BATTLE OF SARAGARHI
(An unparalleled act of Bravery)
September 12,1997 is the 100th anniversary of the Battle
of Saragarhi- one of the "ten most famous battles " of the
world. On this day, exactly 100 years ago, a handful of Sikh soldiers-
21 to be exact - of the 4th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment (then XXXVI
Sikh) formed part of the British Indian Army and fought thousands
of Pathans in the North Western Frontier Province (now Pakistan).
All 21 Sikh soldiers died in the battle as they fought to the last
man and last bullet; but they did not yield even an inch of ground
that they were defending.
This epic battle is worth recounting as a singular example
of unmatched courage, absolute devotion to duty, unflinching loyalty
and giving supreme sacrifice of life for a cause.
In the later half of 19thcentury,boundaries of the British
Indian Empire extended right up to the borders of Afghanistan, through
the rugged and hostile terrain of Baluchistan and the North West Frontier
Province inhabited by fierce Pathan and Afridi tribal warriors who
refused to acknowledge the British supremacy and often attacked and
raided anything British.
In order to protect these long lines of communications
passing through the Kurram valley, the Samana range had been occupied
by the British troops for almost five years. When the Afridis and
Orakzai clans rose against the Government of India in 1897, the 4th
Battalion of the Sikh regiment (XXXVI SIKH) was holding the forts
and the fortified piquets on the Samana ridge which has the Khanki
Valley on the North and the Miranzai Valley on the South.
The main position occupied by the 4 SIKH on the crest
of the Samana Ridge were the two fortified posts known as Fort Lockart
( Mastan ) at Saragarhi ( approximately 3 km from each of the main
posts) , Dhar, Sartap, Crag and Sangar. These had been built to accommodate
a garrison of 25 to 50 men in each.
The nearest garrison from where reinforcements could
come in case of outbreak of hostilities was at Kohat, a good 60 km
away. Saragarhi was considered the most important of these minor forts,
because through it signaling communications was maintained between
Forts Lockhart and Gulistan along the Samana ridge.
Between 27 August and 8 September 1897, a large force
of Orakzai tribe attacked Fort Gulistan held by 4 SIKH. Fort Gulistan
was strongly held and offered a stubborn resistance and by 10 September,
the Orakzais were driven back into the Khanki Valley. But, soon after,
the Afridi Lashkar, 10,000 strong, along with Orakzais attacked the
posts on Samana ridge. Four attacks were repulsed by the defenders
with heavy casualties inflicted on the hostile tribesmen.
Utterly humiliated and frustrated by the reverses against
Forts Gulistan and Lockhart, the tribesmen decided to change their
objective of attack. The combined might of Orakzais and Afridis was
thus hurled against Sarangarhi in early hours of 12 September 1897.
Almost 20,000 tribesmen surrounded the post and cut it from other
localities. No reinforcements and replenishment of ammunition could
reach the detachment, which was under siege by the ever-swelling hordes
The first onslaught of tribesmen yelling and firing
came early on the morning of 12 September only to be repulsed by the
small band of brave Sikhs. This was followed by a pitched battle of
six long hours. At last, there was a lull in the gruesome battle.
But it lasted only a short while. It gave the defenders time to reorganise
and replenish ammunition from their depleted reserves. The attackers
managed to create a smoke screen on one flank of the post by burning
dry bushes. Covered from observation and fire of the defenders, two
of the enemy managed to get close to the perimeter wall of the post
and start hammering a breach through the stone wall.
Through the breach in stone wall, the tribesmen, swarmed
into the fort. Saragarhi defenders fought with fixed bayonets and
rapid fire against the multitudes that poured through the breach and
Signaler Gurmukh Singh continued to give a graphic picture of the
battle to the Commanding Officer using his holiograph. But the ferocity
of close quarter battle took its toll.
At about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, there were only
two survivors - a wounded soldier in the guard room and the Signaler.
The Signaler put away his apparatus and took up his rifle. His last
message to the Commanding Officer at Lockurt was " I will be
engaging the enemy now onwards with my rifle and will not be relaying
any more messages". He killed a dozen tribesmen before he fell
himself. The wounded soldier in the guard room who was solely in command
of the post now secured the guard room from inside and used his rifle
till he was burnt to death. His foes later admitted that he accounted
for 21 of them before his end came.
The captors, after succeeded in overpowering the post,
were so shaken by the sight of the brave soldiers' now lifeless bodies
on the ramparts of the Saragarhi Fort that in order to obliterate
the scene of their moral defeat, they set the place on fire.
On learning of this glorious, gallant and unparalleled
action, members of both houses of the British Parliament rose in unison
to pay homage to the great Indian soldiers. Each one of the 21 soldiers
was posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest British
gallantry award then given to Indian (equivalent to the Victoria Cross
awarded to the British).
The story of this epic battle is taught to school children
in France and is one of the eight stories of collective bravery published
by UNESCO. No military history book, when portraying, the bravery
and sense of sacrifice of the Indian soldier is complete without special
reference to the defenders and the martyrs of Saragarhi.