Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nicholas, William

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NICHOLAS, WILLIAM (1785–1812), major in the royal engineers, third son of Robert Nicholas, esq., of Ashton Keynes, near Cricklade, Wiltshire, at one time member of parliament for Cricklade, and many years chairman of the board of excise, by Charlotte, sixth daughter of Admiral Sir Thomas Frankland, bart., was born at Ashton Keynes on 12 Dec. 1785. Educated at a private school at Hackney, and admitted to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich at the end of 1799, he obtained a commission as second lieutenant in the royal engineers in 1801, and became first lieutenant on 1 July 1802. After completing the usual course of instruction at Chatham he was employed on the defences of Dover. In the spring of 1806 he joined the expedition to Sicily. He was engaged at St. Euphemia, and at Maida, where he was assistant quartermaster-general, and had a narrow escape. His cloak, strapped on behind him, was carried away by a cannon-ball, and he was unhorsed. He took part in the capture of Scylla, July 1806, and was then selected to accompany Sir John Moore on a tour of Sicily. He was promoted second captain on 25 Aug. 1806. On his return he accompanied the expedition to Egypt, was present at the capture of Alexandria, and at the two actions at Rosetta, at the first of which he behaved very gallantly in assisting to carry General Meade, dangerously wounded, out of the midst of the carnage in the streets of Rosetta.

He was particularly mentioned in despatches in February 1808 for his services in the defence of Scylla, where he served as assistant-quartermaster-general. He was present at the action of Bagnara. He reconnoitred, and reported on, the country in the western part of Sicily, and his report was highly approved, and forwarded to the secretary of state. In 1809 he was sent by Sir John Stuart on a very confidential mission to the Spanish army in Spain. On 20 May he joined General Blake's army at Alcanitz in Arragon, and did good service in the action. He returned to Sicily, and shortly after joined the army at Ischia, on the capture of the island. He went to England at the end of 1809 to recruit his health, as he had suffered from a blow in the chest received in the engagement at Alexandria. In March 1810 he went to Cadiz as second engineer officer of the defence, and on the death of Major Lefebre at Matagorda he succeeded to the command of the engineers at Cadiz. He took part in the battle of Barossa, and with Captain Birch was publicly thanked on the field of battle by Sir Thomas Graham, who, holding out his hands to them, said: ‘There are no two officers in the army to whom I am more indebted than to you two; you have shown yourselves as fine fellows in the field as at your redoubts.’

On 13 Feb. 1812 he left Cadiz for Elvas, and took part in the siege of Badajos. On the night preceding that of the storming, having volunteered to reconnoitre, he stripped, and forded the inundation of Revellas, and ascertained the safest passage for the column. To him was confided the task of leading the troops of the advance to the great breach. There, after twice trying to reach the top, he fell, wounded by a musket-ball in his knee-pan, and by a bayonet thrust in his right leg; his left arm was broken and his wrist struck by a musket-ball. Notwithstanding the distress occasioned by his wounds, on seeing Colonel Macleod and Captain James fall, and hearing the soldiers ask who was to lead them, he ordered two of his men to carry him up the breach. One of them was killed at the top, and he himself received a musket-ball, which passed through his chest, breaking two ribs. This shock precipitated him from the top to the bottom of the breach. He was eventually rescued, but died on 14 April. Sir Thomas Graham wrote that no soldier ever distinguished himself more, and his heroic conduct could never be forgotten. Sir Richard Fletcher, the commanding royal engineer, placed a monumental stone, with a suitable inscription, over his grave. The brevet rank of major was conferred upon him on the receipt of the despatch of the Marquis of Wellesley, but he did not live to know it.

[Royal Engineers Corps' Records; Memoir in the Royal Military Chronicle, v. 251–75, 8vo, London, 1813, which also contains an engraving of Major Nicholas.]

R. H. V.