The Battle of Saragarhi: 21 Sikh Soldiers Against 10,000 Men

Updated on April 4, 2019
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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.

Situation

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.

The Battle

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

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

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

Comments

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    • swalia profile imageAUTHOR

      Shaloo Walia 

      4 months ago from India

      Thank you Lawrence!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      4 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Shaloo

      Great article and a fitting tribute to those brave men.

    • swalia profile imageAUTHOR

      Shaloo Walia 

      5 months ago from India

      @Gupi My pleasure!

    • Gurpinder Vir Singh Rai profile image

      Gupi 

      5 months ago

      Thank you for sharing this article. I got to learn many new things from it.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      5 months ago

      Great job posting.

    • swalia profile imageAUTHOR

      Shaloo Walia 

      5 months ago from India

      Thank you Robert!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      5 months ago

      This is an amazing story of courage in the face of impossible odds. This Hub is a very interesting read.

    • swalia profile imageAUTHOR

      Shaloo Walia 

      6 months ago from India

      @manatita yeah...Sikh history is replete with countless acts of valour.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      6 months ago from london

      I like that -- extreme bravery and dauntless courage in the face of adversity. The Sikhs have some more proud stories to tell too. Jai to gallantry in the face of impossible odds.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      7 months ago from Hyderabad, India

      Okay, Shaloo. I will watch the Kesari movie. I like Akshay Kumar's roles. He is simply great in all his roles. Thanks for the extra information provided in your reply.

    • swalia profile imageAUTHOR

      Shaloo Walia 

      7 months ago from India

      I know Eric. It's unbelievable that 21 soldiers dared to take on an army of 10,000. Unbelievable! But that's how Sikhs are! Guru Gobind Singh when he created the Sikhs had said 'sawa lakh se ek ladaun' (one Sikh could fight an army of 1lakh) as Sikhs were given a separate entity and were meant to fight the oppressors and save Hindus from the atrocities of Muslim rulers.

    • swalia profile imageAUTHOR

      Shaloo Walia 

      7 months ago from India

      Venkatachari ji: Kesari is also based on Saragarhi battle. I have yet to see the movie but promos look brilliant. A movie starting Randeep Huda was also announced but I don't know what happened. Probably it's delayed or the project shelved altogether. There is a television series as well starting Mohit Raina in the lead role.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      7 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      The hair on my head went all tingly. My eyes gave a brief tear. I have a good MD lady friend who is Sikh. Will discuss this at next coffee. "For thou who give of themselves to death for a noble cause and countrymen, they give the honor of us to live in their shadow". (Ed 2001)

      We here are blessed with our Alamo.

      Perhaps such bravery leads us to our bravery of Gandhi. My buddy Jesus says "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend".

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      7 months ago from Hyderabad, India

      I thought Kesari is something different, related to Punjab Kesari.

      I was waiting for the movie that stars Randeep Hooda and Danny Denzongpa. It was planned 1 or 2 years back as per some tweets on twitter.com but not released. I don't know what happened.

    • swalia profile imageAUTHOR

      Shaloo Walia 

      7 months ago from India

      My pleasure, Bill! This story of unparalleled valour deserves to be told. Even in my country, not many know about it.

    • swalia profile imageAUTHOR

      Shaloo Walia 

      7 months ago from India

      My pleasure, Harish ji!

    • swalia profile imageAUTHOR

      Shaloo Walia 

      7 months ago from India

      Thank you Venkatachari ji! The movie based on this battle has already been released and garnering rave reviews.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Fascinating history lesson. Thank you for sharing with us all.

    • Harishprasad profile image

      Harish Mamgain 

      7 months ago from New Delhi , India

      The battle of Saragarhi is a great heroic feat of brave Indian Sikh soldiers. I had read this story before. You reminded it to us through this beautiful post. Thanks for reminding and sharing this gem.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      7 months ago from Hyderabad, India

      A good recount of the incident of the Battle of Saragarhi. You described it all so excitingly.

      They are making the movie to commemorate it and honor the ex-warriors who sacrificed their lives so bravely for the country's sake. I will watch that movie definitely.

      Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.

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