John Nicholson - Encyclopedia

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JOHN NICHOLSON (1822-18J7), Anglo-Indian soldier and administrator, son of Alexander Nicholson, a north of Ireland physician, was born on the 11th of December 1822 and educated at Royal School Dungannon . He was presented with a cadetship in the Bengal infantry in 1839 by his. uncle Sir James Hogg, and served in the first Afghan War of 1839-42; he distinguished himself in the defence of Ghazni, and was one of the prisoners who were carried to Bamian and escaped by bribing the guard upon General Pollock's successful advance. It was in Afghanistan that Nicholson first met Sir Henry Lawrence, who got him the appointment of political officer in Kashmir and subsequently on the Punjab frontier. In 1847 he was given charge of the Sind Sagar district, and did much to pacify the country after the first Sikh War. On the seizure of Multan by Mulraj, he rendered great service in securing the country from Attock, and was wounded in an attack upon a tower in the Margalla Pass, where a monument was subsequently erected to his memory. On the outbreak of the second Sikh War he was appointed political officer to Lord Gough's force, when he rendered great service in the collection of intelligence and in furnishing supplies and boats.

On the annexation of the Punjab he was appointed deputy commissioner of Bannu. There he became a kind of legendary hero, and many tales are told of his stern justice, his tireless activity and his commanding personality. In the course of five years he reduced the most turbulent district on the frontier to such a state of quietude that no crime was committed or even attempted during his last year of office, a condition of things never known before or since. On one occasion, being attacked by a ghazi, he snatched the musket from the hand of a sentry and shot the man dead; on another occasion he put a price on the head of a notorious outlaw, and finding every one afraid to earn it, rode single-handed to the man's village, met him in the street and cut him down. But besides being a severe ruler, Nicholson was eminently just. A criminal had no chance of escaping him, so able and determined was his investigation;. and a corrupt official could not long evade his vigilance; but he was deliberate in his punishments, and gave offenders a chance to redeem their character. He would go personally to the scene of a crime or a legal dispute and decide the question on the spot. Every man in his district, whether mountain tribesman or policeman, felt that he was controlled by a master hand, and the natives said of him that "the tramp of his war-horse could be heard from Attock to the Khyber." Lord Roberts says of him in Forty-One Years in India: " Nicholson impressed me more profoundly than any man I had ever met before, or have ever met since. I have never seen any one like him. He was the beau ideal of a soldier and a gentleman." It is little wonder that the natives worshipped him as a god under the title of Nikalsain. Nicholson, however, had a fiery temper and a contempt for red tape, which made him a somewhat intractable subordinate. He had a serious quarrel with Sir Neville Chamberlain, and was continually falling out with Sir John Lawrence, who succeeded his brother Henry as ruler of the Punjab.

It was when the Mutiny broke out in May 1857 that Nicholson was able to show the metal that was in him, and he did more than any other single man to keep the Punjab loyal and to bring about the fall of Delhi. When the news of the rising at Meerut arrived, Nicholson was with Edwardes at Peshawar, and they took immediate steps to disarm the doubtful regiments in that cantonment. Together they opposed Sir John Lawrence's proposal to abandon Peshawar, in order to concentrate all their strength on the siege of Delhi. In June Nicholson was appointed to the command of a movable column, with which he again disarmed two doubtful regiments at Phillaur. In July he made a forced march of 41 m. in a single day in the terrific heat of the Punjab summer, in order to intercept the mutineers from Sialkot, who were marching upon Delhi. He caught them on the banks of the Ravi near Gurdaspur, and utterly destroyed them, thus successfully achieving what hardly any other man would have attempted. In August he had pacified the Punjab and was free to reinforce General Wilson on the Ridge before Delhi. An officer who served in the siege gives the following word picture of him as he appeared at this time: "He was a man cast in a giant mould, with massive chest and powerful limbs, and an expression ardent and commanding, with a dash of roughness; features of stern beauty, a long black beard, and a deep sonorous voice. There was something of immense strength, talent and resolution in his whole frame and manner, and a power of ruling men on high occasions which no one could escape noticing. His imperial air, which never left him, and which would have been thought arrogant in one of less imposing mien, sometimes gave offence to the more unbending of his countrymen, but made him almost worshipped by the pliant Asiatics." Before Nicholson's arrival the counsels of the commanders before Delhi, like those at Meerut, suffered from irresolution and timidity. As General Wilson's health declined, his caution became excessive, and Nicholson was specially sent by Sir John Lawrence to put more spirit into the attack. His first exploit after his arrival was the victory of Najafgarh, which he won over the rebels who were attempting to intercept the British siege train from Ferozepore. After marching through a flooded country scarcely practicable for his guns, Nicholson, with a force of 2500 troops, defeated 6000 disciplined sepoys after an hour's fighting, and thenceforth put an end to all attempts of the enemy to get in the rear of the British position on the Ridge. Nicholson grew fiercely impatient of General Wilson's procrastination, and at one time was thinking of appealing to the army to set Wilson aside and elect a successor; but at last, on the 13th of September, he forced Wilson to make up his mind to the assault, and he himself was chosen to lead the attacking column. On the morning of the 14th he led his column, 1000 strong, in the attack on the Kashmir gate, and successfully entered the streets of Delhi. But in trying to clear the ramparts as far as the Lahore Gate, he undertook a task beyond the powers of his wearied troops. In encouraging them as they hesitated, he turned his back on the enemy and was shot in the back. The wound was mortal, but his magnificent physique allowed him to linger for nine days before finally succumbing on the 23rd of September.

His best epitaph is found in the words of Sir John Lawrence's Mutiny Report:- "Brigadier-General John Nicholson is now beyond human praise and human reward. But so long as British rule shall endure in India, his fame can never perish. He seems especially to have been raised up for this juncture. He crowned a bright, though brief, career by dying of the wound he received in the moment of victory at Delhi. The Chief Commissioner does not hesitate to affirm that without John Nicholson Delhi could not have fallen." See J. L. Trotter, Life of John Nicholson (1904); Sir John Kaye, Lives of Indian Officers (1889); Bosworth Smith, Life of Lord Lawrence (1883); Lady Edwardes, Memorials of Sir Herbert Edwardes (1886); and S. S. Thorburn, Bannu (1876).

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