A Saga Untold

THE GALLANT 21:
SAGA OF THE SIKH SOLDIERS AT SARAGARHI

12th of SEPTEMBER, 1897

BY

JEYAGANESH GOPALSAMY (jeya8522@gmail. com)
LLB (HONS) WALES, MA (STRATEGY) UKM

Motto of the Sikh Regiment: NISCHEY KAR APNI JEET KARON (I Fight For Sure To Win)

Regimental Battle Cry: JO BOLE SO NIHAL SAT SRI AKAL (He who cries God is Truth, is ever victorious).

INTRODUCTION

Throughout the travails of time, men have been inspired by countless tales of bravery, intrepidity and chivalry. None evokes such raw rush of emotions as the story of men defending their post against daunting odds both in terms of numbers of the enemy and the certainty of paying the ultimate price.

The annals of military history, witnesses famous battles fought on epic scale by a small group of fearless men, punctuates its chapters from the Battle of Thermopylae 480 BC when Sparta under King Leonidas put up a stubborn resistance against the onslaught of the Persians on the narrow isthmus, to Battle of Thakur Ghar in 2002, when US Special Operation Forces were cut off and surrounded yet fought a pitched battle with Taliban fighters occupying higher ground.

The Thermopylae legend has it that 300 Spartans faced almost 60,000 Persians. 20,000 Macedonians under Alexander faced 100,000 Persians in Battle of Guagmela. 70 French Foreign Legionnaires under Captain Jean Danjou made their last stand in The Battle of Cameroon against 2,000 marauding Mexicans. Battle of Alamo, Bastogne, Pasir Panjang, Chosin Reservoir, Tra Binh Dong and countless others have one thing in common; all tell the tales of collective bravery and devotion to duty against an otherwise, hopeless situation.

In terms of ratio on the odds faced in such a dire situation, none came closer than those faced by 21 formidable soldiers of the 36th Sikh of West Bengal Infantry (present day 4th Sikh Regiment of The Indian Army) on a hot summer morning in Saragarhi, North Western Frontier Province (NWFP – present day Pakistan) on 12th of September, 1897.

These 21 Sikh soldiers were up against ferocious Afridis and Orakzai tribes of the Pashtun, numbering close to 10,000. The staggering ratio of 1: 416 stacked against the Sikh’s were both unmatched and unprecedented making their ‘last stand’ at Saragarhi, as the greatest odds faced by any troops in the history of warfare. The odds faced by the Sikhs of 1 against 416 Pathans will make the Battle Of Thermopylae made famous by the Hollywood flick “300” a child’s play.

Saragarhi is a communication relay post between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan in the Sulaiman Range of NWFP. Since Lockhart and Gulitsan are not in visual line of sight due to geographical attributes, a midway heliograph communication post was built, Saragarhi. Heliography is communication technique by capturing the sunlight with mirror and transmitting it via coded messages. Therefore Saragarhi post was vital in ensuring the survival of these two Forts in specific and the defense of the region, in general.

PROLOGUE

The last decades of 19th century was indeed a trying time for the British Empire in India, the crown jewel of its empire. The Russians were trying to make inroads into the continent via Afghanistan and the British made several incursions into Afghanistan to stop this adventurism by the tribes allied to Russia. In order to contain and keep the tribes in check the British manned a series of posts along the Hindu Kush ranges.

These posts were constructed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh during his Western campaign and after the decline of Sikh empire, these were taken over by the British for the same purpose. Constant raids and skirmishes by these violent and bloodthirsty tribesmen were a regular occurrence and British Indian Army was in constant vigil.

Atrocities against captured soldiers by the Pashtun or Afghani tribesmen were rampant. Castration, mutilation and skinning captured soldiers alive was one of the many ways tribal leaders instilled fear and control. The Pasthun were fierce warriors just like the Sikhs and Gurkhas of the British Indian Army but lacked the chivalry aspect of the warrior ethos.

The type of war the British soldiers and Indian sepoys fought in Afghan and NWFP was aptly written by Rurdyard Kipling in his poem “The Young British Soldier”.

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’ s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

The relationship between the Sikh soldiers and the British Army started out of mutual admiration for each others’ courage and tenacity in battle during the First Anglo – Sikh War (1839-45) and Second Anglo-Sikh War (1845-49). The inception of Sikh soldiers, their former nemesis into the British Indian Army was a testament to that admiration.

Soldering in Sikhism has a strong religious underpinning to it, akin to the Samurai warrior’s Code of Bushido. Sikhism emphasizes in defending the faith, protecting the weak, devotion to duty without fear or favor. These are main hallmarks of the Sikh religion and devotees, especially during the early days of Sikhism held true to these tenets. It is no wonder the Herculean task which fell on these 21 Sikh on that faithful day, would test their soldering skills, bravery, devotion, endurance and above all faith to its limit.

THE BATTLE

Prior to the 12th of September numerous attempts were made by the Pathans to overrun the post but failed due to calculated defensive actions by the Sikhs under the able leadership of Havildar Ishar Singh, the detachment commander at Saragarhi. Unbeknownst to him the Pathans were planning for a major offensive to decimate this vital post and the d-day was set for 12rd of September 1897, H-Hour at 0900 hrs. The Pathan strategy called for the time proven hammer and anvil maneuver, which is to block the reinforcement from Fort Lockhart (anvil) and strike Saragarhi with impunity (hammer). The chess pieces were in place and it was time for the Pathans to make the first move.

Havildar Ishar Singh peered through the binocular from the watch tower of his post, what he saw numbed him, briefly. Through the magnified view he could see columns upon columns and row upon rows of Pathans waving their swords and guns menacingly at the Sikhs. The dust kicked up by the thousands of horses temporarily blocked the sun rising over the horizon, the Pathan forces assembled before the Sikhs were colossal and raring to go.

Sepoy Gurmukh Singh the detachment signaler went up an elevated mound to set up his heliograph and began signaling to Fort Lockhart about their predicament ‘ENEMY APPROACHING THE MAIN GATE..NEED REINFORCEMENT’ . Lt Col Haughton, Commanding Officer of 36th Sikh Battalion rushed his troops to augment the outnumbered Sikhs but to no avail. The Pathans have systematically cut-off the supply route between Fort Lockhart and Saragarhi, a tactic to slowly strangle the Sikhs into submission.

Fort Lockhart transmitted ‘UNABLE TO BREAKTHRU..HOLD POSITION’. Saragarhi flashed back ‘UNDERSTOOD’ . With that message Lt Col Haughton have sealed the fate of the Sikhs at Saragarhi to certain death, as he watched from Fort Lockhart, Haugthon counted at least 10 enemy standards (each representing 1,000 tribesmen) facing the 21 Sikh soldiers. Sepoy Gurmukh passed on this message to Havildar Ishar Singh as he comprehended the grim situation facing him and his men, the Pathans attacked. Like wild hordes on the loose the Pathans howling at top of their voices rode with guns blazing onto the Sikh in order to breach the main gate of the post. One of the sepoy sounded the bugle as per Havildar Ishar Singh’s command (signals during battle in 18th & 19th centuries are through bugle) and in a flash they formed up two line abreast one row in a squatting firing position and the other standing as per the bugle’s tone.

The Martini Henry breech loading rifle, standard British Infantry rifle was put through its paces. Martini Henry rifles first entered service with the British Army in 1871 and quickly became the mainstay. Colonial units such as the Sikhs and Gurkhas only received them after all the British units were equipped. It has only been a few months since these frontier regiments were equipped with these rifles, replacing the venerable Enfield. Capable of firing 10 .303 calibre rounds a minute, it proved to be more than a match to the antiquated muzzle loading rifles possessed by the tribesmen. Havildar Ishar Singh piercing eyes stared at the group of tribal leaders ordering him to lay down his arms and surrender. A devout Sikh and fatherly figure to his unit, the troops under his command knew full well the ability of this North Western Frontier veteran. Havildar understood this terrain very well, its unpredictable climate and above all the character and fighting ability of the blood thirsty Pathan warriors. As a Sikh the underpinning fundamental of the religion forbade cowardice and by laying down his arm he would desecrate this holy tenet. The Sikhs are one of the marshal races recognized by the British for their fighting prowess and on the 12th of September, this notion would be challenged once again.

The effective range of Henry Martini rifle is around 600 yards (550m), Havildar held his order to fire until the enemy closed in within 250m from his post. Once the Pathan’s breached this marker he yelled ‘NA DARON ARI SON JAB JAI LAROOON’ in chorus with the soldiers ‘NISCHEY KAR APNI JEEET KAROOOOON’.. ‘FIRE! RELOAD!..FIRE AT WILL’. The .303 calibre was deadly and affective at this range, coupled with the grouping shots formed by the line abreast formations the first line of Pathan advance was completely decimated.

However there was no time to reflect upon their success, with manual breech loading, the rifle had to be cocked every time to shoot. This was time consuming. Further the Pathans who fell in the first wave were only part of the advance party that was sent to recon the Sikhs strength. From atop of the post Havildar Ishar Singh saw again thousands of blood thirsty Pathans in rows upon rows, waiting to charge against their beleaguered position. Now the Pathans knew the actual strength of the Sikhs and planned for a massive assault on all flanks, a multi pronged attack designed to divide the outnumbered Sikhs into much smaller groups thereby ensuring weaker defensive formations.

The attack this time was with such fury that the earth around the fort shook as the Pathan horsemen thundered across the barren land to slice the Sikhs into pieces. Havildar Ishar Singh unnerved by this onslaught gave battle orders again ‘SQUATTING SOLDIERS TO THE RIGHT! STANDING SOLDIERS TO THE LEFT! QUICKLY! QUICKLY!’..with such clarity amid the chaos of battle. The highly disciplined soldiers followed the orders like clock work. The tribesmen attacked in two formations, one towards the main gate and the other towards the gap at the fort.

Havildar Ishar Singh calculated at least 150 tribesmen rode in this wave, he could see only the white of their eyes as the tribesmen approached closer, masking their face, undeterred he yelled their regiment battle cry together with his troops.. “JO BOLE SO NIHAL, SAT SRI AKAL!” ..as the tribesmen were within range ‘FIRE!’.. the sounds of .303 exiting the barrels was deafening.

The tribesmen’s attack was repulsed once again by the Sikhs due to superior marksmanship and motivation. Some tribesmen lay dead just yards away from the Sikh’s position denoting fighting at close quarters. The soldiers rank and ammunitions also started to dwindle at this juncture.

Out of the full strength of 21 soldiers at the start of the hostilities around 0900 hrs, by 1200 noon they were down to 10, with the ever inspiring Havildar Ishar Singh still leading the men, despite being gravely injured by bullets and saber slashes. By this time the Sikhs have repulsed nothing more than 7 fanatical charges by the tribesmen.

As the battle raged on without any respite the ammunition gradually depleted and by 1400hrs 12 of September, 1897 Sepoy Gurumukh Singh signaled Fort Lockhart the Battalion HQ: “LOW ON AMMO! NEED AMMO URGENTLY”, the heliograph has done its part in conveying the message. Lt Col Haughton sent his personal orderly to pass the ammunitions to the trapped Sikhs, again to no avail.

As the Pathan attacked again, with less than 10 able bodied men, the Sikhs put up a stiff resistance and managed to repel this brutal attack yet once again; but only briefly. The tribesmen now resorted to ungentlemanly conduct of war, whereby they lit fire to the bushes and scrubs around Fort Saragarhi in a desperate attempt to subdue the Sikhs. Clouds of smoke blanketed the fort, making it impossible for the Sikhs to see the enemy.

Taking this opportunity and knowing full well that frontal attack against the Sikhs was suicidal the tribesmen used the smoke to mask their approach to the breach at the wall. Officers and soldiers at the Battalion HQ in Fort Lockhart could clearly see the approach of the tribesmen due to their elevated position above Saragarhi, Lt Col Haugton frantically signaled Saragarhi. “ENEMY APPROCHING THE BREACH”.

Havildar Ishar Singh due to injuries sustained dragged himself towards the breach with two other sepoys to the stop the tribesmen from entering the fort. Out of ammunition all three of them fixed bayonet and charged against the tribesmen. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers facing them all three fell were they stood, Havildar Ishar Singh providing leadership until the end. At the same time tribesmen entered the main gate due to the thinning of the defensive lines as a result of mounting casualties.

The main gate had been breached however hand to hand fighting still took place inside the fort, in full view from Fort Lockhart. Lt Col Haugton clenched his fist in frustration as there was nothing he could do to help the Sikhs. Only less than 4 Sikhs were alive by the time tribesmen breached the fort with additional Sepoy Gurumukh Singh in the nearby mound providing up to date situation report via heliograph.

Out of ammunition, they did not lay down their weapons; instead formed an all round defensive position with all their backs against each other with their bayonet pointing out.

The onslaught of tribesmen with bloodthirsty fury reached its feverish peak, a force of nearly hundred converged on the fort and hacked the valiant Sikhs into pieces, but not before the Sikhs took a few heads with them. From Lockhart soldiers were in utter disbelief of the raw courage displayed down below at Saragarhi and the stiff resistance put up by the remaining Sikhs gasped in awe of the action unfolding.

At 1530 hrs Sep Sepoy Gurumukh Singh transmitted “MAIN GATE BREACHED!..DOWN TO ONE! ..REQUEST PERMISSION TO DISMOUNT AND JOIN THE FIGHT”. Orders came back, “PERMISSION GRANTED”. Sepoy Gurumukh Singh disassembled his heliograph device, picked up his rifle and went into the fort to join the fight. With exceptional presents of mind, courage and incredible tenacity Sepoy Gurumukh joined in the fray.

Soldiers at Fort Lockhart see him disappear at the thick of battle into the tribesmen line, they could only hear him shouting on top of his voice, “JO BOLE SO NIHAL! SAT SRI AKAL”… “JO BOLE SO NIHAL SAT SRI AKAL”, the third battle cry even more weaker whilst choking on his blood as he stood there bayoneting, legend has it that he took down single handedly 20 tribesmen before succumbing to the repeated slashes of the tribesmen sword and the fire that was engulfing the post.

Sepoy Gurumukh Singh, the youngest of the group not more than 19 year old and the last to fall, lay down with blood oozing from his wound as crimson as the sun setting over the horizon. Twitching to an end as his last breath left the battlefield, Sepoy Gurumukh Singh could hear in the deep recesses of his mind the melodic hymn of “DUKH BHANJAN TERA NAAM” his mother recites every evening in their home. Satisfied in the knowledge that they have done their duty for his country, his empress Queen Victoria and above all held true to the holy tenets laid down by the Gurus.

EPILOGUE

LT Col Haughton signaled his HQ in Punjab about the battle that had transpired. Within a few hours, tales of their bravery were making news across India. The Governor General of India Earl of Eglin wrote a personal telegraph to the Queen Victoria on the bravery of the Sikhs soldiers defending the post till their death.

The news reached the House Of Common, as the tales of sacrifice of the 21 Sikh soldiers were narrated; tears flowed freely in the August house, at the end the Chief Whip speech, the entire parliament gave a rousing standing ovation to the Gallant 21, as their name were called out aloud in a symbolic roll call.

The collective courage of the 21 Sikh soldiers moved Queen Victoria so much that her majesty decreed that due to conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity beyond and above the call of duty displayed by the 21 soldiers, all of them shall be awarded the Indian Order Merit (IOM) posthumously. IOM is the highest award for bravery given to colonial troops and it was equivalent to the British Victoria Cross. This was the only time in history of warfare where each soldier who took part in the same battle was given the highest award. Additionally, Her Majesty decreed that the net of kin of these brave soldiers would be given a stipend of 500 rupees and 50 acres of land.

Finally a memorial cenotaph was to be erected near the place where all these 21 soldiers fell, as a perpetual record to the heroic action of these gallant soldiers who died at their posts in the defense of Fort Saragarhi, on the 12 September 1897. Without the stiff resistance of the 21 Sikh soldiers at Saragarhi both Fort Lockhart and Gulistan would have fallen to the enemy. By defending their position long enough for the relief column to arrive with artillery support, the 21 Sikh soldiers became the crucial factor in turning the tides of battle in favour of the British.

The 21 Sikh soldiers fought on continuously for 7 punishing hours without food and water, completely surrounded and pounded from all flanks. Unwearied by constant charges and mortal danger they stood their ground against daunting odds, they repealed wave after wave of attack and fought till their last bullets. Out of ammunition they did not abandon their post and instead chose to engage in a fatal hand to hand combat, till all made the ultimate sacrifice.

When the relief column arrived a day later, they saw the burnt out bodies of all the 21 Sikh soldiers, together with at least 600 dead bodies of the tribesmen strewn only yards in front of their position. The Sikhs faced 10,000 and vanquished but not before taking 600 tribesmen with them.

A REFLECTION

12th of September officially became the regimental day of the Sikh Regiment, Gurdwara Saragarhi was built in Firozpur as a remembrance to the 21 brave souls. Their name forever etched within the marbles of the Gurdwara, close to the gurus that they were true till the end.

It is unfortunate that most Sikhs, almost 90 percent of them do not know the significance of the Battle of Saragarhi. In France school children are studying Saragarhi as curriculum for devotion to duty and sacrifices. UNESCO has listed the Battle of Saragarhi as one of the 6 tales of collective bravery.

By conducting extensive research on this battle I am able to understand the gargantuan task that befell these soldiers, the grit, determination and indomitable fighting spirit of the gallant 21 during the battle. It is my sincere hope that on 12th of September, Gurdwaras throughout the country would perform prayers to commemorate these brave souls.

Battle of Saragarhi would be forever remembered not for the battle itself, but for the 21 soldiers who against unmatched odds in military history, of 21 against 10,000 an unforgiving odd of 1:416. They, at the call of duty, rose to the occasion, met their challenge and triumphed even in defeat by paying the ultimate price.

Their action on the 12th of September would be a tough act to follow and they set a very high standard for gallantry. The 21 soldiers gloriously maintained the reputation of the Sikhs for unflinching courage on the field of battle till their last breath, keeping up with the finest tradition of the Sikh Regiment

ROLL CALL (A SALUTE TO THE BRAVE)

• 165 Havildar Ishar Singh
• 332 Naik Lal Singh
• 834 Sepoy Narayan Singh
• 546 Lance Naik Chanda Singh
• 814 Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
• 1321 Sepoy Sundar Singh
• 871 Sepoy Jivan Singh
• 287 Sepoy Ram Singh
• 1733 Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
• 492 Sepoy Uttar Singh
• 163 Sepoy Ram Singh
• 182 Sepoy Sahib Singh
• 1257 Sepoy Bhagwan Singh
• 359 Sepoy Hira Singh
• 1265 Sepoy Bhagwan Singh
• 687 Sepoy Daya Singh
• 1556 Sepoy Buta Singh
• 760 Sepoy Jivan Singh
• 1651 Sepoy Jivan Singh
• 791 Sepoy Bhola Singh
• 1221 Sepoy Nand Singh

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