The Battle of Saragarhi: The heroic Sikh last stand

Jay Singh Sohal is an experienced broadcast journalist who has worked for Sky and ITV and has held the position of Director at both Turbanology and Sikhs at War, two companies tasked with raising awareness of Sikh identity. Jay is currently the Chairman of the WWI Sikh Memorial Fund.

The Battle of Saragarhi: The heroic Sikh last stand

What was the Battle of Saragarhi?

The Battle of Saragarhi took place in September 1897 and was the first time that the 36th Sikhs, a British Indian regiment created specifically for service on the frontier, saw action. The Sikhs, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton, was dispatched to the Samana at the beginning of that year and occupied various forts and picquets during a period of heightened tension with Pathans tribes. It was the same year that Winston Churchill fought, alongside Sikhs, at Malakand, and it was during the Great Game that Britain developed a policy of punitive expeditions against warring tribes in order to maintain control over the crucial border area along the Khyber.

That year, the Afridi and Orakzai tribes were incited to wage holy war by their Mullahs against the British. This sentiment came about because of British plans to define the border, which the tribes saw as an encroachment. Incited to jihad, thousands of men descended upon the Samana with the intention of driving the British Indian forces away from the land.

On 25 August 1897, a large force of tribesmen assembled at Karappa near the tri-junction of the Chagru, Sampagha and Khanki valleys, in what is now the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Estimates put the number of fighters at 25,000, but this was revised down to 12,000 as they began to attack British outposts garrisoned with tribal levies, who rather than fight their kinsmen ran away.

Two days later the enemy force reached the western fort of Gulistan, manned by Major Des Voeux and 150 Sikhs, and began firing upon the fort. Various skirmishes took place between the British Indians and the Pathans, but the latter was not able to dislodge the 36th Sikhs from their posts. They assessed that this was because of the communications post of Saragarhi.

The Battle of Saragarhi: The heroic Sikh last stand

Forts Gulistan and Lockhart were not in line of sight of one another, positioned as they were on the Samana ridge. The only way messages could be relayed from one to the other was through Saragarhi, so-named after the village of Sara Garh that once stood at its site. This relaying by heliograph, a system of sending Morse code by flashing light, enabled the commander to deploy his men around the area where it was most needed to suppress the Pathan attacks. The game of cat and mouse frustrated the enemy, who despite taking over minor posts along the Samana, spent a fortnight trying to find ways to defeat the larger force. Realising Saragarhi was the key, and with reinforcements arriving, the tribesmen descended upon the post on 11 September.

Saragarhi was manned by 20 Sikhs, led by Havildar Ishar Singh, and a camp follower. Their mission was to ensure the relay of messages, but they were ill prepared for a siege. About 10,000 tribesmen were estimated by Haughton to have surrounded the post, evidenced by the standards they carried. It meant that each Sikh stood to take on 476 Pathans. But there was another problem; there were only 400 rounds of ammunition to a man, meaning the Sikhs could not rely on firepower to thwart the enemy. Ishar Singh could only hope to stand firm, and in not wavering, demoralise the enemy from attacking.

Those observing at fort Lockhart saw what happened early the next morning. At about 9am, the Pathans attacked by rushing the outpost, but were repulsed with about 60 losses as the Sikhs fired upon the mass of men. Diving behind rocks, folds and dips in the ground for cover, the Pathans rallied to tried and make a second attack. But two tribesmen had managed to get to the post and remained close under the walls of the north-west bastion, where there was a dead angle. Unseen by the Sikhs, they began digging.

The signaller Gurmukh Singh flashed to Haughton at about noon that one Sikh sepoy was dead and another wounded. The commander cautioned Saragarhi not to waste their limited ammo but to keep the enemy at bay while reinforcements were mustered. Despite several efforts though, Haughton was unable to deter the tribesmen surrounding the 21 Sikhs.

The Pathans set fire to nearby bushes to hide their movements and made a second attack, but were again repulsed. They fired at the doorway hoping it would give in, but their answer came at about 3pm when the wall at the dead angle began to cave in. The enemy gave a final cry to advance and rushed through the new gap, and the wooden door was riddled with bullets. As the tribesmen crowded over their own dead and injured to get into Saragarhi, the few Sikhs remaining inside put up a stubborn defence, but were forced to retreat into the inner defences. Ishar Singh covered the retreat and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with his bayonet. Another sepoy secured the guard-room door from the inside and carried on firing, but was burned to death. Gurmukh Singh continued signalling, finally asking permission to join the fight He fired on until he too was overwhelmed by the enemy. The 21 had made a valiant last stand, but the enemy had paid a high price for their victory with up to 200 dead.

What was the Tirah Campaign?

After the fall of Saragarhi, forts Lockhart and Gulistan continued their defence until reinforcements could arrive from Hangu to clear the tribesmen. The Kohat Field Force of just over 34,000 men under General Yeatman-Biggs undertook the Tirah campaign, one of retribution, days later in response to the Pathan attacks. Marching upon the Tirah – the homeland of the Afridi and Orakzai, it was the first time the British had marched so deep into Pathan territory, protected as it was on three sides by mountains.

The expedition began with the capture of the Dargai heights on 18 October, and by 29 October, the Sampagha pass was being attacked. Taking further heights such as Arhanga enabled the expedition to gain vital ground on their way through the difficult terrain. Through November, the force captured and destroyed villages but were unable to engage the tribesmen, whose tried and tested tactics of engaging and retreating were put to use. The 36th Sikhs took part in the campaign, alongside English units, but were mainly used as an advanced guard or in a recce role. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton, died in January 1898 when tasked to advance on the Shinkamar pass. The campaign ended with the submission of the tribes.

What weapons were used by both sides?

The Sikhs were equipped with the Martini Henry, a breech-loading rifle weighing about ten pounds that could be fitted with a 20-inch bayonet for close-quarter combat. It was the most efficient rifle of the time – robust, accurate and simple to use, and had earned a reputation as such at Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu war of 1879.

The Battle of Saragarhi: The heroic Sikh last stand

How is it remembered in Sikh culture?

The British saw the brave last stand at Saragarhi as an example of the courage and commitment of the warrior Sikhs to fight to the bitter end, it echoes the call within the Sikh national anthem to die fighting while remembering god. The British lavishly rewarded the Sikhs for their heroics; in total 33 soldiers from 36th Sikhs received the Indian Order of Merit for fighting on the Samana, then the highest medal that could be given for gallantry. The 21 Sikhs at Saragarhi also received the distinction posthumously and their families given land and a pension.

However, the great act of the British was to ensure India would never forget the last stand, and that it would always be remembered. A memorial Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) was built at Ferozepur, the regimental cantonment, and in Amritsar near Sri Harimandir Sahib (the Golden Temple). Another memorial was built at fort Lockhart.

To this day, the descendant of the 36th Sikhs, 4 Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army, continues to mark the commemoration on the battle honour day created by the British, 12 September.

Why is it not remembered as much in Britain?

For a long while it was perhaps difficult to mark Saragarhi’s battle honour day in Britain because the regiment became an Indian one. But having launched my book Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battl” at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2013, I’ve worked hard to ensure we continue to mark the occasion. It has a significance to British Indians that cannot be overstated – it is inspirational and ties our race and nationality together. It can and should inspire young people to undertake public service, to be proud of being British Sikhs and to live in accordance with the guiding principles of the Sikh faith – which empowered the soldiers to undertake great deeds.

What steps have you taken to ensure its memory lasts?

Saragarhi Day has now become a mainstay of the British calendar, with the battle honour day of 12 September being marked in 2014 for the second time at RMA Sandhurst. In 2015, we will be commemorating the event at Armoury House in central London, Honourable Artillery Company. It’s an occasion to remember the sacrifices made by the Sikhs on the frontier, why they fought for Britain and how their deeds can inspire us today. My hopes as the originator and organiser of the event is that it will foster a spirit of adventure among young British Sikhs, who might want to join Her Majesty’s Armed Forces inspired by their forebears or serve Britain in other ways. It must also show to the country that the Sikh contribution to Britain, past and present, continues to be a positive and fruitful one.

The Battle of Saragarhi: The heroic Sikh last stand

saragarhi sign 2 - taken in 1999 on Samana

saragarhi sign 2 - taken in 1999 on Samana
The Saragarhi Memorial in Gurdwara-Ferozepur

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