Remembering 21 Kesaris: Battle of Saragarhi



Saragarhi was a small village in the border district of Kohat, Pakistan, located on the Samana Range. On 20 April 1894, Colonel J. Cook formed the 36th Sikhs of the British Indian Army, which was exclusively made of Jat Sikhs. In August 1897, Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton assigned five companies of the 36th Sikhs to British India's northwest frontier (modern-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), where they were stationed at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar, and Saragarhi The British had gained control of this hazardous territory in part, although tribal Pashtuns continued to assault British forces on occasion. Thus, a series of forts constructed originally by Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Empire's monarch, were consolidated. Fort Lockhart (on the Hindu Kush's Samana Range) and Fort Gulistan (on the Suleiman Range) were two of the forts located a few miles apart.


The coordinates for Fort Lockhart are 33.5562°N 70.9188°E.


Due to the forts' inaccessibility to one another, Saragarhi was established in the middle as a heliographic communication post. On a steep ridge, the Saragarhi station consisted of a modest block house with loop-holed ramparts and a signalling tower. The Afghans staged a massive rebellion in 1897, and the 36th Sikhs repulsed numerous valiant attempts by Pashtuns to take the forts between 27 August and 11 September. In 1897, insurgent and antagonistic activity grew, and on September 3 and 9, Afridi tribesmen allied with the Afghans attacked Fort Gulistan. Both attacks were rebuffed, and a relief column from Fort Lockhart reinforced the signalling detachment at Saragarhi on its return trip, bringing its strength to three non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and eighteen lower ranks (ORs). On September 12th, 1897, dawn rises at the miniature military outpost of Saragarhi. As the soldiers awaken and the light begins to rise over the desolate terrain. There is a growing sense of unease throughout the unit. It is a sense of unease, as though something unbecoming. The tribal populace is unearthing an unruly yet anticipated tune of insurrection. Precisely as the British anticipated. As the day progresses, the silence of the thin alpine air is broken by a piercing wail. "A large mass is approaching on the horizon!" exclaims the Sikh soldier stationed at the lookout post. As the troops rush to the walls and take up defensive positions, Havildar Ishar Singh yells instructions. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh races to his heliograph tower to communicate in Morse code using flashes of sunlight. He sees a flash of Fort Lockhart.


"On the horizon, there is a mass. Is the atmosphere hostile?"

"Yes," comes the unsettling response. "A total of 14 standards are used." At least 10,000 tribesmen are advancing across the plateau's mountainous terrain bearing down on Saragarhi's small signalling station.

"Can you send assistance?" inquires the sepoy.

After a brief moment of tension, the fateful response is "No."

They will be late, and they cannot leave the fort undefended.


Gurmukh conveys the information, while the others inspect their guns and prepare defences with ammunition and barricade the post's gate. Havildar Ishar Singh summons his signalling team to his side. He addresses his men, as the men's hearts are filled with fear of impending catastrophe. Recognizing that they cannot flee the post for fear of being killed on the outside, Ishar commands his men to remain and fight to maintain their position for as long as possible. Though the situation is tight, the soldiers maintain their composure and composure even though death is practically likely without succumbing to dissension, mutiny, or defection. Havildar Ishar Singh was confident that his soldiers would carry out their responsibilities. Gurmukh Singh returns to his signalling tower and informs Fort Lockhart that he and his men will maintain the line. They can in order gain as much time as possible for forts to summon reinforcements. Sepoy Gurmukh will remain in his tower throughout the battle, providing minute-by-minute updates on the day's activities to Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton, division commander of the 36th Sikhs, at Fort Lockhart. The Lieutenant directs that the events be recorded for posterity. Trumpets sound and the sound of the tribes' bulk grows louder.


Their banners flap in the wind as they march toward Saragarhi's signalling outpost. Ishar assigns Sikhs to guard the ramparts. The men stand guard, their rifles firmly held. As tribesmen congregate on the ground outside the post, just outside rifle range. A loud yell is heard, and a flood of combatants rushes for the rampart. Rifles crack as the Sikhs begin unloading their weapons into the teeming horde bearing down on them. The tribesmen push forward in an attempt to scale the walls. While others employ small weapons fire to disperse the garrison. The Sikh troops' disciplined fire subdues the initial wave of tribesmen, but they are like the sea. Rolling back, reforming, and then resurrecting with even more vigour. The Sikh soldiers' twenty firearms vs the 10,000 tribesmen. They reorganise and launch a second wave of attacks against the outpost. Tribesmen fall victim to the Sikh's fire one after another, as the field in front of the wall filled with the dead. This time, though, a bullet from one of the enraged tribesmen's weapons strikes its mark. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh is struck and falls on the spot. Among the desperate, vastly outnumbered defenders, the first victim.


Despite being gravely injured, Naik Lal Singh with the assistance of another sepoy removes Bhagwan's body and places it inside the inner wall. Lal attempts to rejoin the fray but falls and is tragically left behind. Each Sikh killed represents a significant reduction in the defenders' manpower. But the death of a brother in their shared faith, a friend. The second wave of warriors continues to assault the post, with some making it to the wall's base. They attempt to scale the wall but are forced down at bayonet point by the Sikhs. Some of the tribesmen discover a blind spot in the wall's corner and successfully breach the outer defences. However, the Sikhs, having resisted the main onslaught, are prepared. A bloodthirsty melee ensues. As the blood is drawn, knives, swords, bayonets, and rifle butts collide with a resounding crash. Though vastly outnumbered, the gallant Sikhs eliminate all foes within the post and enjoy a brief moment while the remaining tribesmen gather outside. While the Sikhs are recuperating from the melee, they tend to the injured. They temporarily grieve their slain comrades during the action's brief lull. They hear shouts from beyond the fortifications. The tribes' leaders are pleading with the surviving Sikhs to surrender in exchange for their safety by proposing bribes of wealth and rank in exchange for their resignation. However, no one considers the offer; they are adamant about fighting to the death here and now.


Smoke begins to fill the air as the afternoon sun beats down on the sandy earth. The invading tribesmen have set fire to the brush surrounding the post and its immediate surroundings. The Sikhs peer out, attempting to discern their adversaries' shapes through the dense grey haze. The signalman then shouts. A severe warning has been flashed by the adjoining fort. The fort has noticed a massive mass of tribesmen emerging from the smoke from their vantage point on the hill to a blind approach on the signalling station's side. They've pierced the initial defence. As Havildar Ishar Singh directs some of his soldiers to bolster the breach's defences.


The infuriated fighters rush at the gate, intending to destroy it immediately. Another bloodthirsty brawl begins. As tribesmen after tribesmen succumb to the cold steel of the heroic Sikhs, the Sikhs demonstrate their tenacity. While the opposition sustains huge losses, the numbers begin to add up. Each Sikh soldier at the signal post pays a high price for his life, slaughtering hundreds for each defender killed. As the enemy pours troops inside the outer-wall and dozens of tribesmen perish with each Sikh fatality. For the defenders, the situation becomes critical. Ishar Singh, wanting to prolong the conflict to purchase time for the forts, His remaining men are directed to retreat to the inter-wall. To conceal his men's retreat behind the second wall, the brave Havildar who was gravely wounded and haemorrhaging heavily, yells a loud battle cry and surges forward at shocked Afghans, sword and pistol in hand.


He slays attacker after assailant for a few brave seconds but is eventually overcome and his blood stains the stones. However, his offensive has resulted in the formation of a second defensive line on the inner wall by fewer than a dozen Sikhs. Sikhs open fire on the throng. Due to the assailants' density, each shot nearly surely kills a tribesman. The warriors slam the gate repeatedly until it collapses with a tremendous crash. The few remaining Sikhs, sensing the end is near, rush to face the charging onslaught. A final slugfest of bloodthirsty hand-to-hand fighting ensues. The Sikhs are more determined than ever before. However, the tribesmen kill them one by one in exchange for more of their dead. There is only one remaining Sikh defender. In his signalling tower, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh.


Gurmukh had remained at his post during the combat and had communicated the specifics of his actions to Fort Lockhart. He concludes by sending one final message. "Permit me to pick up my rifle," he indicates the fort. "Granted," comes the response. The valiant sepoy packs his heliographic equipment calmly and properly. He reloads his gun as the tribesmen try to smash the door down. Lieutenant Colonel Haughton at Fort Lockhart, looking through telescopes observe as the tower's door is broken down and the interior is filled. They cheer briefly as he murders one tribesman after another. Then another eighteen for a total of twenty. In fear, the tribal fighters exited the chamber. A slight pause occurs as the colonel watches in astonishment. However, his vision is immediately obscured by smoke. The tribesmen have set fire to the tower, preferring to roast Sepoy Gurmukh than confront his blade yet again. Gurmukh sits and cries the Sikh battle cry, content with his fate.


"Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal (Victory belongs to those who sincerely repeat God's name)"


He screams incessantly until he, too, perishes. The protest has concluded. The post collapses. Six hours had passed for the valiant 21 Sikhs. The Sikhs' sacrifice ensures the forts' survival. Havildar (Sergeant) Ishar Singh and his men's actions aided in the saving of the two forts and ultimately forced the Afghans back over the Khyber Pass. The 21 Sikh officers and soldiers who died in the Battle of Saragarhi were from the Majha region of Punjab and were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, at that time the highest gallantry award which an Indian soldier could receive. The corresponding gallantry award was the Victoria Cross. The award is equivalent to today's Param Vir Chakra awarded by the President of India. For the first time in history, a whole regiment received heroism honours for a single combat. "It is no exaggeration to state that armies armed with courageous Sikhs are incapable of defeat in war," Queen Victoria stated.


The names of the 21 Sikh soldiers were:

  1. Havildar Ishar Singh (regimental number 165)

  2. Naik Lal Singh (332)

  3. Lance Naik Chanda Singh (546)

  4. Sepoy Sundar Singh (1321)

  5. Sepoy Ramm Singh (287)

  6. Sepoy Uttar Singh (492)

  7. Sepoy Sahib Singh (182)

  8. Sepoy Hira Singh (359)

  9. Sepoy Daya Singh (687)

  10. Sepoy Jivan Singh (760)

  11. Sepoy Bhola Singh (791)

  12. Sepoy Narayan Singh (834)

  13. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (814)

  14. Sepoy Jivan Singh (871)

  15. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (1733)

  16. Sepoy Ram Singh (163)

  17. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1257)

  18. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1265)

  19. Sepoy Buta Singh (1556)

  20. Sepoy Jivan Singh (1651)

  21. Sepoy Nand Singh (1221)


The 21 Sikhs cemented their place in history by waging one of the greatest and most dramatic last battles of all time. Every day, the Indian Army's 4th battalion of the Sikh Regiment pays tribute to the heroic 21 on September 12th as Saragarhi Day The battle has become iconic of eastern military civilisation, the British Empire's military history and Sikh history. The modern Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army continues to commemorate the Battle of Saragarhi on 12 September each year as the Regimental Battle Honours Day. To commemorate the men, the British built two Saragarhi Gurdwaras: one in Amritsar, very close to the main entrance of the Golden Temple, and another in Firozpur Cantonment, in the district that most of the men hailed from. The epic poem "Khalsa Bahadur" is in memory of the Sikhs who died at Saragarhi.


Sources:


  1. 21 Kesari's: The Untold Story of the Battle of Saragarhi by Kiran Nirvana

  2. The Iconic Battle of Saragarhi: Echoes of the Frontier by Kanwaljit Singh

  3. Saragarhi. The Forgotten Battle By RohitDarrochh

  4. Saragarhi Battalion Ashes to Glor: History of the 4th Battalion, the Sikh Regiment (XXXVI) By Kanwaljit Singh, H. S. Ahluwalia

  5. The Story Of Valiant S