The Battle of Saragarhi (1897)

The Battle of Saragarhi, ranked among the top eight battles in world history, recounts the heroic last stand of 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikhs against 10,000–12,000 Afghans in 1897. Led by Havildar Ishar Singh, the Sikhs chose to fight to the death, drawing comparisons to the Spartans’ legendary last stand at Thermopylae. The strategic importance of Saragarhi, a communication relay post between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan, lay in maintaining heliographic signal communications.

Amid tensions between Britain and Russia over Central Asian territories, the British held vulnerable posts on the colonial border, including Saragarhi. On September 12, 1897, Afghani tribesmen surrounded Saragarhi, aiming to cut communication between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan. The 21 Sikh defenders, isolated and outnumbered, fought valiantly for seven hours against overwhelming odds. Despite two determined attempts to breach the gate, Havildar Ishar Singh and his men resisted until the end.

The British awarded the Saragarhi braves with the highest Gallantry award, and two Gurudwaras were built in their honor. The Battle of Saragarhi remains an iconic event in Eastern military civilization, British military history, and Sikh history, with the modern Sikh regiment commemorating it annually on September 12. The bravery of the 21 Sikhs is immortalized in historical records, biographies, and literary works, ensuring their enduring legacy.

The Battle of Saragarhi (1897) – The “last-stand”

Ranked among the top eight battles of world history, the Battle of Saragarhi is the incredible story of a valiant last stand by 21 Sikh soldiers of 36th Sikhs (now the 4th battalion of the Sikh Regiment) who were attacked by 10,000–12,000 Afghans and left to defend for themselves. Led by Havildar Ishar Singh, the Sikhs chose to fight to death, in what is touted by some military historians as one of history’s greatest battles, and has been compared to the Spartans’ heroic last stand at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC between Ancient Greek city-states led by King Leonidas I of Sparta, and the Achaemenid Empire of Xerxes I. However, one major difference between the two events is the number of actual defenders: 21 fought valiantly at Saragarhi, while the Spartans were accompanied by many more.

Instead of surrendering, these brave Sikhs led by Havildar Ishar Singh chose to embrace death while fighting to defend their post. The post was recaptured after two days by another British Indian contingent.

Historical context and background:

In the late 19th century, tensions heightened between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan and other Central Asian territories. British forces held vulnerable posts on the colonial border between British India and Afghanistan, threatened by both the Russians and the Afghans. There were efforts to avoid war. In 1885 a compromise was reached, and a boundary commission was set up in British India. This was agreed with the Emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rehman Khan. In 1893, the Durand line was created to mark the border between British India and Afghanistan. The line divided the Pashtun heartland. This led to discontent among the tribes whose land was divided.

Why was Saragarhi important?

The British manned a series of posts, originally constructed by the great Sikh Emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh during his western campaign, along the Hindu Kush ranges. The British later took these over. Saragarhi was a communication relay post between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan (also known as Fort Cavagnari) in the Sulaiman Range of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). It was vital to ensuring the survival of these two forts and the defense of the region.

The frontier between colonial India and Afghanistan during the late 19th century was fraught with danger and unrest. Saragarhi was a small village in the border district of Kohat (now in Pakistan). Tribal Pashtuns continued to attack British personnel from time to time, and so to control this volatile area, a series of forts, originally built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, were consolidated.

Two of the forts were Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan, which were situated a few miles apart. Since the forts were not visible to each other, the Saragarhi post was created midway. Saragarhi was of strategic importance because, through it, heliographic signal communications could be maintained between the two main forts. Five companies of the 36th Sikhs under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton were sent to the northwest frontier of British India, and they were spread along the posts and forts at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar and Saragarhi.

On September 12, 1897, the Afghani tribesmen surrounded Saragarhi with the aim of cutting communication and troop movements between the forts of Lockhart and Gulistan. They knew that as the British forces were spread out, it would not be possible for Haughton to send timely aid.

Timeline: The day of battle – 21 Sikh soldiers fought for 7 hours against 10,000+ tribesmen.

  • On 12th September 1897, Orakzai and Afridi tribesmen gathered around Saragarhi and cut off Fort Gulistan from Fort Lockhart.
  • Around 9:00 am approximately 6000–12,000 Afghans reached the signaling post.
  • They demanded the surrender of the 21 soldiers of the 36 Sikh Regiment guarding the post.
  • Havaldar Ishar Singh refused to give up on this demand and decided to fight till their last breath.
  • Sepoy Gurmukh Singh signals to Colonel Haughton, they are under attack.
  • Haughton stated that he can’t send immediate help to Saragarhi.
  • The soldiers decide to fight to the end to prevent the enemy from reaching the fort.
  • Two determined attempts are made to rush open the gate but are unsuccessful.
  • Later, the wall is breached. In an act of outstanding bravery, Havaldar Ishar Singh orders his men to retreat into the inner layer, whilst he remains to fight. However, this is breached and all but one of the defending soldiers are killed along with many Pashtuns.
  • Sepoy Gurmukh Singh who communicated the battle to Haughton was the last surviving Sikh defender.
  • Just after 3:00 pm, he sent his last message seeking permission to join the battle, at 3:30 pm it was all over. He was the final Sikh to lay down his life.

 

News reports from 1897 on the battle:

In memory and in honor of the brave 21 Sikhs:

The British awarded the Saragarhi braves with the highest Gallantry award (Order of Merit). To commemorate the Sikh soldiers, the British government built two Saragarhi Gurudwaras. One was built in Amritsar and another in Firozpur. A 30 feet high pyramidal cairn using stones were constructed at Saragarhi and a formal obelisk was built at Lockhart as memorials.

The battle has become iconic of eastern military civilization, the British empire’s military history, and most importantly Sikh history. The modern Sikh regiment of the Indian army continues to commemorate the Battle of Saragarhi on 12th September each year as the regiment battle honor’s day.

The account of the battle is recorded in the Digest of Service of 36th Sikh (now 4th Sikh) Battalion. The battle is also described in the personal letters of Lt. Col. John Haughton, then commanding officer of the unit, in his biography “The Life of Lt. Col. John Haughton”. The battle has also been immortalized by Captain Jay Singh Sohal in his book Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle (2013). The brave 21 Sikhs will forever be remembered in the history pages as never surrendering and fighting till their last breath.