Hero of the Charge of the Light Brigade

William Nicholson was a Yorkshire lad whose first job was working as a miller but he wanted more than have to grind out a living in a small village on the banks of the river Ouse. He went into town and enlisted as a private in the 13th Light Dragoons at York on the 15th December 1848. He had no great ambitions nor any expectation of making history. But in his own way he did, not by covering himself in glory but because he was a good soldier and because he became caught up in a particular moment of his country’s history. He was 19 years old and not great of stature – 5ft 8in with blue eyes and a mop of brown hair.

He was one of the brightest of the new lads however and was promoted to corporal within a few weeks of joining up. It was not a long-lasting promotion though – eighteen months later he was back as a private having been subject to a regimental court-martial on the 29th August 1850. He got twenty days in prison too, with ten of them in solitary confinement. But then along came the Crimean War and William was shipped out to Scutari to join his regiment on the shores of the Bosporus. He was unlucky enough to contract a fever on the passage out and was laid pretty low. When the troops disembarked on arrival he remained on board the Jason with a number of other sick men. A comrade, Albert Mitchell, came to so say farewell and as the two shook hands Mitchell did not expect to see young Nicholson again. William must have felt the same because he gave Mitchell his wife’s address and asked him to write to her if the worst should happen. He did recover though and the two friends were later re-united.

Private 1378 William Nicholson was one of the ‘Six Hundred’ to take part in what has become known as the Charge of the Light Brigade on the 25th of October 1854. The charge was made by the Light Brigade of the British cavalry, consisting of the 4th and 13th Light dragoons, 17th Lancers and the 8th and 11th Hussars under the command of Major General the Earl of Cardigan. Cardigan led 673 cavalrymen into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights, famously dubbed the Valley of Death by the poet Alfred Tennyson. The opposing Russian forces included some twenty battalions of infantry supported by over fifty artillery pieces. These forces were deployed on both sides and at the opposite end of the valley. The Light Brigade set off down the valley with Cardigan out in front leading the charge. Despite withering fire from three sides that devastated their force on the ride, the Light Brigade was able to engage the Russian forces at the end of the valley and force them back from the redoubt, but it suffered heavy casualties and was soon forced to retire. The brigade was not totally annihilated however, despite popular belief, but it was bad enough; there were 278 casualties including the wounded and missing – 118 men and 335 horses were known to have been killed.

Private Nicholson was in the first line of dragoons as they advanced into the valley but his horse was killed underneath him. He picked himself up but instead of retiring as others did, he found a loose horse and remounted to join a detachment of the 11th Hussars in the second line, to continue the charge into the valley of death. He took a lance wound in the side and the butt of a lance in the chin which put him out of action but may ultimately have saved his life.

Afterwards, his friend and comrade, Albert Mitchell sought him out where the wounded lay waiting to be put aboard ship. He was relieved to fi nd that William was not severely wounded, in fact the private did not want to leave the regiment. But after being seen by the surgeon and having initial treatment on board ship he was sent to the hospital at Scutari where he remained as a patient for fi ve weeks before returning to his regiment in mid-December. The Scutari Barracks Hospital was where nurse Florence Nightingale was stationed when she began her one-woman crusade to improve the conditions and medical treatment given to wounded soldiers. Perhaps William had the benefit of her tenacity.

He was discharged from the Lancers in Dublin on the 21st June 1858 as being unfit for further service. He had ulcers of his left leg, the result of constitutional predisposition, accelerated by exposure in the Crimea and the fever.

After a spell in Leeds he moved to London and was sworn-in to serve as Local Constable in that part of the South-Eastern Railway within the Metropolitan Police District on the 12th May 1863. William did well in the police and in time he was promoted to inspector in the SER Police.

On Sunday 26th March 1876 he went to Grosvenor Square to view Balaclava, a painting by Elizabeth Thompson (later Lady Butler) of the survivors of the Balaclava Charge of which, of course, he was one. (He had attended the first Balaclava celebration banquet the year before.) He returned home about 2 o’clock that day and complained of feeling ill – he had to run to catch the train and it had brought on heart palpitations. He sat down for a short while and appeared to recover. About 4 o’clock, he left the house for some fresh air but returned after fifteen minutes feeling very ill and went upstairs. He lay prostrate on the bed unable to undress himself. His wife, Catherine, got him to bed and went to go downstairs to get some warm flannel. She had hardly left the room when she heard him moan. She returned immediately and could see he was sinking fast and unable to speak. She raised up his head and realised he had died; he was forty-six years old.

Catherine was left with eight children to bring up, six of whom were still very young and was distraught at the death of her husband. The eldest boy, Henry, had already enlisted in the army and had a successful career rising to colour sergeant. Some years later, the youngest son, Alfred, also joined the same regiment. He was considered to be a very fine soldier and seemed destined for high rank. But he had a serious drink problem and eventually resigned. He held several positions and sometime around 1903 he too became a railway policeman serving at one of the big railway stations in London. But his police career did not last long. After a few months he was found drunk on duty by the inspector who rebuked him and ordered him home. His response was to knock the inspector down with a punch. He was promptly sacked. Alfred was prone to violence, he abused his wife who twice tried to commit suicide. And he apparently came close to committing murder on two other separate occasions.

Later he worked on the Twopenny Tube, the Underground Electric Railway, putting in long hours underground. He found redemption at last through the Salvation Army where, in a complete turnaround, he became a leading figure for the rest of his days.

William’s widow will have had a hard life bringing up the family on her own – one of her daughters was blind, and worrying about Alfred’s drinking and behaviour. She did get a job as a cloakroom attendant with the South Eastern Railway where she worked for many years. She died at the age of 83 in 1917. Clara, her blind daughter, lived to be 79 and died in 1940.

There is a touch of poignancy about the fact that on the day he died, William had been to Grosvenor Square to see a newly completed painting displaying survivors of a cavalry charge into the Valley of Death, a place where he might easily have died twenty years earlier.

by Viv Head

This article was written with considerable assistance from Philip Boys & Roy Mills and the charge of the light brigade project.

This article originally appeared in the BTPHG Year Book 2013.