Read CHAPTER IX - BEFORE DELHI of John Nicholson The Lion of the Punjaub , free online book, by R. E. Cholmeley, on

In the long march to Delhi Nicholson’s temper must have been tried time and time again. He was all impatience to get to his goal and urge on the assault, the delay of which every day added to the peril that threatened British India. The tardy progress made, owing to the heavy guns he carried in his train, caused him to chafe as he had done on that rebel-pursuing march from Goodaspore some weeks earlier, when his tireless energy could not brook even a brief halt for rest.

Captain Trotter, in his Life of Nicholson, gives us a vivid picture of the officers and men of the column snatching an hour’s repose in the shade of some trees while their leader remained “in the middle of the hot, dusty road, sitting bolt upright on his horse in the full glare of that July sun, waiting, like a sentinel turned to stone, for the moment when his men should resume their march.”

Early in August the Movable Column had crossed the Sutlej, and four days later Nicholson was galloping on ahead to General Wilson’s headquarters on the Ridge. Wilson, to his relief, had sent an urgent message summoning him to a council. It was the 7th of the month when Nicholson rode into the British camp. Before nightfall on that day everyone was aware that a new power had arrived and was on tiptoe with excitement to know what the new-comer intended doing.

With the thoroughness that characterised his methods, Nicholson promptly made a round of the pickets; his tall, striking figure exciting comment from those who had not seen him before. “His attire,” says an officer who was on the Ridge at the time, “gave no clue to his rank; it evidently never cost its owner a thought.” But one had only to look at the dark, handsome, sombre face to see that here was a man of no little distinction. Grave of demeanour as he always was, his features were saddened still more now by the news of Sir Henry Lawrence’s death at Lucknow. The loss of his old chief and patron touched him very nearly, and it was with a heavy heart that he went about his duties.

Riding back a day or two later to rejoin his troops, Nicholson found that the column had been strengthened by several additions, bringing its numbers up to a total of over four thousand men, less than a third of whom were British. This formidable body made a welcome reinforcement to Wilson’s little army, and put fresh encouragement into the hearts of the besiegers. In the camp Nicholson renewed his acquaintance with Chamberlain, then recovering from a wound; Hodson, the dashing cavalry leader, who had raised a regiment of horse; and other distinguished leaders. One and all were unfeignedly glad to see him on the scene, and looked to him to spur the over-cautious commander-in-chief to a more resolute course of action.

The opportunity for Nicholson to prove his worth came before very long. A powerful siege-train had been despatched by Sir John Lawrence from Ferozepore. About the middle of August it was learnt that a large body of mutineers had sallied out from Delhi with the intention of intercepting the train, which was proceeding slowly under a rather weak escort. The duty of attacking the rebels and preventing what would be a terrible disaster was allotted to Nicholson, and he at once started off with a column of cavalry, infantry, and artillery, to give battle.

Inquiries revealed the fact that the sepoys occupied a strong position at Najafgarh, where they had repaired the bridge across the river. The road thither was a difficult one, and was rendered almost impassable at places by the swampy nature of the ground. It was the rainy season, unfortunately, so that the streams that had to be crossed were in flood. But, despite all obstacles, Nicholson pushed on doggedly, taking the lead with Sir Theophilus Metcalfe, who had volunteered to act as guide.

Sir John Kaye records the opinion of a Punjaubi officer of note who averred that not another man in the camp “except, perhaps, Chamberlain” could have taken the column to Najafgarh. “They went through a perfect morass,” he states. “An artillery officer told me that at one time the water was over his horses’ backs, and he thought they could not possibly get out of their difficulties; but he looked ahead, and saw Nicholson’s great form riding steadily on as if nothing was the matter, and so he felt sure all was right.”

The engagement was opened briskly with artillery fire. Forcing the rebels’ left centre, the troops drove the enemy from their strongest position near an old serai (or caravansary), silenced the guns there, and then swept irresistibly down the long line of the mutineers towards the bridge. Nicholson’s plan of attack had succeeded beyond expectation. Under the terrible fusillade the sepoys broke in confusion, and ran pell-mell for the bridge and the open country on the other side, only to be pursued and cut to pieces in large numbers. The whole affair, from the moment of the first shot fired, occupied one hour, and in that time between 6000 and 8000 well-armed mutineers were put to flight.

It was a brilliant action one of the most brilliant, indeed, that took place in the whole course of the Mutiny. Not only had a huge force of rebels been dispersed, but a number of guns had been captured, and this with the loss on our side of but twenty-five men. Well might General Wilson thank Nicholson and his gallant troops the next morning, “from my whole heart,” for the signal victory gained. Congratulations poured in on the hero of the day, Sir John Lawrence telegraphing from Lahore to say, “I wish I had the power of knighting you on the spot; it should be done!”

The time was now fast approaching when Nicholson was still further to distinguish himself. The importance of not delaying the assault longer than could be helped was being forced upon him daily, and at the council table he urged the necessity for striking an immediate blow. To his far-seeing mind it was essential that the mutineers should not be allowed to gather strength while the army on the Ridge became enfeebled through forced inaction. There were sorties and dashing charges almost every hour it is true, but these brought the actual assault on the city no nearer.

As the days crept by and still nothing was decided, Nicholson’s patience gave out. When at last the startling rumour got about that General Wilson contemplated abandoning the Ridge and retreating until he had a stronger army at his back, the leader of the Movable Column decided on a bold course. The idea of leaving Delhi to the mutineers as a centre for a rebellion which might within a few days become universal, appalled him. He went to the next council in the General’s quarters with the fixed determination to bring matters to a final issue.

Lord Roberts, from whose book I am again tempted to quote, relates the story of how he learned of this momentous decision. Nicholson had been sitting in his tent talking to the young artillery officer of his plans. He ended by making a dramatic announcement. “Delhi must be taken,” he said, “and it is absolutely essential that this should be done at once; and if Wilson hesitates longer, I intend to propose at to-day’s meeting that he should be superseded.”

On Roberts venturing to remark that, as Neville Chamberlain was hors de combat through his wound, this step would leave Nicholson senior officer with the force, the other smiled and answered, “I have not overlooked that fact. I shall make it perfectly clear that, under the circumstances, I could not possibly accept the command myself, and I shall propose that it be given to Campbell of the 52nd. I am prepared to serve under him for the time being, so no one can ever accuse me of being influenced by personal motives.”

It was a characteristic declaration, and Roberts knew that Nicholson would carry out his word. As it happened, however, the occasion did not arise. That day Wilson agreed to the assault being made, and the next morning an order was issued to the troops informing them of the welcome decision.