alive with the enemy, and Nicholson's commanding figure at the head of his men offered only too easy a mark. A sepoy, from the window of a house, shot him through the chest. He desired to be laid in the shade, and not to be carried back to camp till Delhi had fallen. It was soon apparent that Delhi would not fall without a prolonged struggle, and Nicholson, who was in great agony, was placed on a litter and carried to a hospital tent. He lingered until 23 Sept. He had not completed his thirty-sixth year. On his death-bed he was indignant at the injustice done to Alexander Taylor the engineer, and said: ‘If I live through this, I will let the world know that Taylor took Delhi.’ His body was buried in the new burial-ground in front of the Kashmir Gate, and near Ludlow Castle. A marble slab, with a suitable inscription, was erected over his grave by his friends. An obelisk to his memory was afterwards erected on the site of the tower which commanded Margalla Pass, where he was wounded.

There was a consensus of opinion as to Nicholson's merits among those best qualified to judge, both soldiers and civilians. Brigadier-general Cotton announced his death in general orders in terms of the warmest eulogy, while Sir Robert Montgomery wrote to Sir Herbert Edwardes on 2 Oct.: ‘Your two best friends have fallen, the two great men, Sir Henry [Lawrence] and Nicholson. … Had Nicholson lived, he would as a commander have risen to the highest post. He had every quality necessary for a successful commander: energy, forethought, decision, good judgment, and courage of the highest order.’ The governor-general in council expressed the sorrow of the government at the loss sustained in the death of this very meritorious officer, whose recent successes had pointed him out as one of the foremost among many whose loss the state had lately had to deplore. The queen commanded it to be announced that if Nicholson had survived he would have been made a K.C.B. The East India Company, in recognition of his services, voted his mother a pension of 500l. a year.

With a tall, commanding figure, a handsome face, and a bold, manly bearing, Nicholson looked every inch a soldier. He had an iron constitution, was fearless in danger, and quick in action. He inspired confidence and won affection, and throughout life was animated by a sincere religious faith. [India Office Records; Despatches; Kaye's Indian Officers; Kaye's Sepoy War; Malleson's Hist. Indian Mutiny; Notes on the Revolt in the North-West Provinces of India; An Officer's Narrative of the Siege of Delhi.]

R. H. V.