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

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

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 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

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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