“It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war”
– Queen Victoria, British Parliament 1897
In 1897, the British were keeping their hold onto the border regions, which today we know as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan. These areas were dominated by the Pathans, who swore their allegiance to the Amir of Afghanistan. The Pathans being a feared tribe were brave warriors.
During that time, on 20th April 1894, the 36th Sikh of the then British Indian Army (at present the 4th Battalion, The Sikh Regiment) was raised composed of Jat Sikhs and with 5 companies was sent to man the Samana range, being stationed at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar and Saragarhi.
The British were partially successful in getting control of this volatile region, even then tribal Pashtuns continued their attacks on British personnel from time to time. Thus a series of forts, originally built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ruler of the Sikh Empire, were consolidated. Two of these forts were Fort Lockhart (on the Samana Range of the Hindu Kush mountains), and Fort Gulistan (Sulaiman Range), situated a few miles apart. Due to the forts not being visible to each other, Saragarhi was created midway, as a heliographic communication post. The Saragarhi post, situated on a rocky ridge, consisted of a small block house with loop-holed ramparts and a signalling tower.
A general uprising by the Afghans began there in 1897, and between 27 August and 11 September many vigorous efforts by Pashtuns to capture the forts were thwarted by the 36th Sikhs. In 1897, insurgent and inimical activities had increased, and on 3rd and 9th September Afridi Tribesmen, allied with the Afghans, attacked Fort Gulistan. Both the attacks were repulsed, and a relief column from Fort Lockhart, on its return trip, reinforced the signalling detachment positioned at Saragarhi, increasing its strength to three Non-Commissioned-Officers(NCOs) and eighteen other Ranks (ORs).
On the fateful morning of 12th September 1897, Havildar Ishar Singh (the detachment commander) peered through his binoculars from the watch tower of the post, when he saw columns upon columns and rows upon rows of Pathans marching towards their position. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, the detachment signaller, went up the signalling tower, set up his heliograph and began signalling to Fort Lockhart about their predicament: “ENEMY APPROACHING THE MAIN GATE…NEED REINFORCEMENT”. Lt Col Haughton, Commanding Officer of the 36th Sikhs, attempted to rush his troops to assist the outnumbered Sikhs. However, this action was too late. The Pathans had systematically cut-off the only supply route between Fort Lockhart and Saragarhi. Fort Lockhart transmitted back: “UNABLE TO BREAKTHROUGH…HOLD POSITION”.
As he observed from Fort Lockhart, Haughton could count at least 14 enemy standards (each representing 1,000 tribesmen) facing the 21 Sikh soldiers at Saragarhi. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh passed on this message to Havildar Ishar Singh. After assessing the grim situation faced by him and his men, Havildar Ishar Singh called upon his men to seek their consultation on whether to hold the fort or abandon their post in the hope of surviving. The Sikhs unanimously agreed to hold the position. Saragarhi flashed back to Lockhart: “UNDERSTOOD”.
The Pathans planned for a massive assault on all flanks – a multi-pronged attack which was designed to divide the outnumbered Sikhs into much smaller groups. The tribesmen then attacked in two formations, one moving towards the main gate and the other moving into the gap in the fort. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh was the first soldier to be killed and Naik Lal Singh was seriously wounded. Naik Lal Singh and Sepoy Jiwa Singh reportedly carried the body of Bhagwan Singh back to the inner layer of the post. Undeterred, Havildar Ishar Singh yelled their regimental battle cry together with his troops “JO BOLEY SO NIHAAL! SAT SRI AKAAL!” (Whoever utters the following phrase shall be fulfilled! True is the timeless being!) The tribesmen’s attack was repulsed once again by the Sikhs. At this stage some tribesmen had fallen just yards away from the Sikh position.
The Sikh soldier’s ranks and ammunition were now beginning to dwindle. Out of the full strength of 21 soldiers at the start of the battle, there were only 10 left to fight. The battle had raged on from 0900 hrs to 1200 hrs with the Sikhs having fought off seven charges by the tribesmen. The ever inspiring Havildar Ishar Singh is still leading his men despite being gravely injured by bullets and sabre slashes. At 1400 hrs, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh signals Fort Lockhart Battalion HQ: “LOW ON AMMO…NEED AMMO…URGENTLY”. Lt Col Haughton attempts to send his personal orderly to try and pass the ammunition to the trapped Sikhs, but to no avail. As the Pathans attacked again, the Sikhs now with less than 10 men put up a stiff resistance and manage to repel the attack once again.
The tribesmen resort to a traditional tactic. They set fire to the bushes and scrubs around Fort Saragarhi. Clouds of smoke blanket the fort, making it impossible for the Sikhs to see the approaching enemy. Soldiers at Fort Lockhart could clearly see the approach of the tribesmen due to their elevated position above Saragarhi. Lt Col Haughton frantically signals Saragarhi: “ENEMY APPROCHING…THE BREACH”. Havildar Ishar Singh is severely injured by this time and orders the remaining Sikhs to fall back into the inner wall. He then orders two Sepoys to drag him towards the breach to buy some time for his men. Out of ammunition all three of them fixed their bayonets and charge the tribesmen. With this act Havildar Ishar Singh provides the final lesson of true leadership to his men.
By this time the tribesmen had breached the fort, with only five Sikhs remaining alive, four in the inner building and Sepoy Gurmukh Singh at the signaling tower. The Sikhs do not give up. Instead they form an all-round defensive position with their backs against each other and their bayonets pointing outwards. In this remarkable display of bravery four more Sikhs fight hand to hand combat inside the fort.
At 1530 hrs Sepoy Gurmukh Singh transmitted: “MAIN GATE BREACHED…DOWN TO ONE…REQUEST PERMISSION TO DISMOUNT AND JOIN THE FIGHT”. Orders came back: “PERMISSION GRANTED”. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh disassembled his heliograph device, picked up his rifle and came down the signalling tower to join the fight. Soldiers at Fort Lockhart saw him disappear into the thick of battle right into the tribesmen line. His last words echoed “JO BOLEY SO NIHAAL! SAT SRI AKAAL!” Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, the youngest of the Sikhs at 19 years old was credited to have taken down 20 tribesmen single-handedly before succumbing. He was the last to fall at Saragarhi.
After destroying Saragarhi, the afghans turned towards fort Gulistan, But they were too late. They had been delayed and by then reinforcements had arrived by the following night. After recapturing the Saragarhi, the British were able to find 600-800 bodies strewn around the position along with the burnt bodies of the 21 Sikhs.
Saragarhi will always be remembered as one of the most phenomenal last stands in human history. All 21 Sikhs were awarded the Order of Merit, the highest honour given to Indian Soldiers under the then British Indian Army. Saragarhi Day is celebrated every year on 12th September by all units of the sikh regiment as their regimental battle honours day. There are two Gurudwaras to commemorate the battle, one in Amritsar close to the Golden Temple, the other in Firozpur Cantonment. It is said that there was a 3 minute silence witnessed in the British Parliament honouring the battle when the news came in.
Saragarhi is an event not to earmark the achievements of the British Indian Army but the true valour shown by Indian troops, in the worst of circumstances, to defend their soil and to protect the honour of their land. The legitimacy of their bravery can be immortalised forever in their efforts to protect the people they have pledged to and the country to whom their names now belong forever.
The Australian Sikh Heritage: http://www.australiansikhheritage.com/saragarhi
Extra History: https://youtu.be/lFfHp83Xm04