Saturday, December 20, 2008

Brigadier and Brigadier General + John Nicholson

Brigadier General - Transient Throne
John Nicholson
and General Custer as a footnote

I have always been interested in the history of military and it was not entirely unnatural for me to ponder a bit on the sudden promotion of a Captain John Nicholson to the rank of Brigadier in 1857. This jump in ranks ultimately led me to understand a bit more of military ranks and of John Nicholson. Here's what happened.

While reading an account of the Siege of Delhi of 1857 I often came across the name John Nicholson. This is no surprise since to most of the British present at the siege and thereafter Nicholson was the first among equals in the line of heroes of the siege. He was one of Henry Lawrence's Young Men, each of whom was in the words of Philip Mason "Moses and Napoleon" - tax collector, magistrate, army commander, political officer, division officer all rolled into one; usually the only white face for hundreds and hundreds miles around his jurisdiction in the Punjab province or the North East Frontier Province.

Upon the outbreak of the Mutiny, Nicholson was a captain serving under John Lawrence (younger brother of Henry Lawrence), the governor of the recently conquered Punjab province. The Delhi Field Force was assembled on the ridge overlooking Shahjahanabad in May - June 1857; the Moving Column from Punjab joined up with the force to lay siege to Delhi in mid August and Capt. John Nicholson came in with the column. He fought alongside the rest of the British officers against the Sepoys and Mughals of Delhi who fought back with just as much ferocity. The next month was spent in an internecine impasse and finally the majority of the British officers voted for frontal assault on the walls of Delhi on the 14th of September with none other than Brigadier General John Nicholson to lead them.

"Eh?" me sputters in surprise,
"Brigadier General? But he was a captain wasn't he?"
me scans the last few pages skipping words and lines searching for the name John Nicholson and, yes indeed, he had been a captain till now. "So? Then? What just happened is the space of the last two lines to pole-vault him from Captain to Brigadier General?"

Turns out it's not such a big deal after all. I mean it is and yet it isn't. Let me explain.After years of conducting PhD. quality research, back breaking investigations and talking to retired and surviving army officers I have come to discover the following.

There were at least four types of ranks in the British Army in India -
Temporary and
A substantive rank is a permanent rank which governs the pay and allowances due to an officer. An acting rank is a rank awarded for a time which may or may not be converted into a permanent  rank; holding an acting rank allows for the higher pay associated with the higher acting rank to be given to a holder of a lower substantive rank. Thus a substantive Captain, Acting Major would be paid as per the pay scale of a Major. A temporary rank is exactly what is says - temporary, more on this below. Each of these three is a commissioned rank which means that the ranks is conferred on the officer by the ruling monarch or by the Board of Representatives (of the East India Company) or a similar such authority. A brevet rank however is not a commissioned rank. Other than by the usual channel above, it can also be awarded by the commander of the army for exemplary bravery and is ceremonial (though years of service as a brevet rank holder do go towards the calculation of seniority); it is however permanent and one can not be 'demoted' from a brevet rank just as the in case of a permanent rank.

The rank of Brigadier or Brigadier General was almost always a temporary rank. Brigadier was a rank awarded for a specific purpose (or mission) such as taking command of all the forces in a battle ie commanding the full brigade, commanding a section of a wartime activity (like arranging for troop recruitments or logistics) or acting as the commanding officer of group formed for a special task such as the Army Of Retribution formed to avenge the massacre of the Kabul Residency in the 1870s. Brigadier or Birgadier General was usually an emergency rank awarded for a task to be accomplished in the near future. This temporary rank was always withdrawn as soon as the task was accomplished. Hence, for example, any Colonel promoted to the rank of a Brigadier for a battle was always 'demoted' back to the rank of a Colonel after the battle.

As a useful digression I present here the military ranks in ascending order of hierarchy for the British Army in India and for the Army of the East India Company at the time of the Mutiny of 1857:

Subaltern - Ensign in Infantry and Cornet in Cavalry - equivalent to a modern day Lieutenant
Lt. Colonel
Brigadier - Brigadier General
Major General
Lt. General

The difference between the terms Brigadier and Brigadier General was due to the source of the temporary appointment. If the appointment was made by the monarch or his or her representative (Governor General or Viceroy for example) then the term used was Brigadier General. If appointment was awarded in the field on the authority of a senior General then the term used was Brigadier. Ultimately though this made little difference as the term was often used inter-changeably.
There could be no brevet-Brigadier since a temporary rank could not be awarded for bravery shown in past actions. The temporary rank was always awarded for some future intended outcome and not as a reward. Also brevet ranks were permanent, temporary ranks were, well, temporary.

Brigadier and Brigadier Generals are ranks still retained by the British and most Commonwealth armies though now these ranks are mostly permanent and substantive (not temporary) and no demotions can be made from this rank under normal circumstances.

Till now this is not such a big deal.
The Brigadier was usually the senior most Colonel from among all the Colonels present during the emergency. As can be seen in the hierarchy given above this rank was always somewhere in between that of a full Colonel and a Major General. As a matter of fact the Brigadier was and is still referred to as Colonel-General is certain armies. And this is where John Nicholson's advance from Captain to Brigadier is so unique. The man jumped at least 3 ranks and close to 15 years of service to become a Brigadier overnight. Brigadier John Nicholson superseded scores of other higher ranking Majors, Lt. Colonels and Colonel to become the commander of the assault party. He was made the supreme authority for the charge on the walls of Delhi and all officers (senior and junior) in the attack gladly accepted to follow his lead. The overall Commander of the Delhi Field Force was still Brigadier Wilson, senior to Nicholson in age and years of experience by many a decades, who supervised the attach from atop the Ridge.  Had Brigadier General Nicholson survived the assault he would had to go back to the rank of Captain after the completion of the assault. Incidentally the tombstone of John Nicholson gives the rank of the John Nicholson as Brigadier General (temporary) and not as Captain (substantiative). It is set in a cemetery named after him, located in an erstwhile Mughal garden situated just outside the Kashmiri Gate. It was this very bastion of the wall of Delhi which Nicholson attacked on the 14th of Sept 1857 and this is where he fell. Nicholson was fatally wounded at the beginning of  the road which connects Kashmiri Gate with Mori Gate, running along the arch of the wall which is in between these two gates. This road was named Nicholson Road.

I do not wish to spin off this post as an essay on the life of John Nicholson or on reputation and respect John Nicholson enjoyed amongst his British brethren and the Sikhs as well (check out the fanatical Sikh sect 'Nikel Sanis' loyal only to John Nicholson). And nor do I wish to dwell too much on his cruelty in dispensing punishment on the rebellious Sepoys.  I point the reader towards the rich encomiums showered in the thoroughly enjoyable memoirs of Lord Roberts of Kandhar and to other such memoirs written by the contemporaries of Brigadier General John Nicholson. It is also significant that the usually highly acerbic character of writer George MacDonald Fraser, Col Harry Flashman, who usually lashes away with his vitriolic tongue to decimate the reputation of all from Queen Victoria down to the lowest clerk in the far reaches of the Raj, doesn't sully the name of John Nicholson one bit when he recounts his encounter with the towering-heavily bearded frame of John Nicholson (in the Flashman series novel - The Great Game). Such is the stature of John Nicholson.

Another star on Nicholson's chest - a 150 years and one independence on, the cemetery is still called Nicholson Cemetery and the road is still called Nicholson Road. 

Interested reader (hint for detractors and other such folk) should also however lookout for (quite irrelevant and how-does-it-matter) charges of homosexual relations between John Nicholson and, another of Henry Lawrence's young men, Herbert Edwardes.

Walking along Nicholson road at dusk, the sky rife with hues of orange and rust lethargically blotting into one another merged further by the muezzins evening call, the wall of Delhi (still) stoutly standing on one side and an unending row of hardware shops with bored-to-death-owners-who-spend-their-whole-lives-staring-at-the-wall,siting inside on the other side with only about 15 feet separating the two, I could only think of how these shop keepers and the Kashmiri Gate wall are inextricably intertwined with the rank of Brigadier in my mind.

Another (not very useful but highly interesting) digression.
The famous American military personality General Custer was a  Lieutenant Cadet (Subaltern) at the start of the American Civil War in 1861 and was temporarily made a Brigadier General at the age of 23 years in 1863 just 3 days before Gettysburg. He also became a brevet Major General in the mid 1860s and his substantive rank at the time of the death in 1874 at Little Bighorn was Lt. Colonel. Now, finally these ranks make some sense, phew!
I suppose this also the right place to mention another place Brigadier General of the Indian Army (Imperial) - General Reginald Dyer of the Amritsar masacare of 1919. Brigadier GeneralDyer retired with the substantive rank of Colonel.

This post is very unstructured (can't help it; the rank of Brigadier and John Nicholson go hand in hand in my mind). Perhaps this post leaves no one in the world any wiser and nor does it do much to reverse global warming but it's just something I discovered and which led me further onto a never ending and superb journey into the world of the Raj and that is why I decided to commit it to paper, er, screen...yeah commit it to screen and to space of blogger's server.

To know more:

1.  British Army in India and the rank of Brigadier General

Wikipedia on British Army

Wikipedia on British Army in India

Sahibs by Richard Holmes

Redcoat by Richard Holmes

A Matter of Honour by Philip Mason

2. John Nicholson

Soldier Sahib by Charles Allen


Memoirs of Lord Roberts - download for free from gutenberg

Life of John Nicholson by J. Trotter

Encyclopedia Britannica on John Nicholson from 1911