Forgotten Heroes of Empire: John Nicholson Part 1

With interest in the Empire at a high, thanks to Jeremy Paxman’s BBC2 show ‘Empire’ I thought I would write a series of blogs on the men who won and fought to maintain it. My first blog is on a man who is a personal hero of mine. He is Brigadier-General John Nicholson, hero of the Indian Mutiny and a man who inspired such loyalty in the natives he ruled over that some of them worshiped him as a god.

A young John Nicholson

John Nicholson was born on the 11th of December 1822 in Lisburn Ireland. Born into a middle class family (his father was a doctor) He was privately educated and attended the Royal School Dungannon. As with most sons of middle class families, there were certain career paths open to him, The Army, Navy, Clergy or thanks to the patronage of his Uncle the East India Company (EIC).

So on the 24th of February 1839 John was commissioned an Ensign in the Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) and set sail for India. He landed in India in July 1839 and he joined his regiment the 41st Native Infantry and then in December of that year transferred to the 27th Native Infantry. Almost immediately his regiment was involved in the 1st Afghan war. John’s regiment was stationed in Ghazni where he met Neville Chamberlain who would turn out to be the first of a group of similar young men who would have a major impact on British India. With the destruction of the main British Army during the infamous retreat from Kabul, the various garrisons around Afghanistan including Ghazni were besieged and waiting for the relief force to rescue them.

Kabul Market 1842

It was during this siege that Nicholson’s incredible determination, volcanic temper and savage fighting abilities first came to the attention of his superiors. It was also in Afghanistan that Nicholson’s loyalty to the natives under his command were displayed. When Colonel Palmer, Commander of the garrison agreed to surrender the fort, Nicholson argued that to do so, would condemn the Hindu soldiers to a certain death and he refused to comply with the order, kept hold of his musket and threatened with his bayonet any Afghan who came near him. Only when directly ordered by Colonel Palmer did he comply, flinging his sword at the feet of his captors and bursting into tears. Immediately his men were attacked by a large group of men and any hindus who refused to convert to Islam were immediately butchered. This episode had a lasting impact on Nicholson of which we will see more of later.

Nicholson, along with nine fellow officers were taken captive and held by the Afghans for over six months, mistreated and suffering the indignities of lice, dirt and poor food, but it was during this period that Nicholson’s extraordinary ability to impress and intimidate the natives, even as a captive first emerged. In one episode the men were being roughly searched for any valuables, Nicholson had a locket which contained a lock of hair from his mother, incensed that he was about to lose it he flew into a towering rage and threw the locket at the head of the Afghan Sirdar, the man seemed to like the fact Nicholson wasn’t scared of him and gave strict orders for the locket to be left with Nicholson.

The retreat from Afghanistan

The British relief Army eventually arrived and all the prisoners were returned to their units. It was in Kabul that Nicholson was to meet George Lawrence, the eldest of the five Lawrence brothers, three of whom would have a major impact on Nicholson’s career. Joe Lumsden was another person he first met in Kabul and he and Chamberlain would be among his best friends. He also met up with his younger brother Alexander who had came out to India in 1840.

The British decided that getting out of Afghanistan would be a good idea (sound familiar!?) and started the ‘tactical’ retreat back to India. During this retreat one final event would shape the person Nicholson would become. Nicholson was in the rear guard of the army, which was under constant attack from snipers and Afghan cavalry. In the hell of that retreat Nicholson was everywhere, leading his men up example and trying to keep his command together. Men were constantly being picked off by the snipers and any stragglers were instantly slaughtered. As the rearguard entered the the Khyber pass Nicholson and a young Ensign noticed a pale naked body lying among the rocks, ignoring orders not to leave the column they immediately went to investigate. Approaching the body they discovered that it was the body of Alexander, the body had been mutilated and the genitals stuffed into his mouth. Nicholson with tears streaming down his face had the body buried and a huge fire built on top of the grave to help disguise it.

Indian Sepoys Cica 1857

The Afghan war had a pronounced affect on Nicholson.  taciturn before, he was now silent in company to the point of rudeness. Believing his survival was a miracle from god, his self belief now bordered on the arrogant. It also left him with a deep loathing of the Afghans saying, “the most vicious and bloodthirsty race in existence, who fight merely for the love of bloodshed and plunder”. It also left him with a deep mistrust of anybody in authority which marked a lot of men who survived the debacle of the Afghan war. It was also the line taken by the group of young men who Nicholson would meet over the next few years and who would form a group of men that would help conquer and transform the wilds of the North West frontier.

In the next blog we will see Nicholson meet up with the rest of Henry Lawrence’s young men. William Hodsgon, Reynell Taylor, Herbert Edwardes, Henry Daly, Joe Lumsden and Neville Chamberlain would all make their mark under Henry Lawrence’s patronage. They will participate in the Sikh war and will ultimately help save British India during the Indian Mutiny.

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About readinggivesmewings

Father of two girls with two passions, Reading and history. If I can combine the two then I am a happy person!
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14 Responses to Forgotten Heroes of Empire: John Nicholson Part 1

  1. Martin Lake says:

    Fascinating article. There were some amazing characters around then – it’s no wonder that George MacDonald Fraser chose the Afghan War for his first Flashman novel. I was especially interested in your discussion of how the experience of the war, and the incompetent and perhaps culpable behaviour of Nicholson’s superiours had such an effect upon his temperament and that of many of his fellow officers.

    Your post also reminds me that politicians never seem to learn. If they only read their own nation’s history, or historical fiction, or blogs like this, they would not make the same mistake their ancestors did.

    I love the photos by the way. Aren’t the Sepoys magnificent?

  2. Thank you Martin…Glad you enjoyed it. In fact Flashman meets Nicholson in the Great Game and says of him ‘The downiest bird in all India and could be trusted with anything, money even.’…which is a rare compliment from Flashman….Politicians learn anything!? Don’t be silly Martin……the Sepoys are amazing and they still celebrate being part of the British army to this day…Part 2 coming soon.

  3. Bruce says:

    Fascinating! Well done. Let the Taliban have it I say. Not worth a single NATO soldier.

  4. Brilliant Blog Nick! Yours is becoming the top imformative blog around. Don’t tell Rob I said that though 🙂

  5. Thanks Bruce…it’s frightening to think we haven’t learned anything from the History of Afghanistan!

  6. Ha! Thanks Harvey…i promise not to say anything to Rob! 🙂

  7. Pingback: Forgotten Heroes of Empire: John Nicholson Part 2 | readinggivesmewings

  8. Donal McCracken says:

    Well, always good to see an interest in poor John Nicholson. He was actually born in Dublin not Lisburn, and in 1822 not 1832.

  9. Thanks for the comments Donal, You are correct on the date of his birth! A slip of the fingers but in every source I have read, it states that he was born in Lisburn…If you could direct me to your source that would be very helpful.

    • Donal McCracken says:

      Born in Dublin? Captain Trotter got it wrong in his not-as-bad-as-some-claim biography (1897), but Pearson’s (1939) bot-boiler was correct – Dublin was the place not Lisburn. Confirmation: India Office EIC enrolment papers, British Library. The issue is was it in Gardner Street or Donnybrook.

  10. Bill Wilsdon says:

    Lisburn city centre boasts a statue of the famous man which can be seen on google map in Market Square North, Lisburn. From recollection it was unveiled by Lord Roberts at the start of the 2oth century.

    • Donal McCracken says:

      You are correct Bobs did visit Lisburn and spoke with great affection of his old boss at Peshawar and later in the Moveable Column, but Roberts was long dead when the statue was erected in Lisburn in the early 1920s. The old Delhi Nicholson statue, now in the grounds of Dungannon Royal, is a more restrained and thus more powerful effort. The Lisburn statue is like something out of the Boy’s Own magazine. Sadly the sword on the Dungannon statue has been broken off. This happened to the statue of John Lawrence (removed from Lahore to Derry in the 1960s), but Foyle and Londonderry College have had it repaired.

      • Emma parsons says:

        John Nicholson is my ancestor and my great grandfather and grandad attended the unveiling of the statue in Lisburn.

  11. Pingback: British war hero who kept a human head on his desk & hunted tigers with a sword - WAR HISTORY ONLINE

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