Wednesday 8 February 2012

Brigadier-General John Nicholson, 1822-1857 (pt 3)


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"Take off your Shoes."

Lord Roberts tells a characteristic story of Nicholson of which he was an eye-witness, Nicholson was present at a reception given by Major Lake to some native officers in the pay of a friendly rajah. When the function had terminated the senior officer, one Mehtab Singh, was leaving the room first. Nicholson stalked to the door, and with an authoritative air prevented Mehtab Singh leaving. The rest of the company having passed out Nicholson turned to Lake and said: "Do you see that Mehtab Singh has his shoes on; there is no possible excuse for such an act of gross impertinence." Lake replied that he had noticed, but tried to excuse it. Nicholson, going on, said: "Mehtab Singh knows perfectly well that he would not venture to step on his own father's carpet save barefooted, and he has only committed this breach of etiquette to-day because he thinks we are not in a position to resent the insult." "If I were the last Englishman," continued he, "in the place, you should not come into my room with your shoes on. Now, take of your shoes and carry them out in your own hand, as lesson to yourself and others." Mehtab Singh, completely cowed, meekly did as he was ordered.

In Command of the Punjaub Movable Column -- Disarming Two Tainted Regiments.

June 22, 1857, saw John Nicholson in command of the Punjaub movable column, and its late chief, Neville Chamberlain, on his way to Delhi. The new commander was not long in starting operations. Two suspected regiments were to be disarmed, and John Nicholson took them in hand. Towards the end of a sultry day in the end of June the general gave the order for a night march; where or on what mission was a mystery to all. At the head of the column marches H.M. 52nd Light Infantry, a troop of cavalry and battery of artillery, followed by the tainted regiments -- the 35th Sepoys and 33rd Native Infantry. Theses two regiments Nicholson was determined to disarm, or, if not, to destroy. For some reason they appeared to have fancied they were being led on to Delhi, the very place they were anxious to get near. In the early morning the head of the column reached its destination and the spot where the trap for the false-hearted Sepoys was to be laid. Briefly Nicholson revealed his plans to the European troops. A few minutes after, in the grey dawn, the 35th Sepoys came into view, little dreaming the surprise in store. As they came up, they were ordered to turn to the left round a little hill which lay at the corner of the camping ground, then wheeled again to their right and formed in close column, and -- horror, they found themselves staring, scared and crestfallen, right into the grinning muzzles of twelve guns, limbered up for action, and face to face with a British regiment standing to arms, Stern and sharp came the command, "Halt! Pile arms!" without a murmur the order was obeyed for refusal simply meant annihilation. Within a few minutes the disarmed men were marched off the ground under escort, and the trap was ready for the 33rd Native Infantry, which was timed to arrive about thirty minutes later. They were duly disposed of in the same summary manner as their predecessors. An old Sikh colonel, who had been an astonished spectator of the morning's work, exclaimed: "You have drawn the fangs of 1,500 snakes. Truly your good fortune is great."

Brigadier-General John Nicholson
The Destruction of the Sialkot Mutineers.

The next incident we will note occurs early in July. He was at Amritsar disarming the 59th Sepoys, when tidings came of the rising of the 46th Native Infantry and a wing of 9th Cavalry at Sialkot with its usual accompaniment of murder and bloodshed. The mutineers, after pillaging the town, struck out for Delhi. Nicholson started with his column from Amritsar in pursuit, covering 44 miles in 18 hours, and this in the hottest month of an Indian summer. It is told how a halt was called during the afternoon. The weary soldiers threw themselves down on the hot, dry earth for a few minutes' sleep and rest. An officer, on awaking from his brief slumber, inquired for the General, but could not find him amongst the sleepers. At last he saw Nicholson in the middle of the dusty road, sitting bolt upright on his horse, waiting, like a sentinel turned to stone, for the moment when his men should resume their march. The column had out-marched the enemy by some fifteen miles and arrived at Gurdaspur. Nicholson counted on the mutineers turning aside from the direct route to Delhi to plunder this station, and his surmise was proved correct. To reach Gurdaspur the mutineers had to cross the Ravi, a broad and deep river, thus placing the river between them and Delhi, their only place of safety. Unaware of of Nicholson's arrival and designs, they leisurely they crossed; and, proceeding down stream some miles camped. The ford by which they crossed was instantly occupied by the General, cutting off all possibility of retreat or escape. Well might Nicholson now feel that his hour had come, and the the Lord had delivered them into his hands. Enough to say; the mutineers fought as men will fight for when there is no escape and no hope. When, however, at the end of some days, Brigadier-General Nicholson had finished with them, the Sialkot mutineers had absolutely ceased to exist.


The good effect of these [--?--] and vigorous measure was magical in the Punjaub, and at last John Nicholson was free to start on that last grand march which was to end before the walls of Delhi and in his own glorious death. "On August 7," writes Mitchett in his "Story of the Great Mutiny," "there rode into the British camp before Delhi perhaps the most famous and daring soldier in all India, the man with whose memory the siege of Delhi, and the great assault which ended the siege, are for ever associated." Few knew him personally when he first arrived in camp, but the quick, grave man who made it his business to know everything that was going on, whether in his own department or not, soon made his presence and personality felt, and men in a short time came to look to him as the one strong determined man, capable of surmounting all difficulties and leading them to victory. The occupation of the ridge before Delhi has always been called a siege, but it was never a siege in the true sense; indeed, one fails to know what exactly to call it. The mutiny broke out on May 10. Delhi became the natural centre and focus of the rebellion -- a huge city some six miles in circumference, surrounded by a stone wall 24 feet high, with a ditch 25 feet broad and as many feet deep. The walls mounted 114 heavy guns. The city full of a fanatical population, and, as the rebellion spread, toDelhi flocked full 50,000 revolted Sepoys, with 60 field guns and inexhaustible supplies of ammunition. On June 7, less than you weeks after the outbreak, Sir Henry Barnard's microscopic army made its appearance on the ridge, not 4,000 men in all, and 22 light guns. Only it is a historical fact, it looks like a grim joke. Up till the beginning of September the force on the ridge never exceeded 6,000, and at no time did it ever exceed 10,000, and then only one-half were Europeans. Incredible audacity! Surprising tenacity! That insignificant force clung to the ridge and kept the flag flying through all the scorching heat of that Indian summer, and on the 14th September was witnessed the truly astonishing spectacle of 5,000 men flinging themselves on a city held by 50,000. Soon after Nicholson's arrival in camp he was dispatched on an expedition of exceptional danger and difficulty. The siege train got together by the devotion and energy of John Lawrence was slowly approaching. With unusual daring a large force of mutineers, some 6,000 strong marched from Delhi to intercept it. Nicholson, with a force of 2,000 and a battery of field guns, set out to cut off the rebels. The country to be crossed was swampy, and the rain fell in ceaseless wind-blown sheets. After a sort of wading march, which lasted twelve hours, the enemy was overtaken, entrenched in a strong and almost unassailable position. In the dusk, however, Nicholson led his troops forward, mud-splashed, wet, and weary, and when within twenty yards of the rebel guns gave the order to charge. A swift volley, a swifter rush, and the British were over the enemy's guns, the huge figure of Nicholson still leading, his gleaming sword felling an enemy at every stroke. Immediately on carrying the guns he led his men with a rush for a bridge which formed the only line of retreat for the rebels to Delhi. This was too much for the mutineers; in a moment the Sepoy army became a rabble, eager only to out run the British in the race for the bridge. Thirteen guns were captured, 800 of the enemy slain, and the remainder hurled broken and crushed, back into Delhi. Nicholson's loss amounted to only 60. General Wilton, the officer in supreme command of the forces before Delhi, was a weak, incapable man, broken in health, and dreading responsibility. Having to obey a man of this stamp was a sore trial. One can sympathise with poor Nicholson when in his honest indignation he breaks out -- "I have seen lots of useless generals in my day, but such an ignorant, croaking, obstructive as he is, I have never hitherto met with." If the truth must be told, it took all the persuasion, encouragement, and determination of the brave men around him to keep this General Wilson from abandoning the position. To show Nicholson's temper in that crisis, an incident may be related. He had decided to make a very unusual step should the council fail to arrive at any final determination regarding the assault on the city. "Delhi," he said, "must be taken, and at once. If Wilson hesitates I intend to propose at to-day's meeting that he be superseded." There carried out the threat had Wilson hesitated longer. The long expected siege guns were now got into position, and, as each battery was armed, it broke into wrathful thunder on the city. The fighting was incessant, and batteries were pushed up till some were within 180 yards of the walls. One colonel records that he never took off his clothes or left the guns from they opened on September 8 till the assault on the 14th.

The Assault on the City.

Before dawn on the eventful morning of September 14th, 1857, the columns were drawn up for the assault, number in alt about 5,000 men. To Nicholson had been assigned the post of honour; he was to lead the first of the storming columns in its desperate leap upon the city, and to direct the general development of the assault. The sun had risen some way above the horizon before the signal for the advance was given. Nicholson placed himself at the head of his men and led the attack against the breach near the Kashmir Bastion. The ladders were placed, and the men dashed down into the ditch, and, almost with the same impulse, swept up the further side, Nicholson's tall figure lending; and, as men and officers raced up the broken slope of the breach, dashed back the Sepoys in confused flight and entered the city. The column assaulting the Water Bastion and the Kashmir Gate were equally successful, and in the open space not far from the Kashmir Gate the three columns met -- breathless, confused, but triumphant. The attack of the fourth column on the Lahore Gate practically failed. Once the troops were assembled within the city at the Kashmir Gate they had to their right and left what was known as the Rampart Road, a narrow lane running immediately within the walls round the whole city. The city wall formed one side of the lane, the other was formed by houses with flat roofs. Now, starting from the Kashmir Gate, the troops forced their way through the lane and seized the Lahore Gate and Kabul Gate and came in sight of the Lahore Gate. Here they were checked, and that narrow, crooked lane of about 250 yards, which had to be passed before the Lahore Gate was reached, proved a very valley of death. Scarcely thirty feet wide at its broadest part, it narrowed in places to three. Guns cere placed with bullet-proof screens to sweep the approach; the houses and roofs swarmed with mutineers, and about 8,000 Sepoys had just poured into the Lahore Gate, returning from a sally made on the unfortunate fourth column. Twice did the British try to force their way through this veritable death-trap and failed. The street was strewn with dead. No valour could withstand the storm of lead that swept the narrow way.

Mortally Wounded.

Nicholson watched the twice-repeated rush and the fall, one by one, of the officers who led. When the men for a second time fell sullenly back, Nicholson himself sprang into the lane, and, waving his sword, called on them to follow their general. But, even while be spoke, his sword pointing up the lane and the light of battle in his eyes, a Sepoy leaned from an adjacent window and, at a little more than three yard's distance, shot him through the lung. Nicholson fell. The wound was mortal, but, raising himself on his elbow, he still called on the men to go on. As an officer puts it -- "He was asking dying what he had asked living -- that which was all but impossible." All know how the troops held their ground, and that, after days of stubborn fighting, at sunrise on the 21st a royal salute rang over Delhi, proclaiming to all India that the sacred city, the home of the revolt, was once more in British hands. While Nicholson was awaiting his turn in the hospital, another wounded man was brought in and laid down beside him.This proved to be his brother Charles, who had an arm badly shattered, which was afterwards amputated at the shoulder. There the brothers lay side by side, looking sadly at each other and exchanging their last words on earth. Charles recovered, and survived his brother by five years. In 1858 he visited his mother in Lisburn, and again in 1859 with his wife. He returned to India in 1862, and died a few months after his arrival, at the age of 33. John Nicholson's case from the the first was hopeless; the nature of the wound necessitated absolute rest of rest and body, but this was impossible. He would insist on hearing how matters went on in the city, and excited himself terribly. Leraning that General Wilson was on the verge of despair, and talked of withdrawing the troops from their hard-won position within the walls, the dying hero exclaimed -- "Thank God I have strength yet left to shoot him if necessary." But there were other clear heads and stout hearts around the incapable commander to prevent him committing this irreparable blunder.

Death, September 23, 1857. Tributes to his Memory.

Through nine weary days he bore his suffering with Christian fortitude, and on the morning of September 23 passed peacefully away at the age of 34. Then, from city to city through the length and breadth of India, passed the tidings "Delhi has fallen, but John Nicholson is dead." He was buried close to the Kashmir Gate. Over his grave was placed a solid slab of marble, and on it were engraved these words -- "The grave of Brigadier-General John Nicholson who led the assault at Delhi, but fell in the hour of victory, mortally wounded, and died September 23, 1857, aged 34." Had Nicholson lived, it was expressly stated by the Crown, he would have been made a Knight Commander of the Bath, and the country did itself honour by bestowing on his mother a pension of £500 a year for life. On the crest of the Margalia Pass, the scene of his daring services in 1848, a plain obelisk was erected to his memory, with a small tank of water in the pass below. The Nicholson Memorial Schools, Lisburn, were erected by Mrs. Nicholson in memory of her great son and her other children who predeceased her. His friends would have raised a tablet to his memory in the Cathedral, Lisburn, but his mother determined to undertake this loving duty herself, leaving it to his friend, Sir Herbert Edwards, to supply the inscription, an extract from which runs thus, and fitly describes the great and noble man:-- "He had an iron mind and frame, a terrible courage, an indomitable will. His form seemed made for an army to behold, his heart to meet the crisis of an empire, yet he was gentle exceedingly, most loving, most kind. Soldier and civilian, he was a tower of strength, the type of the conquering race."

(Next week: Robert Redman Belshaw.)

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 8 February 1918 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week through 1917 and 1918. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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