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“It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war” – Queen Victoria, British Parliament 1897

The Battle Of Saragarhi was fought on 12, September 1897 between the British Raj and Afghan tribesmen. The Battle still remains iconic and is considered to be one of the greatest ‘last man standing’ acts in military history.

Saragarhi fort where The Battle Of Saragarhi was fought
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Saragarhi Fort

Saragarhi was a small village in the border district of Kohat, situated on the Samana Range, which is now in Pakistan. The Britishers had partially taken control of this volatile area but the tribal Pashtuns continued to attack the British Personal from time to time.

In 1891, Brigadier-General Sir William Lockhart led two expeditions of the Miranzai Field Force on to the Samana mountain range in order to bring the tribes there under British rule, aiming eventually to build forts on the high ground of the Mastan plateau. By May, a memorandum was issued by the commander-in-chief of India, General Sir Frederick Roberts on the posts and roads to be created for the military occupation of the range.

36th Sikh Regiment

Two main forts of Gulistan and Lockhart were built miles apart from each other. Since the forts were built apart from they were not clearly visible to each other. Thus, Saragarhi was created midway as a holographic communication post. The Saragarhi post was situated on a Ricky ridge, it consisted of small blockhouses with loop-holed ramparts and a signaling tower.

Saragarhi was the most important of pickets because heliographic signal communications — signals using flashes of sunlight could be maintained between the two main forts through it.

The 36th Sikh of the British Indian Army was created under the command of Colonel J. Cook on 20 April 1894. It was entirely composed of Jat Sikhs They were stationed at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar, and Saragarhi.

In 1897, insurgent and inimical activities by the Afghans and Afridi tribesmen had increased, and between 27 August and 1 September, there were numerous attempts by the Pashtuns to capture the forts thwarted by the 36th Sikh Regiment.

Before the battle of Saragarhi, on 3 and 9 September Afridi tribesmen allied with the Afghans and attacked Fort Gulistan.

Survivors of the Gulistan party pose with the captured Afridis for a photograph.
Survivors of the Gulistan party pose with the captured Afridis for a photograph.

However, both the attacks were repulsed, and a relief column from Fort Lockhart, on its return trip, reinforced the signaling detachment positioned at Saragarhi, increasing its strength to three non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and eighteen other ranks (ORs).

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The Battle Of Saragarhi

The details of the Battle of Saragrahi are considered as fairly accurate as Gurmukh Singh signaled events to Fort Lockhart by heliograph.

Ruins of Saragarhi
Ruins of Saragarhi

The 21 soldiers inside the fort were led by an experienced Sergeant, Havildar Ishar Singh, who rallied his men to defend their positions.

On 12th September, around 09:00 approximately 10,000 Afghans reached the signaling post at Saraghari. Soon the Pathans were repulsed with around 60 losses as the Sikhs fired upon the mass of the men. As a result, they went to hide behind rocks and dips in the ground for cover.

But two tribesmen managed to get to the post without getting noticed and remained close to the walls, where they were safe from the 36th Sikh Regiment, and began digging beneath the walls.

To inform that they are under attack Sepoy Gurmukh Singh signaled Colonel Haughton, in Fort Lockhard, but didn’t receive any help. Haughton stated that he cannot send immediate help to Saragarhi. With no help from the Forts, the Sikhs decided to fight to the last to prevent the enemy from reaching the forts.

Those who hid under rocks, set fire to bushes and shrubbery to create a smokescreen. They went unnoticed from the Sikhs as the soldiers concentrated their gunfire on the wooden front door.

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The leaders of the Pashtun forces reportedly made promises to the soldiers to entice them to surrender. But Havildar Ishar Singh refused these offers and continued to fight. They continued to hold back the enemy but by noon, Sepoy Bhagwan Singh was killed, he was the first soldier to be killed in the Battle of Saragarhi. Even though Naik Lal Singh was seriously wounded he carried the body of Bhagwan Singh back to the inner layer of the post with the help of Sepoy Jiwa Singh.

The battle culminated at around 3 pm when a section of wall under attack from the diggers began to cave in. As the enemy crowded the Sikh regiment in Saragarhi, the remaining Sikhs inside put up a stubborn defense but were forced to retreat.

The Battle of Saragarhi, the 36th Sikh Regiment
Major Charles Des Voeux (sitting, middle) with his men from the 36th Sikh Regiment Source: Captain Jay Singh-Sohal, British Library

In an act of outstanding bravery, Havildar Ishar Singh ordered his men to fall back into the inner layer, whilst was fighting them in hand-to-hand combat. However, the wall breached and all but one of the defending soldiers are killed, along with many of the Pashtuns.

Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, who communicated the battle to Haughton, was the last surviving Sikh defender, he was the youngest of them all. He 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!” (“One will be blessed eternally, who says that God is the ultimate truth!”).

The death of 21 Sikhs didn’t go in vain, Pashtuns later admitted that they had lost about 180 men and many more wounded, around 600 bodies are said to have been seen around the ruined post when the relief party arrived.

The 36th Sikh regiment was successful in delaying Pashtuns for long as the reinforcement arrived there in the night of 13-14 September, before the fort could be captured.

The weapons used by the Indian troops were of an older generation as compared to the small arms issued to British troops. This was done intentionally to prevent any further mutinied and uprisings from getting out of hands after the Indian Mutiny of 1857. On the other hand, Afghans used the original and copy of Martini-Henry rifles.

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The Heliograph

The Heliograph – The reason why the 36th Sikh Soldiers fought to defend Saragarhi, would ironically be the source of their fame. The details of their heroic act were heliographed to Fort Lockhart and then heliographed back to London by a Times correspondent and then it was reportedly printed in newspapers all around the world.

A heliograph is a signaling device by which sunlight is reflected from a movable mirror. Heliograph requires three men – one to flash messages using the mirror, another to read out incoming messages, and a third to write it all down.

Order of Merit

The 21 Sikh non-commissioned 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. That was the highest gallantry award at that time which an Indian soldier could receive. The award is equivalent to today’s Param Vir Chakra awarded by the President of India. The names of the 21 recipients of the gallantry award are

The Order of Merit- The Battle of Saragrahi
The Order of Merit
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  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 Ram 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)

Legacy and Memorials

The British saw the significance of the last stand in inspiring more Indians to serve and fight, and built two memorial Gurudwaras: one near the Golden temple and another in Ferozepur.

The unveiling of the Saragarhi memorial at Amritsar in 1902
The unveiling of the Saragarhi memorial at Amritsar in 1902

“Khalsa Bahadur” – The epic poem is in memory of the Sikhs who died at Saragarhi. The poem begins with a supplication to God, the Sikh Gurus and the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, it narrates the raising of the 36th Sikh Regiment

Saragarhi Day

12th September is a special day in the hearts of Sikhs from around the world. The Sikh regiment of the Indian Army celebrates it as a Regimental Battle Honors day.

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The movie Kesari

In March 2019, film titled Kesari, based on the Battle of Saragarhi was released

The Indian Armed Forces has been pushing for the battle to be taught in India’s schools. They want to taught it to children so that they can learn the heroism shown by the Indian Soldiers to act as inspiration for young children.

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