Those who were fascinated with the movie ‘300’ would be even more impressed by what a group of 21 young Sikh men did in the Battle of Saragarhi.
The Battle of Saragarhi is considered to be one of the greatest last stands in history. 21 soldiers of the 36 Sikh Regiment fought an army of over 10,000 Afghans and killed more than 600 of them before perishing to enemy bullets. The battle took place 12th September 1897 in Tirah region of North-West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan. Saragarhi was a post that connected British India forts of Lockhart and Gulistan on the border areas of Afghanistan.
The post was prone to attacks as Afghans were always hostile on Indian borders. But when the Afghans attacked, they marched down with 10,000 soldiers. Unbelievably, the Sikh soldiers who were guarding the post chose to face them instead of retreating! The detachment at Saragarhi had 1 NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) and 20 ORs (Other Ranks) and commander Havildar Ishar Singh was the leader of this unit.
The Sikh knew that the mud walls of the post wouldn’t stand for long and soon they will be exposed to the brutal might of Afghans. By the time the mud walls fell, the 21 brave hearts had repulsed two attacks from the Afghans.
They faced odds of 1:476
The odds were striking. It would have taken more than just courage to face such a challenge where death was certain. Even in Thermopylae, the Greeks had an outside chance because they were fighting in hilly terrain. But at Saragarhi, it was face off in the open. The ratio of Sikh-Afghan soldiers was 1:476 and even Alexander the Great would have had second thoughts about this challenge. But the Sikhs thought only once and that was enough.
How the battle unfolded
The morning of 12 September 1897 brought with it an army of 10,000 Afghans. Around 9 am, Sardar Gurmukh Singh signalled to Col. Haughton in Fort Lockhart, that they were under attack. But the Colonel pleaded helplessness in sending reinforcement at such a short notice.
The soldiers decided to fight. Surrender would have probably saved their lives, but it would have made the fall of Fort Lockhart certain. Soon the battle began and Sepoy Bhagwan Singh became the first casualty followed by a brutal assault on Sepoy Lal Singh. The injured Lal Singh and Jiwa Singh dragged the dead Bhagwan Singh back to inner layers of the post.
Far from the post, Col. Haughton could see the Afghans attacking Saragarhi. He knew that it was a matter of time before the Afghans would rout the post and kill all soldiers. Afghans too were aware of a certain victory and tried to entice the Indians to surrender.
But the Indians kept firing at Afghans. The Sikh successfully repulsed two Afghans attacks to rush open the gates of the post. As a result, Afghans broke the wall and got in.
Soon the battle, which was being fought with guns, turned into hand to hand combat. Ishar Singh, ordered his soldier to remain in the inner lines and decided to take on the Afghans himself. The battle was intense as the menacing Afghans were too strong in numbers. At last Gurmukh Singh, the soldier who communicated and narrated the battle to Col. Haughton said that since their number where shrinking quickly, he will have have to leave the communication set and play his role of a soldier. He went out to fight in the battle along with his fellow soldiers.
Col. Haughton could only hear the Sikhs shouting their battle cry, “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal”. But slowly the sounds died along with the 21 bravehearts who kept 10,000 Afghans a bay for almost three hours. As a result Col. Haughton got time to get reinforcements and Fort Lockhart was defended.
The entire unit was awarded
Post the battle, Col. Haughton narrated the heart wrenching story of the battle to the top brass of British Indian Army. As a result all 21 soldiers were awarded the prestigious Indian Order of Merit Class III award. It was also for the first time in history, that each and every member of unit won the gallantry awards for a single battle.
Even today, 12th September is celebrated as the Saragarhi Day in honour of the sacrifices made by those 21 brave soldiers and it’s observed as the Sikh military commemoration day. Three gurdwaras – Saragarhi, Ferozpur and Amritsar have been made to commemorate their sacrifice.