Here is a story of action, bravery, pride, valour and above all – truth – for it is the story of 21 Sikh men that lived and walked the same earth as you: a story not of fictionalised kings and princes, but of men in the 36th regiment of the British army (now the 4th battalion of the Sikh regiment).
It is the story of those men who refused to give up in the face of adversity and certainty of imminent death. The Indian history books, however, have often shied away from discussing it.
However, lesser-known stories from history are making a resurgence, thanks to pop culture and cinema. There are now two movies being released on the Battle, namely, Ajay Devgn’s Sons of Sardaar: The Battle of Saragarhi, and Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Randeep Hooda starrer Battle of Saragarhi.
In the September 1897, when over 10,000 Afghan tribesmen of the Orakzai and Afridi tribe attacked Saragarhi, North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) (modern day Pakistan), the defending Sikh regiment, under the leadership of Havildar Ishar Singh, knew their fate had already been decided. Yet they held their ground and fought the thousands of enemy troops for several hours.
Here’s all you need to know about the Battle of Saragarhi in a glance :
Chapter 1: Saragarhi
Saragarhi served as a communication relay post between Fort Lockart and Fort Gulistan (also called Cavagnari), using heliography (mode of communication that primarily used mirrors and sunlight to convey messages in the 19th and 20th century).
On the morning of 12 September 1897, Havildar Ishar Singh and signalman Gurmukh Singh woke up to find thousands of Pashtun tribesmen marching towards them. The Saragarhi outpost was crucial to communication between the two British forts and breaking the frontier at Saragarhi would mean adverse consequences for the British army.
Chapter 2: Help Fails to Come Through
The Commander Officer of the 36th Sikhs, Lt Col Haughton was immediately informed of the situation. Gurumukh Singh sent the message to Fort Lockart:
“ENEMY APPROACHING THE MAIN GATE…NEED REINFORCEMENT”
Haughton, who had counted close to 14,000 tribesmen marching towards Saragarhi, sent a disheartening reply from Fort Lockart:
“UNABLE TO BREAKTHROUGH…HOLD POSITION”
Havildar Singh discussed the situation with his men and together they reached a consensus and a reply was sent to Lockart:
Former Major General of the Indian Army, Dhruv C Katoch, comments on the massive size of the enemy troops the defending side braved in the battle.
Some estimates put the figure in the region of 10,000 to 12,000 personnel. The narrowness of the feature and the restricted approaches obviously could not have involved more than a couple of hundred attacking at any point of time, but the sheer numbers available to the attacking force meant that the attackers could make up their losses while the defenders had no means to do so. And that is how the battle unfolded. –Dhruv C Katoch, Former Major General, Indian Army
Chapter 3: Saragarhi Under Attack
The outnumbered Sikhs employed the delay tactic to give sufficient time to the two Forts to prepare themselves for the onslaught that would soon be directed towards them.
After fighting for several hours, as the regiment started running low on ammunition, they employed another war tactic and set the flora around Fort Saragarhi on fire. Though the smoke severely hindered the enemy’s advance, it also cut down the Sikhs’ visibility. Taking advantage of the situation, the tribesmen managed to breach a part of Saragarhi wall.
Havildar Ishar Singh, injured and wounded by this time, displayed a final act of bravery and asked his remaining men to retreat to the inner parts of the fort, while he stayed outside, with two other sepoys who had dragged him to his final position, to face the tribesmen in one-on-one combat.
Chapter 4: The Final Combat
By the time the Pashtuns managed to breach the fort entirely, only five Sikhs were left alive, including Gurumukh Singh at the signal tower. The four men engaged in another round of hand to hand combat within the fort.
At 3:30 PM, Gurumukh sent the final message from Sarahgarhi:
“…REQUEST PERMISSION TO DISMOUNT AND JOIN THE FIGHT.”
He received a prompt reply:
At 19 years, Gurumukh Singh was the youngest of the Sikhs. After the message, Singh packed his equipment in a leather bag, armed himself with a bayonet and came down to face the tribesmen. According to Haughton’s accounts, he is said to have taken down 20 men before he was burnt alive by the enemy.
The 21 Sikhs, along with a cook who was staying with them, were killed in the Battle. Dhruv C Katoch writes that there were about 600 bodies that “were strewn around the post after it was retaken, but a large number of these would have been those killed in the counter attack, mostly from artillery fire.”
Chapter 5: Posthumous Honours
Fort Saragarhi after the onslaught.
The fierce bravery of the 21 Sikhs sent ripples across the world. The British Parliament halted their session mid-way to give a standing ovation to the martyred 21 in September 1897. The British monarch praised the men and said :
It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war. – Queen Victoria, British Parliament 1897
Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara in Firozpur, Punjab, India
Every year, 12 September is celebrated as the Saragarhi Day by the Sikh regiment, which is also the most decorated regiment of the Indian army.