Legendary Sikh Battle of Saragarhi 1897
You might have heard about the (one of the greatest, unequal, ever heard about) Legendary Battle of Thermopylae which was fought between an alliance of Greek city states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days in 480BC.
Unlike the Hollywood film ′300′ which fails to mention the +7,100 Greek City soldiers, King Leonidas also had 300 of his finest Spartans. The Persians had a force of 300,000 men. The odds of the battle were heavily (approx. 40:1) against the Spartans.
In August or September 480 BC, at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae, Greece the Spartans and allies fought for 2 days (it’s well worth watching ‘300’ to get a flavour of the fighting prowess of the Spartans ). On the third day the Persians managed to find a mountain trail and encircle the Spartans. Fearing defeat King Leonidas of Sparta allowed his allies to escape, and stayed (with his 300 men and 1,200 others) to fight to the death.
So now we have 1,500 men against approx. 300,000 Persians (approx. 200:1 odds) which is not looking great. Needless to say the Spartans were all slaughtered but not before they killed 20,000 Persians! The Spartans lost approx. 2,000 men in total. That equates to a kill rate of approx. 10:1!
If you thought the Battle of Thermopylae associated with the heroic stand of a small Greek force against the mighty Persian Army of Xerxes I in 480 B.C was legendary, then read about this last stand by the Sikhs at the Battle of Saragarhi on 12th September 1897. Saragarhi is the incredible story of 21 men of the 36th Sikh Regiment who gave up their lives in devotion to their duty. In keeping with the Sikh Khalsa tradition they fought to the death rather than surrender. It has been mentioned as one of the most significant events of its kind in the world and was honoured by the British Parliament and Queen Victoria.
How many men did the 21 Sikhs face? +10,000 (that’s 500:1)
How many men did the Sikhs kill? 800 (that’s 40:1!)
What was the Khalsa Sikh’s secret? Being Sikh’s… with shouts of ‘Bole So Nihal… Sat Sri Akal!’
The Battle of Saragarhi was fought during the Tirah Campaign on 12th September 1897 between twenty-one Sikhs born in Majha region of the 36th Sikhs (which later became the 4th Battalion) of the Sikh Regiment of British India. It was a one class Jat (farmers) Sikh Battalion raised at Jalandhar and was the last to join the ranks of the elite Sikh Regiment in 1887. Within one decade it won the Sikh Regiment immortal fame during operations on the Samana Ridge (1897). At the time the battalion was holding posts on the ridge. Those at Saragarhi, Gulistan and Fort Lockhart served as communication links. A mass attack came on Saragarhi on 12th September 1897 and the 21 strong detachment fought one of the most unequal engagements in the 'history of warfare'. The twenty-one man detachment of the 36th Sikhs were responsible for defending the Saragarhi army post against +10,000 Musalmaan Afghan and Orakzai tribesmen. The battle occurred in the North-West Frontier Province, which formed part of British India. It is now named the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and is part of Pakistan.
The contingent of the twenty-one Sikhs from the 36th Sikhs was led by Havildar Ishar Singh. They all chose to fight to the death. The battle is not well known outside military academia, but is "considered by some military historians as one of history's great last-stands". Sikh military personnel and Sikh civilians commemorate the battle every year on 12 September, as Saragarhi Day.
Saragarhi is a small village in the border district of Kohat, situated on the Samana Range. In August 1897, five companies of the 36th Sikhs under Lt. Col. John Haughton, were sent to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, stationed at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar and Saragarhi.
The British had partially succeeded in getting control of this volatile area, however tribal Pashtuns attacked British personnel from time to time. Most of these forts had initially been built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Ruler of the Sikh Empire, as part of the consolidation of the Sikh empire in Punjab and the British added some more. Two of the 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 - 11 September, many vigorous efforts by Pashtuns to capture the forts were thwarted by 36th Sikh regiment. In this uprising, Mullahs (Musalmaan religious leaders) played a prominent role. It was the duty of the 36th Sikh to occupy Gulistan and Lockhart forts. On 3rd and 9th September 1897, Orakazai and Afridi lashkars attacked Fort Gulistan. On both occasion the attacks were beaten back. A relief column was sent from the fort to assist in beating back these attacks. After 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 a total of 21, one Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) and twenty troops of Other Ranks (ORs).
The Musalmaan Pashtuns were now uncertain as to what to do next. Both of their attacks to occupy Gulistan and Lockhart forts had failed and they felt the shame of having to return home with so many men without a victory. The Pashtuns resolved to attack Saragarhi, which was a make-shift fort of stones and mud walls. The Pashtuns thought they could win an easy victory and retreat home with some honour after the recent defeats.
In a renewed effort, on 12 September 1897, hordes of tribesmen laid siege to Fort Lockhart and Saragarhi, with the aim of overrunning Saragarhi and at the same time preventing any help from the Fort Lockhart. The Commanding Officer of 36th Sikh, Lt. Col. Haughton, was at Fort Lockhart and was in communication with the Saragarhi post through helicograph. The defenders of Saragarhi under the indomitable and inspiring leadership of their detachment commander, Havildar Ishar Singh, resolved to defend their post in the best tradition of their race and regiment. They were not there to hand over the post to the enemy and seek safety elsewhere. Havildar Singh and his men knew well that the post would fall, because a handful of men in that make-shift fort of stones and mud walls with a wooden door could not stand the onslaught of thousands of tribesmen. These plucky men knew that they will go down but they had resolved to do so fighting to the last.
From Fort Lockhart, troops and the Commanding Officer could count at least 14 standards and that gave an idea of the number of tribes and their massed strength against the Saragarhi relay post (estimated at between 10,000 to 12,000 tribals). The odds, a staggering 500:1 against the Sikhs. From early morning the tribals started battering the fort. The Sikhs fought back valiantly. Charge after charge was repulsed by the men of the 36th Sikh. The tribal leaders started to make tempting promises so that the Sikhs would surrender. True to the Musalmaan way the Pashtuns thought they could trick and lie their way to victory, as they tried to do in the past with the Sikh Guru's. But Havildar Singh and his men ignored them. For quite some time, the troops held their own against the determined and repeated attacks by the wild and ferocious hordes. A few attempts were made to send a relief column from Fort Lockhart but these were foiled by the tribals.
At Saragarhi, the enemy made two determined attempts to rush the gate of the post and on both occasions the defenders repulsed the assault. While the enemy suffered heavy casualties, the ranks of the defenders too kept dwindling as the fire from the attackers took its toll and their ammunition stocks were depleting. Unmindful of his safety, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh kept signalling a minute-to-minute account of the battle from the signal tower in the post to Battalion HQs. The battle lasted the better part of the day.
The Orakazai and Afridi did the sort of thing you'd expect from an overwhelmingly-powerful force assaulting a tiny outpost garrisoned by a force they outnumber roughly 500:1 – they charged, looking to overrun the defenders by hurling wave after wave of their own men at the walls. It didn't work out for them.
When repeated attacks failed, the enemy used more traditional Musalmaan tactics of subterfuge and set fire to the surrounding bushes and shrubs. Two of the tribesmen under cover of smoke, managed to close in with the post's boundary wall in an area blind to the defender's observation and rifle fire from the post holes. They succeeded in making a breach in the wall. This development could be seen from Fort Lockhart and was flashed to the post.
The Sikhs didn't have access to heavy machine guns or assault rifles in 1897. These Sikh warriors were using bolt-action rifles, and were somehow firing them so fast that 10,000 trained warriors with guns somehow found themselves unable to push their way through. Meanwhile, when he wasn't taking potshots from the signal tower with his scoped rifle, the garrison's signalman, Gurmukh Singh, was operating his signaling equipment and informing the nearest British outpost (just barely visible in the distance beyond the ridge) exactly what was going on, how many men the enemy had, and what sort of equipment they were carrying.
It didn't take long for the enemy to find the weak point in the inner defenses – a rickety wooden gate that was already on fire – yet still, even when the tribesmen shot up the gate, stormed the wall, and breached through to the main building of Saragarhi, they blitzed through only to find a determined handful of Khalsa Sikhs standing there with fixed bayonets.
A few men from those defending the approaches to the gate were dispatched to deal with the breach in the wall. This diversion by the enemy and the defenders' reaction resulted in weakening of the fire covering the gate. The enemy now rushed the gate as well as the breach. Thereafter, one of the fiercest hand-to-hand fights followed. One of the Havildar Singh's men, who was seriously wounded and was profusely bleeding, had taken charge of the guardroom. He shot four of the enemy as they tried to approach his charge. All this time, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh continued flashing the details of the action at the post. Beside this the Commanding Officer of 36th Sikh and others at Lockhart Fort also saw his unique saga of heroism and valour unfold at Saragarhi. The battle had come too close for Sepoy Gurmukh Singh's comfort, so he asked Battalion HQs for permission to shut down the heliograph and take up his rifle. Permission was flashed back. He dismounted his heliograph equipment, packed it in a leather bag, fixed bayonet on his rifle and joined the fight. From this vantage point in the tower he wrought havoc on the intruders in the post.
Details of the Battle of Saragarhi are considered fairly accurate, due to Gurmukh Singh signalling events to Fort Lockhart as they occurred;
• Around 09:00am, around 10,000 Afghans reach the signaling post at Saragarhi.
• Sardar Gurmukh Singh signals to Col. Haughton, situated in Fort Lockhart, that they are under attack.
• Colonel Haughton states he cannot send immediate help to Saragarhi.
• The soldiers decide to fight to the last to prevent the enemy from reaching the forts.
• Bhagwan Singh becomes the first injured and Lal Singh is seriously wounded.
• Soldiers Lal Singh and Jiwa Singh reportedly carry the dead body of Bhagwan Singh back to the inner layer of the post.
• The enemy breaks a portion of the wall of the picket.
• Colonel Haughton signals that he has estimated between 10,000 and 14,000 Pashtuns attacking Saragarhi.
• The leaders of the Afghan forces reportedly makes false promises to the soldiers to entice them to surrender.
• Reportedly two determined attempts are made to rush open the gate, but are unsuccessful.
• Later, the wall is breached.
• Thereafter, some of the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting occurs.
• In an act of outstanding bravery, Ishar Singh orders his men to fall back into the inner layer, whilst he remains to fight. However, this is breached and all but one of the defending soldiers are killed, along with many of the Pashtuns.
• The Singh, who communicated the battle with Col. Haughton, was the last Sikh defender and the only man alive and unwounded out of the little band and taking his rifle placed himself in the front of a doorway leading from the room, into which the enemy had forced their way, prepared to sustain the fight alone, calmly and steadily. It is believed that when he ran out of bullets he fixed his bayonet and charged down into the fray shouting the battle cry of the Sikhs. He is stated to have killed twenty Afghans, the Pashtuns having to set fire to the post to kill him. As he was dying he was said to have yelled repeatedly the Sikh battle-cry "Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal".
The tribals set fire to the post, while the brave garrison lay dead or dying with their ammunition exhausted. Next morning the relief column reached the post and the tell tale marks of the epic fight were there for all to see. When British troops reached the position later, they found 21 dead Sikhs and somewhere between 600-800 dead tribesmen. The number is debated because when the British showed up there was a second round of fighting over the fort, and it was difficult to say how many enemies were killed between the two fights, but we do know that nearly every single Sikh rifleman (who were brilliant with rifles) was completely out of ammunition. They had started with 400 rounds each...
This episode when narrated in the British Parliament, drew from the members a standing ovation in the memory of the defenders of Saragarhi. The story of the heroic deeds of these men was also placed before Queen Victoria. The account was received all over the world with awe and admiration.
'The British, as well as the Indians, are proud of the 36th Sikh Regiments. It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war.' — Parliament of the United Kingdom.
'You are never disappointed when you are with the Sikhs. Those 21 soldiers all fought to the death. That bravery should be within all of us. Those soldiers were lauded in Britain and their pride went throughout the Indian Army.' — Field Marshal William Joseph Slim, 1st Viscount Slim.
All the 21 valiant men of this epic battle were awarded the Indian Order of Merit Class III (posthumously) which at the time was one of the highest gallantry awards given to Indian troops and is considered equivalent to the present-day Vir Chakra. All dependants of the Saragarhi heroes were awarded 50 acres of land and 500 Rupees. Never before or since has a body of troops - that is, all of them won gallantry awards in a single action. It is indeed a singularly unique action in the annals of Indian military history.
A tablet erected in the memory of these brave men. The tablet reads;
"The Government of India have caused this tablet to be erected to the memory of the twenty one non-commissioned officers and men of the 36 Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry whose names are engraved below as a perpetual record of the heroism shown by these gallant soldiers who died at their posts in the defence of the fort of Saragarhi, on the 12 September 1897, fighting against overwhelming numbers, thus proving their loyalty and devotion to their sovereign, the Queen Empress of India, and gloriously maintaining the reputation of the Sikhs for unflinching courage on the field of battle."
1) 165 Havildar Ishar Singh
2) 332 Naik Lal Singh
3) 834 Sepoy Narayan Singh
4) 546 Lance Naik Chanda Singh
5) 814 Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
6) 1321 Sepoy Sundar Singh
7) 871 Sepoy Jivan Singh
8) 287 Sepoy Ram Singh
9) 1733 Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
10) 492 Sepoy Uttar Singh
11) 163 Sepoy Ram Singh
12) 182 Sepoy Sahib Singh
13) 1257 Sepoy Bhagwan Singh
14) 359 Sepoy Hira Singh
15) 1265 Sepoy Bhagwan Singh
16) 687 Sepoy Daya Singh
17) 1556 Sepoy Buta Singh
18) 760 Sepoy Jivan Singh
19) 1651 Sepoy Jivan Singh
20) 791 Sepoy Bhola Singh
21) 1221 Sepoy Nand Singh
The battle has frequently been compared to the Battle of Thermopylae because of the overwhelming odds faced by a tiny defending force in each case, and the defenders' brave stand to their deaths, as well as the extremely disproportionate number of fatalities caused to the attacking force.