The Battle of Saragarhi was a last-stand battle fought before the Tirah Campaign between the British Raj and Afghan tribesmen. On 12 September 1897, an estimated 12,000 – 24,000 Orakzai and Afridi tribesmen were seen near Gogra, at Samana Suk, and around Saragarhi, cutting off Fort Gulistan from Fort Lockhart. The Afghans attacked the outpost of Saragarhi where thousands of them swarmed and surrounded the fort, preparing to assault it. Led by Havildar Ishar Singh, the 21 soldiers in the fort—all of whom were Sikhs—refused to surrender and were wiped out in a last stand. The post was recaptured two days later by another British Indian contingent.
|Battle of Saragarhi|
|Part of the Tirah Campaign|
Map of the battle site
|Commanders and leaders|
|Ishar Singh †||Gul Badshah|
|21||10,000 to 12,000|
|Casualties and losses|
450 (estimate) |
dead and wounded
See Aftermath section
All the 21 soldiers involved in the battle were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, which was the highest gallantry award that an Indian soldier could receive at the time. The Indian Army's 4th battalion of the Sikh Regiment commemorates the battle every year on 12 September, as Saragarhi Day.
Saragarhi was a small village in the border district of Kohat, situated on the Samana Range, in present-day Pakistan. On 20 April 1894, the 36th Sikhs of the British Indian Army was created under the command of Colonel J. Cook, entirely composed of Jat Sikhs. In August 1897, five companies of the 36th Sikhs under Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton were sent to the northwest frontier of British India (modern-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and were stationed at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar, and Saragarhi.
The British had partially succeeded in getting control of this volatile area, but tribal Pashtuns continued to attack British personnel from time to time. Thus, a series of forts, originally built by Ranjit Singh, the ruler of the Sikh Empire, were consolidated. Two of the forts were Fort Lockhart (on the Samana Range of the Hindu Kush mountains), and Fort Gulistan (Sulaiman Range), situated a few miles apart. Fort Lockhart is located at . Due to the forts not being visible to each other, Saragarhi was created midway, as a heliographic communication post. The Saragarhi post, situated on a rocky ridge, consisted of a small block house with loop-holed ramparts and a signalling tower.
A general uprising by the Afghans began there in 1897 and, between 27 August and 11 September, many vigorous efforts by Pashtuns to capture the forts were thwarted by the 36th Sikhs. In 1897, insurgent and inimical activities had increased, and on 3 and 9 September Afridi tribesmen, allied with the Afghans, attacked Fort Gulistan. Both the attacks were repulsed, and a relief column from Fort Lockhart, on its return trip, reinforced the signalling detachment positioned at Saragarhi, increasing its strength to three non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and eighteen other ranks (ORs).
- Around 09:00, approximately 6,000–10,000 Afghans reach the signalling post at Saragarhi.
- Sepoy Gurmukh Singh signals to Colonel Haughton, situated in Fort Lockhart, that they are under attack.
- Haughton states he cannot send immediate help to Saragarhi.
- The soldiers in Saragarhi decide to fight to the last to prevent the enemy from reaching the forts.
- Sepoy Bhagwan Singh is the first soldier to be killed and Naik Lal Singh is seriously wounded.
- Naik Lal Singh and Sepoy Jiwa Singh reportedly carry the body of Bhagwan Singh back to the inner layer of the post.
- The Afghans break a portion of the wall of the picket.
- Haughton signals that he has estimated that there are between 10,000 and 14,000 Pashtuns attacking Saragarhi.
- The leaders of the Pashtun 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 occurred.
- Havildar Ishar Singh orders his men to fall back into the inner layer, whilst he remained to cover their retreat. After the inner layer was breached all but one of the defending soldiers were killed, along with many of the Pashtuns.
- Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, who communicated the battle to Haughton as signalman, was the last surviving defender. His last message was to ask for permission to pick up his rifle. Upon receiving permission he packed up the heliograph and held the door of his signalling shed. He is stated to have killed 40 Afghans and the Pashtuns were forced to set fire to the post to kill him. As he was dying, Singh is 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 weapons given and used by the Indian troops were of an older generation compared to the small arms issued to British troops. This was intentionally done after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 to prevent any further mutinies and uprisings from getting out of hand. The Afghans used the original and copy of Martini-Henry rifles. The Martini–Henry was copied on a large scale by North-West Frontier Province gunsmiths. The chief manufacturers were the Adam Khel Afridi, who lived around the Khyber Pass. The Khyber Pass gunsmiths first acquired examples of the various British service arms during nineteenth-century British military expeditions in the North-West Frontier, which they used to make copies.
- Havildar Ishar Singh (regimental number 165)
- Naik Lal Singh (332)
- Lance Naik Chanda Singh (546)
- Sepoy Sundar Singh (1321)
- Sepoy Ramm Singh (287)
- Sepoy Uttar Singh (492)
- Sepoy Sahib Singh (182)
- Sepoy Hira Singh (359)
- Sepoy Daya Singh (687)
- Sepoy Jivan Singh (760)
- Sepoy Bhola Singh (791)
- Sepoy Narayan Singh (834)
- Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (814)
- Sepoy Jivan Singh (871)
- Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (1733)
- Sepoy Ram Singh (163)
- Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1257)
- Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1265)
- Sepoy Buta Singh (1556)
- Sepoy Jivan Singh (1651)
- Sepoy Nand Singh (1221)
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 captured. The Pashtuns later admitted that they had lost about 180 killed and many more wounded during the engagement against the 21 Sikh soldiers. 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 some casualties). After it was retaken by the British, the burnt bricks of Saragarhi was used to make an obelisk for those fighters. The British also built gurdwaras at Amritsar and Ferozepur for them. The total casualties in the entire campaign, including the Battle of Saragarhi, numbered at around 4,800.
The inscription of a commemorative tablet reads:
The Government of India have caused this tablet to be erected to the memory of the twenty one non-commissioned officers and men of the 36 Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry whose names are engraved below as a perpetual record of the heroism shown by these gallant soldiers who died at their posts in the defense of the fort of Saragarhi, on the 12 September 1897, fighting against overwhelming numbers, thus proving their loyalty and devotion to their sovereign The Queen Empress of India and gloriously maintaining the reputation of the Sikhs for unflinching courage on the field of battle.
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, at that time the highest gallantry award which an Indian soldier could receive. The corresponding gallantry award was the Victoria Cross. The award is equivalent to today's Param Vir Chakra awarded by the President of India.
Remembrance and legacy
The battle has become iconic of eastern military civilisation, the British Empire's military history and Sikh history. The modern Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army continues to commemorate the Battle of Saragarhi on 12 September each year as the Regimental Battle Honours Day.
To commemorate the men, the British built two Saragarhi Gurdwaras: one in Amritsar, very close to the main entrance of the Golden Temple, and another in Firozpur Cantonment, in the district that most of the men hailed from.
In Indian schools
The Indian Armed Forces, in particular the Indian Army, has been pushing for the battle to be taught in India's schools. They would like the heroism demonstrated by the Indian soldiers to be taught as an inspiration to children. In 1999, various articles were printed regarding the matter in Punjab's longest-established newspaper, The Tribune, such as: "the military action at Saragarhi is taught to students the world over and particularly to students in France." Although there seems to be no evidence for this claim (it is not, for example, on France's national school curriculum), the news was enough to provoke political debate, and the battle has been taught in schools in Punjab since 2000:
The decision to include the battle story in the school curriculum was taken last year during a public rally presided over by the Punjab Chief Minister, Mr Parkash Singh Badal. Following this, the State Government had issued a notification that the battle story should be included in the school curriculum from this session. There had been a constant demand from the Sikh Regiment and various ex-servicemen's associations that the battle be included in the school curriculum. A similar request had also been put forward to Mr Badal during the battle's state-level centenary celebrations at Ferozepore in 1997. A subsequent letter sent to the Punjab Government by the Saragarhi Memorial and Ethos Promotion Forum had also urged the State Government that the battle has many inspiring lessons for children. On hearing the acts of valour, the British Parliament had then risen in unison to pay homage to the fallen soldiers.
|Official name||Saragarhi Day|
|Observed by||India (also observed by Sikhs worldwide)|
|Type||national & international|
|Significance||Honors the 21 military Sikh soldiers who died at the Battle of Saragarhi|
|Observances||Parades, school history projects, government buildings|
|Date||12 September (or nearest weekday)|
|Related to||Remembrance Day|
Saragarhi Day is a Sikh military commemoration day celebrated on 12 September every year to commemorate the Battle of Saragarhi. Sikh military personnel and civilians commemorate the battle around the world every year on 12 September. All units of the Sikh Regiment celebrate Saragarhi Day every year as the Regimental Battle Honours Day.
Saragarhi Day in the UK
The first recorded public discourse on Saragarhi was delivered by Viscount Slim in 2001 when he delivered the annual Portraits of Courage lecture at the Imperial War Museum. This was hosted by the Maharaja Duleep Singh Centenary Trust. In May 2002, Prince Charles inaugurated the Jawans to Generals exhibition which featured a section on Saragarhi. The exhibition successfully toured the UK and was seen by over 100,000 visitors.
Saragarhi was introduced back into the UK by writer and filmmaker Jay Singh Sohal and the British Army with the launch of the book Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle in 2013 at Old College, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. It has since been commemorated each year on its battle honour day by the British Armed Forces. In 2014, the commemoration also took place at Sandhurst at the Indian Army Memorial Room. In 2015, it took place at the Honourable Artillery Company Museum in London, where was also due to take place in 2016.
Various senior ministers and armed forces generals have paid tribute to Sikh service by mentioning the story of Saragarhi. In April 2016 the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP made mention as a special Vaisakhi event at the Ministry of Defence. In June 2016 the Chief of the General Staff Sir Nick Carter did the same at a special British Sikh Association dinner.
In November 2020, Wolverhampton City Council approved plans for the erection of a 10 ft tall bronze statue commemorating the battle outside of the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Wednesfield. The statue of Havildar Ishar Singh, paid for by donations from the local Sikh community totalling £100,000, was unveiled on 12 September 2021.
In popular culture
In September 2017, Saragarhi: The True Story, a documentary by UK-based journalist-filmmaker Jay Singh-Sohal, was screened at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to mark the 120th anniversary of the epic frontier battle.
Kesari (2019) is a film directed by Anurag Singh, starring Akshay Kumar, that grossed over ₹100 crore worldwide in its opening weekend during the Holi festival. Two other Bollywood films based on the battle had been announced prior to Kesari:
- Sons of Sardaar: The Battle of Saragarhi. In July 2016, Ajay Devgn shared a poster of the film, a sequel to Son of Sardaar. In August 2017, Devgn stated: "We are working on the script but it won’t happen for another two years because of the scale of the project."
- Battle of Saragarhi. In August 2016, Randeep Hooda shared the first look on his Twitter page. This film is to be directed by Rajkumar Santoshi, starring Hooda, Vikramjeet Virk, and Danny Denzongpa. The film was shelved after the release of Kesari.
Regarding speculation about many films being made about the battle, Hooda stated: "It is good because there were 21 Sikh heroes in that battle and each one of them deserved to have a movie made on them. So actually there should be 21 films made on them."
- Kumar, MP Anil (8 July 2018). "Rezang La stands out". Indian Defence Review. Archived from the original on 26 April 2016. Retrieved 29 July 2019.
- Jay Singh-Sohal. "The battle of Saragarhi: when 21 Sikh soldiers stood against 10,000 men". BBC. Retrieved 25 August 2021.
- "No. 26937". The London Gazette. 11 February 1898. p. 863.
- Tom Lansford (2017). Afghanistan at War: From the 18th-Century Durrani Dynasty to the 21st Century. p. 408. ISBN 9781598847604.
The Orakzais were joined by Afridis swelling their numbers to more than 10000. Groups of the tribesmen attacked Sangar on the night of September 11. The post was on a high ridge and well fortified. Although there were only 44 Sikh troops, the garrison repulsed the attack. The following morning, the natives attacked Saragarhi. The garrison numbered 21 Sikhs, led by Havildar Ishar Singh. Instead of withdrawing to one of the other posts, the Sikhs decided to remain in an effort to maintain communication between the two forts.
- Sharma, Gautam (1990). Valour and Sacrifice: Famous Regiments of the Indian Army. Allied Publishers. p. 185. ISBN 978-8170231400. Retrieved 22 February 2019.
A mass attack came on Saragarhi on September 12 and the 21 strong detachment fought one of the most unequal engagements in the history of warfare. There were fierce onslaughts by the 10,000 Orakzai and Afridi tribesmen. The outnumbered defenders returned the fire in a most determined manner. After a series of abortive attempts, the tribesmen managed to reach the wall of the post by using an ingenious method. Effecting a breach, they were face to face with the brave Sikhs, most of whom had been wounded.
- Col Kanwaljit Singh, Maj H S Ahluwalia (1987). "Saragarhi (1897)". Saragarhi Battalion: Ashes to Glory. Lancer International. p. 20. ISBN 9788170620228.
The gallant defence of Saragarhi by Havildar Ishar Singh and twenty other ranks and a follower is estimated to have lost the enemy about four hundred and fifty killed and wounded
- Dennis Showalter (2013). Imperial Wars 1815–1914. Amber Books Ltd. ISBN 9781782741251.
The Sikhs were wiped out after inflicting 450 casualties on their attackers.
- Stewart, Jules (15 August 2011). On Afghanistan's Plains: The Story of Britain's Afghan Wars. I.B. Tauris.
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When day broke on the 12th, the Orakzai-Afridi "lashkar" was seen to be in force near Gogra on the east, at the Samana Suk on the west, and round the Saragarhi post, thus severing Gulistan from Fort Lockhart.(Their total number has been variously estimated at from twelve to twenty thousand.)It was, therefore, no longer possible for Colonel Haughton to carry aid to Saragarhi or Guhstan, as he had done twice before. The enemy turned the brunt of their attack on the little post of Saragarhi.
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- Singh, Amarinder. 2017. Saragarhi and the Defence of the Samana Forts. New Delhi: Bookwise Pvt. Ltd. ISBN 978-8187330677.
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- Sidhu, Daljeet Singh, and Amarjit Virdi 2011. The Battle of Saragarhi: The Last Stand of the 36th Sikh Regiment. Gyan Khand Media. ISBN 9788190963749 (Kindle ed.).