Saragarhi is the incredible story of 21 men of the 36th Sikh Regiment (currently the 4th Sikh Regiment) who gave up their lives in devotion to their duty. This battle, like many others fought by the Sikhs, highlights the heroic action by a small detachment of Sikh soldiers against heavy odds. This encounter took place on 12 September 1897 in the Tirah region of North-West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan, which then formed part of British India). In keeping with the tradition of the Sikh Army, they fought to the death rather than surrender.
The Battle at Saragarhi is one of eight stories of collective bravery published by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). It has been mentioned as one of the five most significant events of its kind in the world which includes 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.
The British colonial rulers had constructed a series of forts to control the NWFP (North West Frontier Province – today a state in Pakistan) and to provide security to troops against marauding tribesmen and their lashkars (large body of troops). Most of these forts had initially been built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh as part of the consolidation of the Sikh empire in Punjab and the British added some more. The British had only partially succeeded in gaining control over this region, consequently, skirmishes and sometimes serious fights with the tribals were a frequent occurrence. However, the NWFP was a good training ground for the Indian Army to hone its skills and techniques.
Two such forts on the Samana ridge of the Hindukush & Sulaiman ranges that is Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan were a few miles apart. Since these forts were not inter-visible, a signalling relay post called Saragarhi was located mid-way on a bluff to provide heliographic (A heliograph is a simple device for sending Morse code using a mirror catching the sunlight) communications between them. This post or picket had been fortified to provide safety and protection to the signalling detachment.
In 1897 there was a general uprising in the NWFP engineered by Afghans as part of their policy, which came to be known as the ‘prickly heat policy’ to direct the wrath of the tribals against the British. In this uprising, Mullahs (Muslim 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.
The relief column from Lockhart on the return trip reinforced the signalling detachment at Saragarhi making its strength to 1 NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) and 20 ORs (Other Ranks). In a renewed effort, on 12 September 1897, hordes of tribesmen laid siege to Fort Lockhart and Saragarhi, with the aim of overrunning the latter and at the same time preventing any help from the former.
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 & 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). 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. 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. When repeated attacks failed, the enemy set fire to the surrounding bushes & shrubs and 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.
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. He died fighting, but took 20 of the enemy with him.
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. The tribals later admitted to figure of a miniuim of 600 – 1400 were dead and many more wounded. 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. 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.
Wahe Guruji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guruji Ki Fateh!