The Battle of Saragarhi

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—chose to fight to the death, in what is considered by some military historians as the greatest last stand in history. The post was recaptured two days later by another British Indian contingent. The Indian Army’s 4th battalion of the Sikh Regiment commemorates the battle every year on the 12th of 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 33.5562°N 70.9188°E. 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).

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). The total casualties in the entire campaign, including the Battle of Saragarhi, numbered around 4,800.

The names of those 21 sikh soldiers are:

  1. Havildar Ishar Singh
  2. Naik Lal Singh
  3. Lance Naik Chanda Singh
  4. Sepoy Sundar Singh
  5. Sepoy Ramm Singh
  6. Sepoy Uttar Singh
  7. Sepoy Sahib Singh
  8. Sepoy Hira Singh
  9. Sepoy Daya Singh
  10. Sepoy Jivan Singh
  11. Sepoy Bhola Singh
  12. Sepoy Narayan Singh
  13. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
  14. Sepoy Jivan Singh
  15. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
  16. Sepoy Ram Singh
  17. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh
  18. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh
  19. Sepoy Buta Singh
  20. Sepoy Jivan Singh
  21. Sepoy Nand Singh

In 2019, a Bollywood movie “Kesari” directed by Anurag Singh was made on the events of the Battle of Saragarhi.

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