On 12th September 1897, 21 British Indian Army Sepoys (Sikh soldiers) defended the Saragarhi outpost in the hills of the North West Frontier Province, now Pakistan but then part of British India, against 10,000 Afghan tribesmen.
Rather than surrender, the soldiers fought to the death for nearly 10 hours with ammunition and bayonets.
Although the outpost was lost, the Afghans later admitted to having lost around 180 of their soldiers and many more wounded, demonstrating the expertise of the Sikh soldiers.
To honour the selfless commitment and courage of these Sikh warriors they were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award of the time.
This week saw the second annual commemoration of the Battle of Saragarhi, held at the Queen’s Honourable Artillery Company headquarters in London.
It’s a significant event for Sikh personnel, and the event this year also offered the opportunity to celebrate present Sikh heroes within the Armed Forces; Regulars, Reservists and Cadets.
During the course of the morning, the First World War Sikh Heritage Platoon recalled stories of their great grandfathers while author and historian Jay Singh-Sohal explained about the selfless commitment and bravery of Sikhs from their unflinching loyalty in 1897 to operations today.
“We’re determined to make sure that any Sikh joining up will feel at home in the Armed Forces of today. That’s why we have the British Armed Forces Sikh Association providing personnel with a practical support network, complemented by the spiritual guidance offered by our Sikh Chaplain. We have prayer rooms in every unit, vegetarian ration packs for every operation, and a flexible dress code so that these days a Sikh in a turban can stand guard outside Buckingham Palace”, said Army Reserves Minister Julian Brazier.
Rifleman Mandeep Singh, a member of the British Army’s Band of the Rifles, during the London commemorations.
Among those celebrating Sikhs in the army was Major Sartaj Singh Gogna.
The 37-year-old from Brentwood is a senior instructor at the School of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineering in Arborfield in Berkshire.
Major Gogna joined the Army 15 years ago and as Chairman of the British Armed Forces Sikh Association he often get asked about the challenges facing Sikhs thinking of joining the Army.
“When I signed up I was a clean shaven, short haired bloke. And surprisingly it was the Army that has helped me to grow spiritually and supported my decision to become a fully practising Sikh, wearing my Dastar”, he said.
The commemoration is the latest to celebrate Sikhs’ contribution to British wars over the past four centuries.
Much has been made of the Sikh contribution to the British war efforts during the Great War and the Second World War.
The battle of Saragarhi, whilst nowhere near the scale of those efforts, perfectly encapsulates the legendary bravery of the Sikhs.
Saragarhi was a small communications post located on the Samana Range of the Hindu Kush mountains and manned by an equally small contingent of soldiers.
The region had always been a troubled area, and during the last quarter of the 19th century, British India’s hold on the North West Frontier was tenuous.
In fact, several expeditions had been sent to maintain control and suppress rebellion in the region in the years immediately preceding the Saragarhi battle.
Saragarhi, itself, was little more than a small block house and a signaling tower. It was constructed to enable communications between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan, two more significant British posts situated on either side of Saragarhi, albeit several miles apart.
Saragarhi was equipped with a heliograph – a wireless telegraph which uses flashes of sunlight to transmit messages via Morse Code.
In the summer of 1897, things were getting tense in the region, and the British had only recently ended an uprising of Pashtun tribesmen in the Malakand region (known later as the Siege of Malakand) in early August.
By the end of the month, there was a general uprising of Afghans, and by the beginning of September, Pashtuns were actively attempting to capture British Army positions, including attacks on Fort Gulistan on September 3 and September 9.
To combat the Pashtun offenses, troops were sent from Fort Lockhart to reinforce Fort Gulistan, and after the battle on the 9th, on their return trip, a few soldiers were left to reinforce the small detachment at Saragarhi.
All of the 21 soldiers remaining at Saragarhi were members of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Army, and the contingent was led by Havildar Ishar Singh.
On September 12, 1897, in an effort to prevent any further communications between Forts Lockhart and Gulistan, 10,000 Pashtuns attacked Saragarhi, beginning at about 9 a.m.
Since Saragarhi was a communications post, almost the entire battle was broadcast in real time by its signal man, Sardar Gurmukh Singh, which is why we today know what exactly happened there when 21 faced off against 10,000.
Shortly after the attack began, Gurmukh Singh signaled for aid to Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton at Fort Lockhart, but he was told that immediate help was unavailable.
Undeterred, the Sikh soldiers committed to fighting to the last to prevent the encroaching Pashtuns from reaching the other forts.
The first man injured was Bhagwan Singh, and sometime after, the invaders broke part of the wall of the picket. Offers were made to the Sikhs in exchange for surrender, but they were refused.
The Sikhs were trying to buy as much time as possible for the other forts to be reinforced, and were willing to pay for that time with their lives. After two unsuccessful attempts at the gates, the Pashtun forces eventually breached the wall. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued.
Shortly before the end, Ishar Singh ordered his men to retreat even further while he remained behind in defense.
He, too, fell, during that charge, as did all of the remaining soldiers except for the heliograph operator, Gurmukh Singh. Gurmukh was the last to die, after being burned to death when the Pashtuns set fire to the post.
He is reported to have repeatedly yelled until the end, the Sikh battle cry, “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal,” (“Shout aloud in ecstasy! True is the great Timeless One.”)
Although no Sikh survived the battle, their sacrifice sufficiently delayed the Pashtuns such that reinforcements were able to arrive at the Pashtuns’ ultimate target, Fort Gulistan, in time to stop its fall.
In addition to the 21 Sikh dead, reports of Pashtun losses range from between 180 and 600, though it’s difficult to discern the true number accurately.
That said, it was probably at least 180 as that is what the Pashtuns themselves later reported as their losses in that battle.
For their sacrifice, each of the Sikh soldiers were awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest award for gallantry then given to Indian soldiers by the British.