Battle of Saragarhi

The Battle of Saragarhi fought by The 36th Sikh Regiment in 1897, Is one of the Greatest Battles of All Time. Recognized By UNESCO and British Parliament


The Battle fought in the North West Frontier Province of the British Empire which is now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Part of Pakistan.
It is an example of Valour, Bravery, and Sacrifice. A Battle of Epic Dimensions. A Small Band of Soldiers Taking on a Force of over 10,000, Tribal Estimates up to 14,000.

History –  Battle of Saragarhi 

The Battle of Saragarhi was fought during the Tirah Campaign on 12 September 1897 between twenty-one Sikhs of the 4th Battalion (then 36th Sikhs) of the Sikh Regiment of British India, defending an army post, and 10,000 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”.

Details of the Battle of Saragarhi are considered fairly accurate, due to Gurmukh Singh signalling events to Fort Lockhart as they occurred.

  • Around 9:00am, 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 make 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.
  • Gurmukh Singh, who communicated the battle with Col. Haughton, was the last Sikh defender. He is stated to have killed 20 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” (Victory belongs to those who recite the name of God with a true heart).

Having destroyed Saragarhi, the Afghans turned their attention to Fort Gulistan, but they had been delayed too long, and reinforcements arrived there in the night of 13–14 September, before the fort could be conquered.The Pashtuns later admitted that they had lost about 180 killed[4] and many more wounded[6] during the engagement against the 21 Sikh soldiers, but some 600 bodies are said to have been seen around the ruined post when the relief party arrived (however, the fort had been retaken, on 14 September, by the use of intensive artillery fire, which may have caused many casualties). The total casualties in the entire campaign, including the Battle of Saragarhi, numbered at around 4,800.

Saragarhi Tablet
Saragarhi Tablet
Sikh Infantry Stationed at Saragarhi
Sikh Infantry Stationed at Saragarhi

History Published By the Sikh Review

SARA GARHI – Location, Sarhadhi village in Kohaat Dist. which is one and half miles from the Lockhart fort. This place had a small establishment of Indian Government. During the war of Sept. 12, 1897, one of the most moving episodes in the annals of our military history, took place at Saragarhi.In this little outpost 21 Indian Jawans fought back a lashkar of 10,000 tribesman. And died to a man without surrendering their outpost. Saragarhi was, as the name signifies, a tiny fortress in no-man’s land in the Hindkush and Sulaiman ranges. The region was inhabited by fierce, lawless tribes whom both the Afghan and the British governments paid a sort of black-mail tax to keep them peaceful. The Afghan government exploited Pakhtoon rationalist sentiment and religious fanaticism of the tribesmen against the English who had introduced idolatrous Hindus and the hated Sikhs into the homelands of the Pathans.

This was known as the prickly hedge policy’ of turning the tribesmen against the British so that they did not give the Afghans any trouble. It paid handsome dividends as the tribesmen kept harassing British-Indian troops while leaving the Afghans alone.

British policy wavered between aggressive inroads into tribal territory and buying peace by regular payments to villagers to guard caravan routes. In 1879 the British Jed an expedition into Orakzai territory. The Orakzai retaliated by ambushing isolated British units wherever and whenever they could. This undeclared war went on for 11 years.

In January 1891, Brigadier General-Sir William Lockhart took a punitive expedition through Orakzai territory and destroyed many villagers in the Khanki valley. The Orakzais capitulated and agreed to let the British build three fortified posts on Samaria Ridge and link them to the neighboring Morangai Valley by road. Two months later they changed their minds and decided to have another go at the British-Indian forces. On 24th March they suddenly attacked an escort party of the 29th Punjabis and the 3rd Sikh Frontier Force, killed 14 men and wounded seven.

The next day they rushed picquets at Sangar and Gulistan. All the victims of the surprise attack on Gulistan were Sikh soldiers. The tribesmen drove a herd of cows to the post. The Sikhs abstained from firing on the cows and fell victim to the ruse practiced on them.

A full-scale war began with tribal lashkars attacking British-Indian outposts all over the NWF Province. Samana Ridge, Kohat and the Khurram valley were defended by the 36th Sikhs,a unit raised from Ferozepur in 1887. Three fortresses which came under heavy attack from Orakzais and the Afridis were Fort Lockhart, Gulistan and Saragarhi. Of these Saragarhi was only a picquet with a signal tower which maintained heliographic communication with the other two. All about the three was thorny scrub littered with large boulders which provided cover for the besieging tribesmen. The garrison in Saragarhi consisted of 21 men under the command of Havaldar Ishar Singh. The tower was manned by a solitary signaller Gurmukh Singh.

The tribesmen came on with full force and killed most of the 21 defenders. The defenders ran out of ammunition. The six who remained decided to make their last stand in the mess. Tribesmen threw burning faggots of bushwood into the mess and set it on fire. The six men fixed bayonets on their rifles, rushed out and were killed to a man. Only Signaller, Gurmukh Singh, remained in the tower.

The last message from Saragarhi which flashed across with the sunbeams was People say one’s brothers are like one’s own arms. If you were our brothers, you would have seen our plight and helped us with ammunition. But it was beyond your power: the enemy has blocked all the roads. Brothers, we have served our Guru and our Emperor and now we take leave of you for ever.

Gurmukh Singh asked for permission to close the signal post. The permission was flashed back from Fort Lockhart. Gurmukh Singh dismounted his helosgraph equipment, packed it in a leather case and fixed his bayonet on his rifle. The tribesmen did not want to lose more men in hand to hand fighting and set fire to the tower. Gurmukh Singh perished in the flames shouting at top of his voice, Boley so nihal, Sat Sri Akal.

Though vastly outnumbered, the Sikhs held their post and killed over 200 and wounded thousands before accepting Shaheedi. Each demonstrated an exemplary courage and valor fit for an Amritdhari Sikh. In the memory of these sikhs the government erected KiratMandirs at fort Lockhart, Amritsar and Firozpur.

-Taken from The Saga of Saragarhi by Khuswant Singh published in Sept. 1992 issue of Sikh Review


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