BATTLE OF SARAGARHI
The Sikh-Pashtun rivalry dates back to 150 years, beginning with the first of the nine invasions of Ahmad Shah Abdali or Durrani that took place in 1748; thereafter, a bitter struggle ensued for the next fifty years for the control of Punjab. Thus were sown the first seeds of that bitter and implacable enmity that afterwards came to exist between the Afghans and the Sikhs. By 1800, the Sikhs had prevailed and over the next 30 years, they had pushed the Afghans to the Durand Line (2,430 km line established in 1893 to demarcate the international boundary between British India and Afganistan). The architects of the Sikh success were the two Sikh generals Hari Singh Nalwa and Akali Phula Singh. The British inherited this line and named it the Durand Line after the Anglo-Sikh Wars. Today, it forms the western boundary of Pakistan.
The Battle of Saragarhi (12 September 1897), was fought between the Sikhs, who were in the service of the British, and the Pashtuns, who were fighting for their freedom. The homeland of the Pashtuns had been divided by the Durand Line; this led to simmering discontent among the tribes. The account of the battle is recorded in the Digest of Service of 36 Sikh (now 4 Sikh) and is also described in the personal letters of Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton, who was the commanding officer of the unit, as reproduced in his biography The Life of Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton.
In August 1897, the Mulla of Hadda gave a call for ‘Jehad’ against the British and the Afridis, Orakzais and Shinwaris, the Pashtuns of the Tirah region, rose up in rebellion. While the British Indian Army was building up its force in Kohat (garrison town), the Orakzais and Afridis focused their attention on the Samana ridge.
Strength and Deployment of Troop
In January 1897, half of 36 Sikh was deployed on the Samana Ridge. There were a total of six posts in all namely: Fort Lockhart (Battalion Headquarters), Fort Gulistan, Saragarhi (connecting Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan through signal communication), Dhar, Sangar and Sartop. Rest of the battalion was deployed 80 km further west, in the area of Parachinar.
The post at Saragarhi was occupied by a detachment of one non-commissioned officer, Havildar Ishar Singh, 20 other ranks and one ‘camp follower’ (civilian employed for menial tasks), Daad, of 36 Sikh (4th Battalion, The Sikh Regiment). Thus it had an overall strength of 22. It was located on a hilltop and connected two forts (on both sides of a high mountain in the Samana range of mountains) through signal communication.
About ten thousand Afghans surrounded the posts on the Samana range including the signal post of Saragarhi (district Kohat), in North-West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan). Between 28 August and 11 September, Fort Gulistan and the outposts around Fort Lockhart were attacked a number of times without success.
On the morning of 12 September, a part of the Pashtun rebels invested the vulnerable small fort at Saragarhi. The commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Haughton expressed his inability to send relief. The post was attacked at about nine in the morning. The strength of the enemy attacking the post is estimated to be 1,000-1,500 rebels. Rest of the Pashtuns were cutting/blocking the route to Lockhart and Gulistan and also investing Gulistan and other forts. The battle began at 9 am and ended a little after 3:30 pm with the entire garrison killed in action.
Since there were no survivors, the military account is based on the visual observations made with binoculars/telescope from Fort Gulistan and Fort Lockhart, 2.8 km and 2.4 km away respectively from Saragarhi. The official accounts mention only two messages sent from Saragarhi by signaler Sepoy Gurmukh Singh through the heliograph – one at 12 noon, giving a factual report, and the other just after 3 pm, seeking permission to close the heliograph and join the battle.
The Pashtuns initially tried to rush to the post but were unsuccessful. They retreated and took cover behind the boulders and continued firing at the post. Saragarhi had a cliff facing towards the south and a narrow spur linking it to the ridge. It was not practical for more than 80-100 men to attack at one time, but adequate reserves were available for repeated attacks. As observed from the Gulistan Fort, two Pashtuns had stayed behind to dig under the fort wall to make it collapse to create a breach. Being at a dead angle, they could not be seen by the defenders at Saragarhi. Gulistan tried to warn the post, but the message never reached.
At 12 noon, the signaller reported that one sepoy had been killed, one non-commissioned officer wounded and three rifles damaged due to firing. Lt Col Haughton sent Lt George Munn with 12 soldiers to create a diversion by firing from a distance, but it had no effect. Between 12 noon and 3 pm, the Pashtuns made two more attacks with 80-100 men each, but were again repulsed with heavy losses.
At 3 pm, Lt Col Haughton with Lt Munn and 98 other ranks set out to create a diversion and ease the pressure on Saragarhi. He had barely moved a kilometre when part of Saragarhi’s wall collapsed due to the digging by the two Pashtun men who had stayed behind. The final assault was launched and the fort stormed. Just after 3 pm, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh sent his last message seeking permission to join the battle. At 3.30 pm, it was all over.
A great saga of bravery had been enacted. Since there were no survivors and there is no record or account available of any Pashtun version of the battle, little is known of what actually happened at Saragarhi. However, since it was a literal fight to the finish and a ‘last man, last round’ battle, which lasted six-and-a-half hours, there is no doubt that all that can be imagined in terms of individual and collective bravery and human emotions would have been enacted.
Most ‘last stands’ are seldom literal as there are rarely some survivors. Saragarhi was literally and metaphorically a great ‘last stand’. Each of the 21 soldiers was awarded the Indian Order of Merit (IOM), the highest decoration awarded to Indian soldiers by the British till 1911.
A 30-feet pyramidal cairn, using stones from the ruins, was constructed at Saragarhi and a more formal obelisk was built at Lockhart as memorials. Gurdwaras commemorating the event have been constructed at Saragarhi, Amritsar and Ferozepur. The battle of Saragarhi has been compared to the battle of Thermopylae, where a small Greek force faced a large Persian army of Xerxes (480 B.C.). The battle, fought during the British Raj is etched in the annals of military history and can never be erased or forgotten.
The Facts of the Battle
With the passage of time, several legends grew on the battle of Saragarhi. So potent were the legends that over the years they began to be distorted and magnified, that it became difficult for an interested observer to separate the actual battle from the myth.
However, as per official records and assessment the facts are:
- About ten thousand Afghans surrounded the posts on the Samana range. The strength of the enemy attacking the Saragarhi post is estimated to be 1,000-1,500 rebels. It was not practical for more than 80-100 men to attack at one time, but adequate reserves were available for repeated attacks.
- Pashtuns/Pathans were masters of field craft and minor tactics and never indulged in foolhardy head-on attacks on well-defended positions.
- The Saragarhi fort wall collapsed to make a breach due to the digging by two Pashtuns; being at a dead angle, they could not be seen by the defenders at Saragarhi. These diggers were being observed from the Gulistan Fort. Gulistan tried to warn Saragarhi post, but the message never reached.
- Only two messages were sent from Saragarhi by signaler Sepoy Gurmukh Singh through the heliograph – one at 12 noon, giving a factual report, and the other just after 3 pm, seeking permission to close the heliograph and join the battle.
- The battle at Saragarhi lasted for six-and-a-half hours. It began at 9 am and ended a little after 3:30 pm with the entire garrison of 22 men killed in action.
- The number of men killed at Saragarhi was 22 and not 21. The civilian, camp follower Daad’s presence is generally ignored. On the fateful day, he joined the battle. He remains the unsung hero of Saragarhi.
- Pashtun casualties on the Samana Ridge were 400 killed and 600 wounded, and of them, 180 died in the Battle of Saragarhi.
- Each of the 21 soldiers was awarded the Indian Order of Merit (IOM), the highest decoration awarded to Indian soldiers by the British till 1911. In addition to 21 IOMs for the Saragarhi braves, 36 Sikh was also awarded another 14 IOMs in the battle at Samana and for the Tirah campaign that followed.
- Writer-filmmaker Jay Singh-Sohal in his book Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle found no records for the claims – that there was a standing ovation in British House of Commons for the Battle of Saragarhi, and it is listed by UNESCO as one of the seven epic battles.
- According to the military account, soldiers of the Sikh Regiment kept their beards rolled, they did not carry kirpans (swords) into the battle and Sikh Regiment soldiers of that era wore khaki turbans.
Note: This account is largely based on Lieutenant General H S Panag’s article ‘What Akshay Kumar’s Kesri won’t tell you’ in The Print (28 March, 2019).