John William Kaye.

Lives of Indian officers : illustrative of the history of the civil and military service of India (Volume 2) online

. (page 43 of 50)
Online LibraryJohn William KayeLives of Indian officers : illustrative of the history of the civil and military service of India (Volume 2) → online text (page 43 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

consummated the revolution which placed Shah Soojah " upon
the throne of his ancestors." And there, when the counter-
revolution broke out in 1841, it found young Nicholson with
his regiment a tall, slim stripling of eighteen.*

When the " insurgents," as they were then called, arose,
and strove mightily to shake off the double burden of an un-
popular monarch and a foreign usurpation, it was the especial
work of one of the leading Afghan chiefs to obtain repos-
session of Ghuznee. A British garrison is never likely to
surrender to an Oriental enemy; but what could a single
regiment do against the multitudinous array of fighting men
sent against them ? It happened that a second enemy, even
more formidable than the first, appeared at the same disas-
trous point of time. Snow began to fall heavily. The rigours
of winter were setting in. The reinforcements sent from
Candahar to the relief of Ghuznee retraced their steps. This
gave new heart to the Afghans. The British regiment for
some time held the city, but the inhabitants undermined the
walls and admitted the Barukzye fighting men. Then the
English officers were compelled to withdraw with their Hin-
dostanee troops into the citadel. There they were exposed to
all the merciless severities of the northern winter. But they
held their own manfully until their supplies of water were
exhausted, and then they were compelled to capitulate. An

* He appears at this time to have throne of Caubul, and whose army is

had some idea of obtaining an appoint- officered by Europeans, who receive a

ment in Shah Soojah's service, for he much larger salary than they do when

wrote from Ghuznee in August : " The serving with their regiments. However,

service which I spoke to you about I shall soon pass in the language, and

wishing to enter was not the Nizam's, perhaps through my uncle's interest

but that of Shah Soojah-ool-Moolkh, may obtain some appointment in Hin-

whom we have lately restored to the doostan better worth having."


1842. agreement was signed with the Afghan leaders, by which
they promised our people safe-conduct to the Punjabee
frontier. But as the snow was still lying in the passes, it
was necessary that they should remain a little longer in
Ghuznee ; so quarters were found for the British regiment in
a part of the town just below tfie citadel. Afghan treachery,
however, soon displayed itself in its worst colours. The
British troops were foully attacked in their new quarters.
Then, in the hour of deadly peril, the heroic qualities of John
Nicholson, a youth of twenty, manifested themselves in all
their nascent strength. The story is told by one who fought
beside him. " I was in the next house with Burnett of the
54th and Nicholson of the 27th," wrote Lieutenant Craw-
ford, soon after the event, " there being no decent room for
me in my own proper quarters. On hearing the uproar I
ran to the roof to see what was the matter ; and finding what
had taken place among my men, and that balls were flying
thick, I called up Burnett. He had scarcely joined me when
he was struck down by a rifle-ball which knocked his eye
out ; and as he was then rendered hors de combat, I assumed
command of the two companies of the 27th that had been
under him ; and Nicholson and myself proceeded to defend
ourselves as well as circumstances would permit. We were
on the left of the heap of houses occupied by our troops, and
the first and sharpest attacks were directed at us ; the enemy
fired our house, and gradually, as room after room caught
fire, we were forced to retreat to the others, till at last, by
midnight of the 9th, our house was nearly burnt in halves.
We were exhausted with hunger and thirst, having had
nothing to eat or drink since the morning of the 7th. Our
ammunition was expended; the place was filled with dead
and dying men, and our position was no longer tenable ; but
the only entrance, in front of the house, was surrounded by
the enemy, and we scarcely knew how to get out and endea-
vour to join Colonel Palmer. At last we dug a hole through
the wall of the back of the house : we had only bayonets to
work with, and it cost us much labour to make a hole suffi-
ciently large to admit of one man dropping into the street
below ; but we were fortunate enough to get clear out of our
ruined quarters in this way, and to join the Colonel unper-
ceived by the savages around us."


But by this time all hope of successful resistance had passed 1842.
away; for the Hindostanee Sepoys, worn out by cold and
hunger, had lost all heart, and were eager to seek safety in
flight. So again Colonel Palmer entered into terms with the
enemy, and engaged to surrender the arms of his force on
condition of the Afghan leaders pledging themselves to treat
their prisoners honourably, and conduct them in safety to
Caubul. There was the bitterness of death in this order to
all heroic minds ; and it is recorded that " Nicholson, then
quite a stripling, drove the enemy thrice back beyond the
walls at the point of the bayonet, before he would listen to
the order given him to make his company lay down their
arms. He at length obeyed, gave up his sword with bitter
tears, and accompanied his comrades to an almost hopeless

Now began a time of miserable captivity. In a small Captivity
room, eighteen feet by thirteen, the prisoners were confined.
When they lay down to rest at night they covered the whole
floor. From this wretched dungeon, after a while, even light
and air were excluded by the closing of the door and window.
Cleanliness even was a blessing denied to them. The linen
rotted on their backs, and they were soon covered by loath-
some vermin. In this pitiable state, never breathing the
fresh air of heaven, the spring passed over them ; and then
in the middle of May there was a little change for the better,
for once a week they were suffered to emerge from their dark
and noxious dungeon and look out into the face of day for an
hour, from the terrace of the citadel. A month afterwards
they were moved into better quarters, and an open court-yard
allowed them for exercise. The delight of this was so great
after the stifling and pestilential atmosphere of their first
prison, that for months they slept in the open court, wrapped
in their rude sheepskin cloaks, with nothing above them but
the canopy of heaven. At last, in the third week of August,
they were startled by the news that they were to be conveyed
to Caubul; and presently they found themselves, slung in
camel panniers, jolting on to the Afghan capital.

At Caubul, John Nicholson and his companions were taken
before the famous Afghan leader, Akbar Khan, who spoke
kindly to them, bade them be of good cheer, gave them a
good dinner, and then sent them to join the prisoners under


1842. his own care. Of this dinner John Nicholson, after his
release, wrote an interesting account to his mother, saying :
" The day we arrived at Caubul, we dined with Mahomed
Akbar. Many of the principal men of the city were present ;
and I never was in the company of more gentlemanlike, well-
bred men. They were strikingly handsome, as the Afghan
Sirdars always are, and made most polite inquiries regarding
our health, how we had borne the fatigue of the journey, &c.
Immediately opposite to me sat Sultan Jan, the handsomest
man I ever saw in my life ; and with a great deal of dignity
in his manner. He had with his own hand murdered poor
Captain Trevor in the preceding winter; but that was no-
thing. As I looked round the circle I saw both parricides
and regicides, whilst the murderer of our Envoy was perhaps
the least blood-stained of the party. I look upon our escape
as little less than a miracle. I certainly never expected it;
and to God alone thanks are due."* When the Ghuznee
party joined Akbar Khan's prisoners, the worst part of their
captivity was over. " We found," wrote one of the party
afterwards, " our countrymen living in what appeared to us
a small paradise. They had comfortable quarters, servants,
money, no little baggage, and a beautiful garden to walk
about in. To our great regret, we had only been four or
five days in this Elysium, when we were sent off to Ba-
meean." The armies of General Pollock and General Nott

* Of the Afghan character generally, many?' It has often been said to me

John Nicholson appears to have formed by a man who (to use an expression of

no very favourable opinion. In the their own) would have cut another's

letter quoted in the text, he wrote : " I throat for an onion, ' Alas ! alas ! what

sent you from Ferozepore a newspaper a state of mind your poor mother must

containing a tolerably correct, though be in about you now ; how I pity both

brief, account of us at Ghuznee, from you and her!' And although insincere,

November, 1841, till September, 1842. he did not mean this as a jest." In

I must, however, mention some traits another letter he said : " With regard

in the Afghan character, which I had to the Afghans, I cannot describe their

full leisure to study during my imprison- character in language sufficiently strong ;

ment. They are, without exception, this much, however, respecting their

the most bloodthirsty and treacherous patriotism, which people at home laud

race in existence, more so than any one them so much for ; they have not a

who had not experience of them could particle of it, and from the highest to

conceive ; with all that, they have more the lowest, every man of them would

natural, innate politeness than any sell both country and relations. In

people I have ever seen. Men of our fact, our politicals found out latterly

guard used to ask us of our friends at that the surest mode of apprehending a

home : ' Have you a mother ? have criminal was to tamper with his nearest

you brothers and sisters ? and how friends or relations."


were advancing triumphantly upon Caubul ; and the Afghan 1842.
leader, who knew the value of his prisoners, was eager to
keep them in safe custody until he could turn them to proper
account. Even in their new prison-house on the Hindoo-
Koosh, among the giant-caves of Bameean, it hardly seemed
to him that they would be safe ; so he sent orders for their
conveyance to Kooloom. But deliverance was now close at
hand. Afghan cupidity was seldom in those days proof against
the temptations of English gold. The prisoners bribed the
officer in whoso custody they were with large promises, to bo
redeemed on their release. From this time all danger was at Release from
an end. They opened communications with General Pollock, ca P tm ?
turned their faces again towards Caubul, and on the 17th
of September met the party which the General sent out to their
rescue, and found themselves free men. " When I joined the
force at Caubul," wrote John Nicholson some months later,
" Richard Olpherts, of the 40th, was very kind to me. In-
deed, but for his kindness, I don't know what I should have
done. He supplied me with clothes and other necessaries, and
I lived with him till I reached Peshawur."

The victorious army having set its mark upon Caubul, re- Return to
turned to the British provinces. But new trouble was in store "
for John Nicholson. Whilst he had been suffering captivity
in his Afghan prison, his brother Alexander had gone out to
India, and had marched with his regiment into Afghanistan.
On the Avay from Caubul, the brothers met ; but a few days
afterwards the enemy attacked our rear-guard, and Alexander
was killed in action. It was John Nicholson's sad duty to
communicate this distressing intelligence to his mother : "It
is with a sorrowful heart," he wrote on the 6th of November,
" that I sit down to write to you now, after a silence of more
than, a twelvemonth. Indeed, I should scarcely dare to do so
now, were I not encouraged by the knowledge that God will
enable you to bear your sad loss with Christian resignation,
and comfort you with his Holy Spirit. Poor Alexander is no
more. He was killed in action, when on rear-guard on the
3rd instant ; but I know that you will not sorrow as one with-
out hope, but rather rejoice that it has pleased the Lord to
take him from this world of sorrow and temptation. Poor
boy, I met him only a few days before his death, and a happy


184246. meeting it was Now, my dearest mother, let me

entreat you not to grieve more than you can help. Alexander
died a soldier's death, in the execution of his duty, and a more
glorious death he could not have died."

After a grand ovation on the frontier, the army was dis-
persed. John Nicholson then, after the perilous excitement
of this his first service, subsided for a time into the quietude
and monotony of cantonment life. His regiment was stationed
at Meerut, but, although it was one of the largest and most
bustling of our military cantonments, the uneventful dreari-
ness of his daily life oppressed him after the excitement of the
preceding years. " I dislike India and its inhabitants more
every day," he wrote to his mother, in one of those hours of
despondency which are common to the careers of all great
men, " and would rather go home on 200 /. a year than live
like a prince here. At the same time I have so much reason
to be thankful, that I do not grumble at my lot being cast in
this country." But the young soldier was not doomed to a
lengthened period of inactivity, for he was made Adjutant of
his regiment, and he had thus the best opportunity that could
have been afforded to him for perfecting himself in the prac-
tical knowledge of his professional duties. There was peace,
but not of long duration. Soon it was plain that another
crisis was approaching; and then commenced that great
series of events which tested the qualities and made the repu-
tations of so many men now great in Indian history. The
Sikh army, no longer restrained by the strong hand of Runjit
Singh, invaded the British frontier, and dared us to the con-
flict. Then the work of the English soldier done for a time,
the work of the administrator commenced. The Sikh Empire,
which the victories of the Sutlej had laid at our feet, was left
in the hands of the child-Prince who represented the house of
its founder ; and whilst we fenced him round with British
bayonets, we at the same time endeavoured to fit him for
future government. A Council of Regency was formed, and
Colonel Henry Lawrence, as related in a previous Memoir,
was placed at its head.

1846. It happened that John Nicholson was then with the army

on the frontier. He had been attached to the Commissariat
Department, and was present at the battle of Ferozeshuhur ;


but his position did not afford the means of personal dis- 1846.
tinction, and he was little more than a looker-on.* The time,
however, had come for the young soldier to divest himself for
a time of the ordinary accompaniments and restraints of mili-
tary life. A new career was about to open out before him
a career that had many attractions for one of his ardent, en-
thusiastic nature, for it was one in which he would no longer
be kept down by the dead weight of a seniority service. As a
regimental subaltern, there was little that he could do to dis-
tinguish himself; still less, perhaps, to be done in the sub-
ordinate ranks of the Commissariat Department. But he had
made the acquaintance of George and Henry Lawrence in
Afghanistan. With the former he had been a fellow-captive,
in the hands of Saleh Mahomed ; and the latter, who accom-
panied the Sikh Contingent to Caubul, had soon discerned the
fine soldierly qualities of the subaltern of the Twenty-seventh.
To such a man as Henry Lawrence, the character and dis-
position of young Nicholson were sure to recommend him, as
one to be regarded with great hope and with tender affection.
They parted, but Lawrence never forgot the boy, and when
they met again on the banks of the Sutlej, the elder man, then
in high place, stretched out his hand to the younger, and
John Nicholson's fortune was made.

After the campaign on the Sutlej, Cashmere, which had In Cashmere,
been an outlying province of the Sikh Empire, was ceded to
the English, in part payment of the expenses of the war ; and
it was made over by us, or, in plain language, sold, to the
Maharajah Gholab Singh for a million sterling. At the request

* From Lahore, he wrote on the 27th trophies are two hundred and thirty

of February, to his mother : " As you guns, besides innumerable standards,

will see by the date, we are encamped arms of every description, and nearly

at the capital of the Punjab, without all the camp - equipage they brought

having fired a shot since we crossed the across the river with them. . . . You will

Sutlej on the 10th instant a proof of be glad to hear I have got a Commis-

how completely the Sikh army has been sariat appointment from Colonel Stuart,

humbled, and its strength and confidence It scarcely gives me any increase of

lessened. Our loss since the commence- pay at present, but will do so after I

ment of the war has though very have served a few years in the depart-

heavy been nothing in comparison ment. I passed the interpreter's exa-

with theirs ; it is believed that at least mination in November last, at Um-

half the force they had in the field at liallali."
Sobraon on the 10th perished, and our


1846. of the chief, the British Government consented to send two
English officers to instruct his troops in our system of disci-
pline ; mid Captain Broome of the Artillery and John Nichol-
son were selected by Lord Hardinge for the duty, in the early
part of March, 1846. The Governor-General sent for Nichol-
son, and offered him the appointment in a manner very-
pleasing to the young soldier. " I accepted it gladly," he
wrote to his mother, " on the condition that, if on trial I did
not like it, I might fall back on my old Commissariat office."
Early in April he reached Jummoo, from which place he
wrote, in the following month : " My last will have informed
you of my arrival here with Maharajah Gholab Singh on the
2nd of April. Since then I have been leading the most mo-
notonous life you can well imagine ; I have no duties of any
kind to perform, and am quite shut out from the civilised
world. I think I mentioned to you in a former letter that I
/ did not believe the Maharajah was really desirous of having
our system of discipline introduced into his army ; so it has
turned out he merely asked for two European officers because
he was aware of the moral effect their presence would have at
his Durbar in showing the terms of intimacy he was on with
the British Government, and made the wish to have his army
disciplined a pretence. As it at present stands, the appoint-
ment can't prove a permanent one, as the Manarajah will
soon become tired of paying mine and Captain Broome's, the
Artillery officer's, staff salary. Hitherto we have both received
every civility from him, and as long as he considers it his in-
terest to treat us well, he will doubtless do so. The Maha-
rajah talks of going to Cashmere next month and taking mo
with him. I look forward with great pleasure to a trip to
this beautiful valley (albeit in such company), believed by
natives to have been the earthly Paradise. "*

So they went to Cashmere, ostensibly to drill the infantry

* In another letter, written in June, years, and the excitement of the late
he still complained of the same want of campaign, my present want of employ-
employment. "I have already," he ment renders my exile from the civilised
said, " informed you of the nature of world irksome to a degree ; so' much so,
my appointment, and that up to the that, should this state of things last
date of my writing my duties had been much longer, I shall very likely throw
merely nominal ones. I regret to say the appointment up and fall back on
they still continue so, and after the the Commissariat, though it is not a
busy life I have led for the last three department I am very partial to."


regiments of the Maharajah ; but Gholab Singh really wanted i486,
them for no such purpose. Their presence in his country was
sufficient to show that he had the support of the British Govern-
ment. This, however, did not avail him much ; for a strong

' ' O X

party, under the old Sikh governor, resisted the transfer of v
the territory to its new ruler ; and the English officers were in
danger of their lives. The story is told by Nicholson himself,
in a letter to his mother : "I left Jummoo for Cashmere," he
wrote on the 26th of September, 1846, " towards the latter
end of July, and arrived there on the 12th of August, much
pleased with the beautiful scenery and fine climate of the
mountain range which we crossed to get into the valley. You
will remember that the province of Cashmere was made over
to Gholab Singh by our Government. At the time of our
arrival, however, though he had a few thousand men in the
valley, he had by no means obtained possession of the place.
The son of the late governor, under the Sikhs, having raised
a considerable force, showed an evident disinclination to sur-
render the government Gholab Singh, moreover, being very
unpopular in the valley, on account of his known character.
We had not been many days in the city before we learnt that
the governor had made up his mind to drive Gholab Singh's
small force out of the valley and seize us. We had great diffi- y
culty in effecting our escape, which we did just in time to
avoid capture, and marching by one of the southern passes,
joined the Maharajah here a few days ago. As we left the
valley, the governor did, as we heard he intended to do by
the Maharajah's troops, and the task of dispossessing him,
and making over the province to Gholab Singh, now devolves
upon our Government." " The view you have taken of my
position here," he added, " is perfectly correct, with this ad-
dition to the disadvantages you enumerate, that I have no
duties to perform. The Maharajah does not want his troops
disciplined ; and as it was the hope of distinguishing myself
by a zealous and successful discharge of the duties nominally
attaching to the appointment, that induced me to accept it,
now that after six months' experience I find that the duties
are entirely nominal, the inducement to seclude myself from
the civilised world and undergo many annoyances and incon-
veniences no longer exists, and I would not hesitate to resign


184647. the appointment immediately, were it not that I have good
reason for believing that it will be done away with before the
end of the year. It will then depend on Lord Hardinge
whether I fall back on the Commissariat, or get the ' some-
thing better' he promised me, on offering me my present ap-

The insurrection was overcome, and, in November, Nichol-
son was again settled at Cashmere. Onjthe_19th he wrote to his
mother, saying : " Colonel Lawrence and the rest of the party
left this three days ago, and I am now quite alone, and, as
you may suppose, feel very lonely, without an European
within scores of miles of me. I am for the present officiating
in the North- West Frontier Agency, which Colonel Lawrence
has recommended my being put permanently into. If his re-
commendation be attended to, I shall probably be stationed
either at Lahore or somewhere in the Jullundur Doab ; other-
wise, I shall have to return to the Commissariat, as it is not
intended to continue my present appointment, it being evident
that the Maharajah does not wish our system of discipline in-
troduced into his army. Whatever is dope with me, I shall
not be sorry to get away from Cashmere, which at this season
is anything but a terrestrial Paradise. My fingers are so
cold that I can scarcely hold the pen, and glazed windows are
unknown here."

A few weeks after this letter was written, Lieutenant John
Nicholson was formally appointed an Assistant to the Resident
at Lahore, and early in the new year (1847) he started for the
Sikh capital. One of his younger brothers, Charles Nicholson r
had a short time before arrived in India, and John, to his
great joy, had learnt that the youth was now with his regi-
ment in the Punjab : " I left Cashmere on the 7th of Fe-
bruary," he wrote to his mother in April, " crossing eight
and a half feet of snow in the Poonah Pass. On my arrival
at Ramnuggur, within six marches of Lahore, I received
instructions to proceed to Mooltan and Dhera Shyee Khan,

Online LibraryJohn William KayeLives of Indian officers : illustrative of the history of the civil and military service of India (Volume 2) → online text (page 43 of 50)