Read CHAPTER II - FIGHTING THE AFGHANS of John Nicholson The Lion of the Punjaub , free online book, by R. E. Cholmeley, on

After a five months’ voyage Nicholson reached Calcutta safely. Here he spent a little time with certain of his uncle’s friends, until at last he was temporarily appointed to the 41st Regiment of Sepoys quartered at Benares. At this station he studiously mastered his drill and prepared himself for the permanent appointment which was promised him. This followed at the end of the same year, 1839, when he was placed in the 27th Native Infantry at Ferozepore, on the Sutlej.

The young ensign was now to experience his first taste of war. Soon after he had joined his new regiment, the 27th was ordered up into Afghanistan and despatched to Jellalabad. At that time Afghanistan was occupied by British troops, and to all intents and purposes was well disposed towards us, but appearances were deceitful. Though hardly anyone knew it, trouble was brewing in the Amir’s capital. Below the surface of calm, feeling ran high against Shah Soojah, the unpopular Afghan ruler, and his supporters, the British; and the followers of Dost Mahomed, the rival claimant to the throne, had no difficulty in fomenting a general revolt. The blow fell on the 2nd of November 1841. On that day Sir Alexander Burnes, the British envoy at Cabul, was assassinated, and the streets of the city ran red with blood.

When the insurrection thus blazed forth, John Nicholson was at Fort Ghuzni, nearly a hundred miles to the south of Cabul. His regiment had been ordered there some months previously to relieve the 16th. In three weeks’ time the hill fortress was surrounded by Afghan warriors, and Colonel Palmer, the commandant, found himself in a state of siege. Unfortunately for the little garrison, the winter was now upon them. Situated very high up, Ghuzni was exposed to the full severity of the pitiless snowstorms which swept over the neighbourhood. These not only added to the discomfort of the troops, but had the effect of checking the advance of a relief column under General Maclaren that had started from Candahar.

For a time the enemy was kept at bay without the city, their old-fashioned jezails, or matchlocks, failing to produce much effect. Then treachery made itself felt. Actuated by humane motives, Colonel Palmer had refrained from expelling the Afghan townspeople, and the latter now repaid this act of kindness by undermining the city walls to admit their countrymen. One dark December night the Afghans poured in through the breach, driving the Sepoys and their British officers into the shelter of the citadel.

For a month the little garrison held out bravely, suffering some loss from the enemy’s bullets and suffering even more from the scarcity of water. While the snow fell it was possible to melt it and replenish their store, but when the storms ceased they were in a desperate case. Instructions now came from General Elphinstone at Cabul that the fortress should be surrendered. Colonel Palmer, who was loth to believe the message, prolonged negotiations as long as he could, but reflection showed him that he had no choice but to submit. The water supply was at an end, and the Afghans threatened to renew the siege in a more determined manner than before. Very reluctantly, therefore, he yielded, having first bargained that the garrison should be permitted to march out with the honours of war and should be escorted in due time to Peshawur.

To this course the enemy’s leaders agreed. But an oath counts for little in the Afghan mind, and Nicholson quickly learned of what depths of treachery this people were capable. No sooner had the sepoys of the 27th marched out to the quarters assigned them in the city than a crowd of ghazis fell upon them, massacring many of the poor fellows in cold blood. Nicholson himself, with Lieutenants Crawford and Burnett, was on the roof of a house near by and saw the terrible deed. In the building were two companies of sepoys. Joining these without delay, the officers prepared to make a bold stand.

The attack on the house was not long in coming. Storming the door in their furious desire to get at the hated infidels, the Afghans endeavoured to effect an entrance. When it was seen that this could not be done, the place was set on fire, and soon the flames and smoke drove the inmates from room to room. Before very long the position became untenable. With the few men remaining Nicholson and his brother officers cut a hole with their bayonets in the back wall of the house, and one by one dropped through into the narrow street below. Fortunately, the two other buildings in which Colonel Palmer and his sepoys had taken refuge, were close by. In a few moments the fugitives had joined forces with their comrades.

But though safety for a time had been gained, the chances of ultimate escape seemed hopeless. The houses were filled to overflowing with sepoy soldiers and camp followers, men, women, and children, and when by and by the large guns of the fortress were trained upon them the slaughter was very great. The British officers, it is stated, expected nothing less than death. They even began to burn the regimental colours to prevent them falling into the enemy’s hands.

In this extremity the Afghan leaders made fresh proposals of honourable treatment on surrender, and Colonel Palmer at last consented to yield. How Nicholson regarded this move was very clear. In his anger at the base treachery he had witnessed he would have fought to the last gasp ere trusting again to the word of an Afghan. When the command came to surrender he refused to obey, and it is recorded that he “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.” Then, with bitter tears, he gave up his sword, and allowed himself to be made prisoner.

Of the five months’ captivity at Ghuzni, from March to August 1842, we learn most from Lieutenant Crawford’s narrative. From the first the prisoners were treated miserably. The British officers ten in number were confined in a small room “only 18 feet by 13,” and for several weeks deprived of any change of clothing. What possessions they had were taken from them by their guards; watches, money, and jewellery, and even their pocket-knives, thus being lost to them.

Only one officer succeeded in retaining a cherished trinket, and this was Nicholson himself. Captain Trotter, who records the incident, quotes from a letter sent by Nicholson to his mother in which the writer says, “I managed to preserve the little locket with your hair in it . . . and I was allowed to keep it, because, when ordered to give it up, I lost my temper and threw it at the soldier’s head, which was certainly a thoughtless and head-endangering act. However, he seemed to like it, for he gave strict orders that the locket was not to be taken from me.”

The severities of the confinement increased when in April news came of the death of Shah Soojah at the hands of an assassin, and the little prison in the citadel became almost a second “Black Hole of Calcutta.” The one window was shut and darkened, making the air of the room unbearable. To add to the horror of the situation, Colonel Palmer was now cruelly tortured before his comrades’ eyes, one of his feet being twisted by means of a tent peg and rope. This was done in the hope that he or some one of his fellow-captives would reveal the hiding-place of a phantom “four lakhs of rupees,” which the Afghans declared the British had buried in the vicinity.

But in June came a change for the better. The prisoners were now allowed to sleep out in the open courtyard in the postíns, or rough sheepskin coats, supplied them. Two months later they learned that they were to be sent to Cabul, where Dost Mahomed’s son, Akbar Khan, was keeping captive Lady Sale, Mrs. Sturt, George Lawrence, Vincent Eyre, and other Europeans. The exchange was a welcome one. Slung in camel panniers, they were jolted along the rough country roads for three days, arriving in the Afghan capital on the 22nd of August, when they were generously dined by the chief and his head men.

The quarters in which the party were now housed, together with Lady Sale and the other survivors of the Cabul massacre, were a paradise compared to their former lodging. They had a beautiful garden to walk in, servants to wait upon them, and an abundant supply of food. Their satisfaction, however, was shortlived. In a few days the prisoners were hurried off to Bamian, in the hill country to the north-west, and thence to Kulum. The reason for this move was apparent. Generals Pollock and Nott had already commenced their victorious advance upon Cabul, and Akbar Khan resolved to keep his captives as hostages for his own safety.

To Nicholson and his companions it looked as if their fate was sealed, but a ray of hope dawned for them. The Afghan officer in charge of their escort showed himself ready to consider the offer of a bribe. A bond was eventually drawn up ensuring him a handsome recompense for his services did he lead them to safety, and in the middle of September they found themselves once more free.

Late one afternoon the rescue party sent to their aid by General Pollock met them toiling along the dusty road on the other side of the Hindu Kush mountains. Within a few hours they were safe inside the British lines.

Nicholson duly marched with the main army to Cabul, and had the satisfaction of seeing the Afghan capital suffer the punishment it justly merited. On the way home, however, he experienced the first great loss in his life. His youngest brother, Alexander, who had but recently joined the Company’s service, was killed in the desultory fighting outside the city, and to Nicholson fell the sad duty of identifying the boy’s body as it was found, stripped and mutilated, by the roadside.