The Battle of Saragarhi: 21 Sikh Soldiers Against 10,000 Men
The Battle of Saragarhi was fought on 12 September 1897 between Sikh soldiers of the British Indian Army and Pashtun tribesmen at the North-West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan). Ranked among the top eight battles of world history, the Battle of Saragarhi is the remarkable story of a valiant last stand by 21 soldiers of 36th Sikhs (now the 4th battalion of the Sikh Regiment) who were attacked by 10,000-12,000 Afghans. Instead of surrendering, these brave Sikhs led by Havildar Ishar Singh chose to embrace death while fighting to defend their post. The post was recaptured after two days by another British Indian contingent.
The frontier between colonial India and Afghanistan during the late 19th century was fraught with danger and unrest. Saragarhi was a small village in the border district of Kohat (now in Pakistan). Tribal Pashtuns continued to attack British personnel from time to time and so to control this volatile area, a series of forts, originally built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, were consolidated. Two of the forts were Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan which were situated a few miles apart. Since the forts were not visible to each other, Saragarhi post was created midway. Saragarhi was of strategic importance because through it, heliographic signal communications could be maintained between the two main forts. Five companies of the 36th Sikhs under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton were sent to the northwest frontier of British India and they were spread along the posts and forts at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar and Saragarhi.
On 12th September, 1897, the Afghani tribesmen surrounded Saragarhi with the aim to cut communication and troop movements between the forts of Lockhart and Gulistan. They knew that as the British forces were spread out, it would not be possible for Haughton to send timely aid.
The Afghans surrounded the Saragarhi post at 9.00 am. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh signaled to Colonel Haughton on Fort Lockhart about the impending attack. They received the signal from Haughton expressing his inability to send immediate help. The soldiers decided to fight till death under the leadership of an experienced sergeant Havildar Ishar Singh. The Afghans were repulsed initially with around 60 losses due to the firing from the Sikh soldiers.
The Afghans set fire to the bushes to create smokescreen and continued to edge forward. Two tribesmen also managed to get close to the post at an angle where they were unseen by the soldiers inside. They began digging beneath the walls. The Sikh soldiers continued to hold back the enemy but by noon, Sepoy Bhagwan Singh had been killed and Naik Lal Singh seriously wounded.
The leaders of the Afghans entice the soldiers to surrender but in vain. The battle ended at around 3pm when the enemy broke a portion of the wall of the picket. As the enemy got inside Saragarhi, the remaining Sikhs put up a fierce defence. In an act of outstanding bravery, Havildar Ishar Singh ordered his men to fall back into the inner layer, whilst he engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. However, one by one all defending soldiers were killed, along with many of the Pashtuns. The signaller Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, who communicated the battle to Haughton was the last surviving Sikh defender and killed 20 Afghans. The Pashtuns set fire to the post to kill him.
The 21 gallant Sikhs in an exemplary act of bravery fought till their last breath and the enemy had to pay high price for victory, with around 180 dead and many more wounded. According to some reports, the casualties were as high as 600. By then, the Afghans had been delayed too long and couldn’t succeed in their plan of capturing other forts as the reinforcements had arrived there.
Details of the Battle of Saragarhi are fairly accurate, because Sepoy Gurmukh Singh signalled events to Fort Lockhart by heliograph as they occurred. The details were then telegraphed to London by a Times correspondent and reported in the newspapers.
Remembrance and Legacy
The British built two Memorial Gurdwaras in honour of the 21 brave soldiers: one near Sri Harimandir Sahib in Amritsar, and another one in Ferozepur. The 36th Sikhs Regiment was duly rewarded a battle honour for the Samana and 12 September was declared as a regimental holiday. This unbelievable battle is recorded in the list of “8 stories of collective bravery in the history of mankind” assembled by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
Order of Merit
The 21 Sikh soldiers who died in the Battle of Saragarhi were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit (the highest gallantry award at the time which an Indian soldier could receive). The award is equivalent to today's Param Vir Chakra awarded by the President of India.
The names of the 21 recipients of the gallantry award are:
1. Havildar Ishar Singh
8. Sepoy Hira Singh
15. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
2. Nail Lal Singh
9. Sepoy Daya Singh
16. Sepoy Ram Singh
3. Lance Naik Chanda Singh
10. Sepoy Jivan Singh
17. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh
4. Sepy Sundar Singh
11. Sepoy Bhola Singh
18. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh
5. Sepoy Ram Singh
12. Sepoy Narayan Singh
19. Sepoy Buta Singh
6. Sepoy Uttar Singh
13. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
20. Sepoy Jivan Singh
7. Sepoy Sahib Singh
14. Sepoy Jivan Singh
21. Sepoy Nand Singh
Saragarhi Day is celebrated on 12 September every year to commemorate the Battle of Saragarhi. All units of the Sikh Regiment celebrate Saragarhi Day every year as the Regimental Battle Honours Day.
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one— John Lennon, Imagine
- The 1897 Battle of Saragarhi: The Real History Behind Kesari - History Extra
Read about the remarkable story of a valiant last stand that would reverberate around the British empire, when 21 Sikh soldiers stood against 10,000 men…
When 21 Sikhs Faced Over 10,000 Afghans at Saragarhi And Won - The Quint
Kesari | Official Trailer |
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Shaloo Walia