One of my favourite anecdotes of battlefield bravery, and devotion to duty growing up was the stories of The Battle of Saragarhi which was fought during the Tirah Campaign on 12 September 1897 between twenty-one Sikhs of the 36th Sikh Regiment, defending Fort Lockhart, and 10,000 Afghan and Orakzai tribesmen.
In the battle, all 21 Sikh soldiers chose to fight to the death instead of surrendering thus proving their loyalty and devotion to their sovereign, the Queen Empress of India, and gloriously maintaining the reputation of the Sikhs for unflinching courage on the field of battle. When the gallantry of Saragarhi was recounted to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the recitation drew a standing ovation from the members. All the 21 Sikhs received the Indian Order of Merit (IOM) posthumously, and their next of kin, received 50 acres and 500 rupees for their unbelievably gallant selfless act. This gallant battle is still celebrated by one of the most peculiarly Anglo-Indian past times, a Polo match.
These brave men were:
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
Details of the Battle of Saragarhi are considered fairly accurate, due to Gurmukh Singh signalling events to Fort Lockhart as they occurred, in itself an amazing act of courage.
- Around 9:00am, around 10,000 Afghans reach the signaling post at Saragarhi.
- Sardar Gurmukh Singh signals to Col. Haughton, situated in Fort Lockhart, that they are under attack.
- Colonel Haughton states he cannot send immediate help to Saragarhi.
- The soldiers decide to fight to the last to prevent the enemy from reaching the forts.
- Bhagwan Singh becomes the first injured and Lal Singh is seriously wounded.
- Soldiers Lal Singh and Jiwa Singh reportedly carry the dead body of Bhagwan Singh back to the inner layer of the post.
- The enemy breaks a portion of the wall of the picket.
- Colonel Haughton signals that he has estimated between 10,000 and 14,000 Pashtuns attacking Saragarhi.
- The leaders of the Afghan forces reportedly make promises to the soldiers to entice them to surrender.
- Reportedly two determined attempts are made to rush open the gate, but are unsuccessful.
- Later, the wall is breached.
- Thereafter, some of the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting occurs.
- In an act of outstanding bravery, Ishar Singh orders his men to fall back 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 of the Pashtuns.
- Gurmukh Singh, who communicated the battle with Col. Haughton, was the last Sikh defender. He is stated to have killed 20 Afghans, the Pashtuns having to set fire to the post to kill him. As he was dying he was said to have yelled repeatedly the Sikh battle-cry “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal” (Victory belongs to those who recite the name of God with a true heart).
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 conquered. The Pashtuns later admitted that they had lost about 180 killed and many more wounded during the engagement against the 21 Sikh soldiers, but 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 many casualties). The total casualties in the entire campaign, including the Battle of Saragarhi, numbered at around 4,800. [Not as is erroneously credited in many cases, the death toll just for Saragarhi, although 600+ enemy casualties for 21 men is astounding].