Forgotten Heroes of Empire: John Nicholson Part 2

At the end of Part One we had left John Nicholson profoundly changed after the Afghan war. His treatment while a prisoner and then the murder and mutilation of his brother had left him with a intense hated of the Natives of the sub-continent and also a sense of divine right. With the end of the war came a period of intense boredom for Nicholson as he had to endure two years of garrison duty. Never a man for the social side of soldiering this period must of been one of intense frustration to him. It was during this time that he passed his exam in Urdu which would enable him to apply for a staff position.

John NicholsonFor the most ambitious officers of the EIC the only way to relieve the boredom of garrison life was to try and be posted as a Political officer. These men would be posted to native courts and allied states and would ensure that the native rulers followed a pro British Policy. They had enormous power and could rule over areas greater in size than Britain. They were the glue that held British India together. These were the posts that the ambitious Nicholson was after as he studied and suffered the boredom of regimental life. However the years of boredom were about to come to a spectacular end and bring together the band of men that would transform and rule the North-West frontier of British India for the next 20 years. In the north of the country the last Indian power capable of threatening British rule was flexing its muscles.

The 1st Sikh War

With the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839 the Sikh empire had lost its driving force. The years that followed were characterized by fratricide between his heirs, which by 1845 had left an 8 year old on the throne, an increasingly divided court and an army that had started to elect their own officers and it was they, not their generals who gave the orders.

The Punjab was descending into anarchy and the British looked on with increasing apprehension and few doubted that a confrontation with the Sikh empire was now inevitable. The EIC started to build up their forces on the borders between British India and the Punjab. Nicholson joined the staff of the commissariat department which was part of the field force being assembled by Sir Hugh Gough (1779-1869).  In December 1845 the Sikh Army crossed the border and advanced into British territory. The Sikh War was some of the toughest fighting that the British would face in India.

British Troops attacking Sikh guns

British Troops attacking Sikh guns

Leading the British force was Sir Hugh Gough. Gough was a solider through and through, commissioned in 1794 he had fought across the globe from Surinam to the Cape. He had led his regiment from Talavera to Vittoria during the Peninsular war and was injured and commended on numerous occasions. He is widely believed to have commanded in more general actions than any other British officer of the 19th century except the Duke of Wellington. By 1845, Gough was past his best and his handling of the Sikh wars has been widely criticised.

Sir Hugh Gough

At the battles of Mudki, Ferozeshah and finally Sobraon, Gough threw his infantry into frontal assaults against heavily defended Sikh positions that bristled with artillery.  At Ferozeshah, Gough continually ordered his infantry regiments to attack until they were either destroyed or exhausted and the causalities amongst the infantry regiments were very heavy and only the the bravery and determination of the Infantry and the disciplined British cavalry helped defeat the Sikhs.  One of Nicholson’s friends, William Hodson (1821-1858) survived the battle and describes the action at Ferozeshah:

In the most dense dust and smoke, and under an unprecedented fire of grape, our Sepoys again gave way and broke. It was a fearful crisis, but the bravery of the English regiments saved us. The Colonel, the greater part of my brother officers, and myself were left with the colours and about thirty men immediately  in front of the Sikh batteries!…A ball (from a shell, I fancy) struck my leg below the knee, but happily spared the bone, and only inflicted a flesh wound. I was also knocked down twice – once by a shell burst so close to me as to kill the men behind me, and once by the explosion of a mine….They returned again to the charge as soon as often we gained any advantage, and it was evening before they were finally disposed of by a charge of our Dragoons, and our ammunition was exhausted! – so near are we in our most triumphant success to a destruction as complete!

With the final defeat of the Sikhs at the battle of Sobraon, Gough could proclaim a British victory. We hear very little of Nicholson during the Sikh wars, he must of made an impression some where because we know he came to the attention of Henry Lawrence at this time. The Sikhs surrendered at Lahore and the British had no interest in annexing the Punjab but they did install a resident to impose British policy and ensure that the Sikhs behaved. The man chosen for the job was Sir Henry Lawrence (1806-1857). One of five brothers to serve in India, Henry would become one of the Empires greatest martyrs when he dies in the siege of Lucknow during the Sepoy Mutiny.

Once Lawrence arrived in Lahore to take up his new post, he immediately began to employ the young men who would tame the Punjab. First in was Herbert Edwardes (1819–1868) who became Lawrence’s assistant, Joe Lumsden,William Hodson, Reynall Taylor and finally Nicholson who was dispatched to the Jammu province.

Nicholson’s job in Jammu was to train the Maharaja Gulab Singh’s army but in July 1846 he was involved in a situation that still has implications to the world today.


In 1846 the Sikh’s still had to pay a large war indemnity to the British. The Hindu Ruler of Jammu, Maharaja Gulab Singh agreed to pay two thirds of the outstanding amount if the British would help him take the mainly Muslim Kashmir under his rule. In a decision that has haunted British administrators and UN officials ever since, Henry Lawrence agreed to the deal. The man tasked with helping achieve this was John Nicholson.

Kashmir 1849

So in July 1846 Nicholson found himself escorting the Maharaja into the Kashmir Vale to impose the rule of a foreign prince onto a reluctant and hostile Muslim population.  It soon became clear to Nicholson that the Natives of Kashmir were not going to accept the Ruler of Gulab Singh. Nicholson wrote:

‘We had not been many days in the city before we learnt  that the previous governor had made up his mind to drive Gulab Singh’s small force out of the valley and seize us. We had great difficulty in effecting our escape, which we just did in time to avoid capture’

The retreat of the Maharaja and Nicholson back to Jammu was a setback that the British couldn’t accept. A military force from Lahore was dispatched, led by the Henry Lawrence and with Nicholson, Lumsden and Hodson acting as his lieutenants. The 10,000 men under their command were almost all Sikhs who less than six months before had been their enemies.  In the event, the troops were hardly needed as a peaceful solution was achieved and Gulab Singh took up the throne of Kashmir. Nicholson was left in Kashmir to safeguard the British position, this was a low point in Nicholson’s Indian career, Feeling lonely and distant from events elsewhere, he seriously considered resigning and returning to Europe. Luckily for Nicholson and the British in India, in December 1847 Lawrence recalled him back to Lahore.

Nicholson was sent into Hazara to help James Abbott bring the province under Sikh control but they proved so successful that they undermined the authority of the Sikh governor, with Henry Lawrence doing the same to the Sikh council in Lahore, tensions were rising. As one Sikh official put it ‘ Why do you not do it openly? On the one hand you make a show of friendship and on the other you have put us in prison’

At the worst possible moment, Henry Lawrence went home to England to recover his health after 15 years in India. The new British resident Sir Frederick Currie had no experience of dealing with prickly native rulers and with the belligerence of Lord Gough they proceeded to propel the Punjab into the 2nd Sikh war.

In part three I will cover John Nicholson’s role within the 2nd Sikh War and the creation of the myth surrounding him.


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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10 Responses to Forgotten Heroes of Empire: John Nicholson Part 2

  1. Another top post Nick! Will comment in more detail tomorrow, another glass of Shiraz beckons. 🙂

  2. Fascinating Nick! I didn’t realise how little I knew about the part the British played in India. It is a subject you have introduced me to and I shall take a deeper interest going forward. Look forward to part 3 with anticipation. HB

  3. robpatrob says:

    Really enjoying this – can hardly wait for part 3

  4. Nick Singer says:

    Good to see stuff about JN. He was a cousin of my GGGrandfather and got somewhat ‘dissed’ some years ago. Like many ‘heroes of Empire’ he and his achievements must be viewed as ‘of his time’ – not through our modern and, dare I say it, politically correct prism!

    • Sam Warren says:

      Hi Nick, I am doing further research into John Nicholson as part of my thesis into changing imperial identities at the University of Oxford. You mention that you were distantly related, and I wondered if you had any further association with the unpublished diary that has been so contentiously and conspicuously absent from public print. Please do get in contact if you have any ideas about avenues to pursue. My email is and I would love to hear from you.

    • Emma parsons says:

      I too am of this family but I haven’t heard of you, I would like to know the connection

  5. Saad Khan Tahirkheli says:

    We are still waiting for part three…. Together with James Abbot He had confrontations with Sikhs in Village Salamkhand. That is my ancestral village. I am Tarkheli from that village.

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