Wednesday 25 January 2012

Brigadier-General John Nicholson, 1822-1857


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Ireland has given many sons to the Empire -- men illustrious as soldiers, sailors, statesmen. Their names are emblazoned on the scroll of fame. The story of their lives and deeds will pass down the ages in honoured remembrance, and will endure so long as the English language is spoken. In this goodly company, and in the minor or obscure position, stands the name of John Nicholson -- rather, it shines out with a stern and rugged grandeur all its own -- the heroic Nicholson, as the men of his own generation loved to call him.

Now that through the perspective of years we are able more truly to gauge the man, his character, actions, and service, it is gratifying to learn that time has not dimmed the lustre of his name nor changed the verdict of his contemporaries. An able writer thus describes him:-- "John Nicholson was a man who nothing common did or mean. As a leader he chained victory to his standard. His iron will and stern sense of duty overlay the tenderness of a woman and the kindness of a true gentleman. As a magistrate, terrible to evil-doers, a rock of strength to the upright and honest, and merciful to offenders whom want or bad example had led astray." In these days of mawkish sentimentality and political and official incapacity and indifference, it is invigorating and instructive to turn to the life story of such a man as Nicholson.

John Nicholson's father, Dr. Alexander Nicholson, was one of a family of sixteen children borne by Isabella Wakefield to John Nicholson, of Stramore House, Gilford, County Down. Dr. Nicholson took his medical degree at Trinity College, Dublin, and in his twenty-seventh year married, in 1820, Clara Hogg, of Lisburn. Her father, few years before, had practically ruined himself in the process of founding the linen industry in his native town, and on his death left his family in rather straightened circumstances. Clara Hogg's brother, James Weir Hogg, went out to India in 1809, where he amassed a large fortune, and, returning to England, became, in 1846. Sir James Weir Hogg. Dr. Nicholson, John's father, was a Quaker by long descent, but had been guilty of marrying a lady belonging to another Church, for which offence he was promptly expelled from the communion of the Society of Friends. Soon after marriage he obtained a post in a hospital in Dublin. In the Irish capital he appears to have practised with considerable success during the remaining ten years of his life. At the age of 37, in the year 1830, he died from a fever, leaving a young widow and seven children -- two daughters and five sons. Mary, the eldest, was born in October, 1821, evidently in Lisburn, there is a record of her baptism in the Cathedra! registry. Captain Trotter, in his life of Nicholson, states that John was born in Lisburn on December 11, 1822. In the obituary notice in the "Illustrated London News" of November 11, 1857, his birthplace is given as Virgemont, Dublin. There appears to be little doubt but the latter account is correct, as the family were living in Dublin at the time of John's birth. On the decease of her husband the widow returned to Lisburn with her young family, and resided for some years with her mother, old Mrs. Hogg, in a house in Castle Street adjoining the Rectory, now used as a Masonic Hall. Later, Mrs. Nicholson removed to a house in Bow Street opposite the Ulster Bank, where she resided only a short time, and again removed to the farther of the two red brick houses beyond the Convent in Castle Street. Here she remained till she died in 1874 at the ripe age of 88, having survived by many years all her seven children with the exception of Mary, the eldest, who lived on until 1889. Mrs. Nicholson's five sons all died in India, with the exception of James, who died at home in March, 1840, the age of fourteen. Her younger sister married a Mr. Maxwell, and, on his decease, afterwards became the wife of Dr. Thompson, in whose memory the Thompson Memorial Home was erected.

John Nicholson grew up much as other boys of his age. From an early date, however, he exhibited a seriousness of disposition and hatred, of mean or cowardly practices, and a fiery temper easily roused by anything which offended his sense of justice. He had the inestimable benefit of good practical teaching. His parents were earnest, upright, Bible reading Christians of a type still common in the North of Ireland. It is recorded that even when quite a little lad, should Master John see a shadow on his mother's face, he would say with a comforting kiss -- "Don't fret mamma dear; when I'm a big man I'll make plenty of money and give it all to you." Right loyally in after years did he keep his promise.

About the year 1832 John Nicholson was sent to a private school at Delgany, in County Wicklow. In his twelfth year he was transferred to the Royal School Dungannon. It is also recorded in "M'Call's Recollections" that for a short time Nicholson attended Benjamin Neely's academy in Castle Street. The boy spent his holidays in the old home at Lisburn, and in December, 1838, finally left Dungannon and school. Through the influence of his Uncle Hogg, John now obtained a cadetship in the Bengal Infantry. Early in 1839, at the age of sixteen, he bade farewell to his home and friends, hastened to London, made all necessary preparations to the voyage, and by the end of February in the same year the good ship Camden, with John Nicholson on board, was on the high seas ploughing her way to the scene of his future achievements and glorious death. Nothing unusual appears to have happened during the voyage, and about the middle of July he landed in Calcutta.

Arrival in India. Firozpur. Ghazni.

In a few weeks, proceeding up country, he reached Benares, where for a time he did duty with the 41st Sepoys. Only sixteen years of age, and in a strange and foreign land, no wonder his letters are sad and his heart lonely. He writes to his mother:-- "I go to church every Sunday, and read my chapter every day as you advised me. I find Mary's Bible very useful. Often when I am sitting alone here in the evening, I think of you all at home and say to myself, 'There is no place like home.'" His letters also showed his anxiety to live within his income, denying himself pleasures that he might save his money for the dear ones at home. Towards the end of the year he was permanently posted to the 27th Native Infantry, then stationed on the Satlaj at Firozpur. Here for a time he lived in a stable, sharing it with a brother officer. The fiery winds from the desert, the heat and, probably, filth, brought on a fever which temperance and a good constitution brought him safely through. He writes:-- "This station is a perfect wilderness; there is not a tree, or blade of grass, within miles." About this time he was reading with much interest Faber's Fulfilment of Scripture Prophecies, and reports himself as now nearly six feet high and likely to grow three or four inches more. In a few years the expected inches were duly added. Early in 1841 Nicholson's regiment was ordered the Afghan city, Jalalabad, and later on to Kabul, and thence to Ghazni. At the time, peace appeared to reign in Afghanistan, but the slumbering fires burned beneath, which was soon to burst forth, only to be quenched to the blood of 4,000 British troops who perished amid the grim Afghan passes to the vain attempt to reach safety. When the storm burst the hill fortress of Ghanzi was garrisoned by Nicholson's regiment. As the beleaguered soldiers looked out from their eyrie they saw the first snows of winter-whitening the ground, and with the snow, and numerous as the snowflakes, came the hordes of wild Afghan tribesmen. The defences of the fortress were out of order; there were guns, but no gunners, and the stock of ammunition and supplies was below zero. For over three months the native regiment and its white officers held this ruin against death, starvation, and cold, till, on March 6, 1842, all that was left of them marched out, depending on the sworn oaths of the Afghan chiefs that they would be conducted in safety to Peshawar. The promises were only made to be broken. The unfortunate soldiery fought on for fourteen days, and then the remnant laid down their arms. Young Nicholson thrice drove back the Afghan guard at the point of the bayonet before he surrendered, and then, while tears of grief stood in to honest eyes, flung down his sword at the feet of his captors. For over six months he and other British officers remained prisoners in the hands of the Afghans, till they were finally rescued and returned to India with that avenging and victorious army which taught the lesson to the Afghan tribes that British blood cannot be shed without risk, nor pledges broken with impunity.

Alexander Nicholson's Death. Letters Home. Pro-Afghans.

Returning down the Khaibar Pass with the army. Nicholson had the pleasure of meeting his brother Alexander, who had but lately come out. Three days later the elder brother, riding through the pass with the rear guard, espied, some distance from the line of march, in an elevated position, what appeared to be the naked body of a European. Cantering up to inspect it, he saw the body of a white man fearfully mutilated. Looking closer, he recognised the features of his own brother. There in the wild mountain pass, they two, the living and the dead; below, the sinuous trail of the moving army; above, the silence of the everlasting hills. Only, mere lads -- the dead, sixteen; the living, twenty; both true sons of the Empire. The younger gave his life for it, died in action, shot by a Khaibar robber; the elder -- well, he too gave his life for it; but his work was not yet done, his time had not yet come. It is worth noting his scornful bitterness on the ideas of some people at home regarding the late Afghan war. He writes:-- "One would imagine that the Afghans instead of being the most vicious and blood-thirsty race in existence, who fight merely for the love of bloodshed and plunder, were noble-minded patriots." Evidently in Britain in those days there were pro-Afghans, even as in latter there were pro-Boers and pro-Germans, "birds that foul their own nest." Thus history repeats itself.

The First Sikh War. Henry Lawrence. Settlement at the Punjaub.

In November, 1845, the first Sikh war broke out, and Nicholson served through it in the capacity of a commissariat officer. He was present on most of the hard-fought fields, and took part on February 10, 1846. in the crowning victory of Sabraon. At the close of the war a large portion of the Punjaub was annexed under Henry Lawrence, of Lucknow fame, as resident, Lawrence and Nicholson, for the first time, met at Kabul in 1842, and were mutually attracted to each other. When they met again, three years later, on the banks of the Satlaj, their mutual liking grew, by closer acquaintance, into a firm and lasting friendship. Nicholson was now appointed -- January, 1847 -- in conjunction with several other officers, assistant to Henry Lawrence. Probably no chief ever had a more capable, hard-working, or more suitable set of helpers for the stern work in hand. Their work was to rule a vast country, newly conquered, and to teach a fierce and turbulent people some plain elementary lessons of good government. Their names should be and would be household words if the text-books of our elementary schools were only compiled on ordinary common-sense lines, blended with a little kindly patriotism; whereas their names and deeds are now barely known except to the student of Indian history. John Nicholson himself, Edwards (who wrote the inscription for the tablet in Lisburn Cathedral). Taylor, Lumsden, Lake, Abbott, John Lawrence, Hodson of Hodson's Horse, and others -- men destined to be burned and hardened in the fiery furnace of stern duty through ten long years, against the time when Britain had sore need of such men. When the dark days of trial came in 1857 these men saved India for the Empire. By their ability, energy, and force of character they so overawed the native population of the Punjaub that it remained peaceful and loyal while the rest of India was aflame with the fires of mutiny and rebellion.

On February 7, 1847, Nicholson left Kashmir to take up his new duties. The mountain passes through which he travelled were filled with snow to a depth of ten feet. Towards the end of April he arrived at Dera Ghazi Khan, on the Indus, where a pleasant surprise awaited him. Here he met his brother Charles, whom he had last seen some eight years before in Lisburn as a child of ten. "Fancy," John writes his mother, "neither of us recognised the other. I actually talked to him half an hour before I could persuade myself of his identity. He is as tall, if not taller, than I am. Our joy at meeting you will understand." A few days later the brothers part, and John proceeds to Lahore, where he spent part of May and June under the same roof with his friend and master, Henry Lawrence. Here he saw and learned something of the unsparing labour and self-denying zeal of a great and good man in the interests of a downtrodden people. So highly did Lawrence think of his young assistant that he now entrusted him with full political control over a broad district between the rivers Jhilam and Indus. At last Nicholson was in a position after his own heart, and that called forth those splendid powers of administration and command which were the admiration of the world. The country he was sent to govern was wild and rugged in the extreme -- a sea of fort-capped hills with narrow strips of valley between. The people, sparse and scattered, comprised, men of many races and customs -- warlike Pathans, cattle-lifting Gujars, and peaceful Jats. Law there was none; no man's property was safe, nor his life either. Out of this chaos Nicholson was to bring order and he did. Soon the Sikh sirdars and officers discovered the fearless and resolute determination that slumbered beneath his calm exterior. The people learned to look on him as an upright judge and powerful, protector. All classes soon came to see in the new sahib one whose orders must be accepted as the decrees of fate which none could defy and live. Nicholson's method's of government were undeniably drastic; but admirably suited to the people and circumstances. He was all action, looking and fighting for quick results. There was no binding him by the ordinary rules of procedure. He saw an end to be gained, and went for it straight, overleaping and overriding all precedents and regulations. At first the people of his district regarded him as a hard-hearted, self-willed tyrant, but by degrees, as his self-abrogation, daring, and swift and stern justice became known to all, this impression gave way to a feeling of awe and admiration. His strength and endurance were marvellous. A ride of 30 miles before breakfast to the scene of some murder or to inspect a boundary fence, five or ten hours at a stretch in the saddle, were mere bagatelles. Twelve years after his death a border chief told:-- "Our women even now at night wake trembling and saying they hear the tramp of Nikalsain's war-horse." When the occasion arose to strike, he struck with terrifying suddenness; The lightning-like rapidity of his movements had an astonishing effect on the native imagination. To illustrate: On one occasion he was ill in bed with a sharp fever, when word came of a rising some fifty miles out. Instantly he rose from his sick couch and mustered sixty Pathan horsemen, with some infantry to follow. The shades of evening were closing in when he started on his long ride. The rays of the morning sun were reddening the mountain tops as he reached his destination. The sixty had dwindled to little more than thirty, so rough the way and so fast the pace. Just in time to prevent the plotters closing the gates against him, he rushed inside the fort with his scanty troops. Striding amongst the garrison like an avenging deity, his haughty bearing and bold words won over the majority, and in the end he forced them to arrest their leaders. Again: With a perfectly inadequate and inferior force of raw levies he prepared to attack a strong regiment of infantry which was in semi-revolt and posted in a secure position. Summoning the colonel of the offending regiment before him, he offered certain terms, pulled out his watch, and said, "If they do not return to their duty in half as hour I will attack." It was a splendid game of bluff, and won. In the nick of time the colonel returned and begged pardon for himself and men, and the incident closed.

(To be Continued.)

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 25 January 1918 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week through 1917 and into 1918. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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