Sep 12 .. Mark it in YOUr Calender

You would say, So, what’s special about Sep 12? Why should I remember it at all? This is one day in the history of the world that the maximum number of gallantry awards was conferred for a single day’s battle – 21!!! Each and every soldier felicitated with the Indian Order of Merit (equivalent to the Param Vir Chakra of today). The entire British Parliament gets up and in unison recognize the Valour of these brave SIKH soldiers.

UNESCO recognizes eight great battles, of which two of them are the greatest last stand battles. The Battle of Thermopylae captured on celluloid by Gerard Butler as King Leonidas in the movie ‘300’. And the Battle of Saragarhi. 21 Sikh soldiers and 10,000 tribesmen assaulting them. Such skewed odds stacked against the 21 soldiers and what do they decide to do – stand up and fight!!!! Each one of them.

The year 1897.

Battle of Saragarhi1 (9)

The Forts on Samana Range

Saragarhi, is a small village in the border district of Kohat, in the Samana range in present day Pakistan. After the seize of Malakand, the British had partially succeeded to control the volatile area. However the tribal Pashtuns attacked the British from time to time. During the Tirah campaign of 1897-1898, it was planned to occupy a series of forts, originally built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh empire, to control and dominate the area.

Fort Lockhart on Samana range, Fort Gulistan on the Sulaiman range and as a heliographic communication post, Fort Saragarhi, was created midway. It was situated on a rocky edge, with a small block house, loopholes on the ramparts and a signalling tower. On Apr 20, 1897, 36 SIKH was raised under Col J Cook. In Aug 1897 under Lt Col John Houghton five companies were dispatched to occupy these forts. A general uprising began in 1897 and between Aug 27 and Sep 11, vigorous efforts by the Pashtuns to capture these forts, which were thwarted. On 03 & 09 Sep, the Afridi tribes attacked Fort Gulistan. A relief column from Fort Lockhart, on its return trip reinforced the signal detachment at Saragarhi. The total strength at Saragarhi along with this relief column rose to 1 NCO and 20 OR.

Battle of Saragarhi Hav Isher Singh

Hav Ishar Singh, The Commander

Sep12, 1897, a 10,000 strong Pashtun, Afridi and Orakzai tribes attacked the signalling post to cut off communication between the forts. The details of the Battle are considered accurate as Sep Gurmukh Singh signalled the events to Fort Lockhart. Lt Col John Houghton, watched from Fort Lockhart, with his own eyes, and counted at least 10 enemy standards (each representing 1,000 tribesmen) facing Saragarhi.

What happened thereafter is what makes it a folklore. At around 9 am, Gurmukh signals to Fort Lockhart, “Enemy approaching Main Gate. Need Reinforcements”. Lt Col Houghton states he cannot send help to Saragarhi “and to hold on”. In the Saragarhi post the bugle was sounded and in a flash the troops formed up two line abreast, one row in front, in a squatting firing position and the other standing as per the bugle’s tone. He speaks to the soldiers and gives them an option to move out and join Fort Lockhart or stay and fight. Each one of them univocally expressed their choice to stay and fight.

The troops were equipped with Martini Henry breech loading rifle, which at that time was the standard British infantry rifle. The Sikhs had only recently received these rifles, replacing the venerable Enfield. The rifle was capable of firing ten .303 calibre rounds a minute, it proved to be more than a match to the antiquated muzzle loading rifles possessed by the tribesmen. Each soldier had 400 rounds. But mere superiority of the rifle was no match for the hordes that confronted Saragarhi. Hav Ishar Singh, the Commander in location, decides to fight till the last and prevent enemy from breaching the fort.

The defenders now stood ready to face the advancing enemy. Ten thousand tribesmen of the enemy against just 21 of the defenders. Artillery pounded their position. The tribesmen had planned to overrun the Saragarhi post and move onto Fort Gulistan.

Battle of Saragarhi Sikh Soldiers

The Bravehearts

Though the rifle had an effective range of 600 yards, Havildar Ishar Singh held his fire, allowing the enemy to come closer, the better to deal with them. “Fire”, he yelled, when the enemy was just 250 yards from the post. The massed fire effect was deadly and the leading lot of the enemy crumpled to the dust. “Reload”, ordered Ishar and then the next volley was fired. But the enemy was not to be halted and the following lots of the enemy continued to advance towards the post. “Reload and Fire at Will”, ordered Ishar Singh and a hail of bullets soon followed the command. The ding dong battle continued till the first wave of attacks was beaten back and the enemy forced to regroup. The first wave of the enemy had fallen, but there were countless waves behind them. It would be but a matter of time before the hordes were at the gate.

In the first assault, Sep Bhagwan Singh and Lal Singh are seriously injured. Firing from one loophole to another, they beat back the first wave and hold on till noon. Sep Jiwa and Lal Singh bring in the dead body of Bhagwan Singh to the inner sanctum.

The Pathans now changed their strategy, and approached the post from two directions., one towards the main gate and the other towards the gap at the fort. To counter the charging enemy, Havildar Ishar Singh gave his next set of commands. “Squatting Soldiers to the Left, Standing Soldiers to the Right, QUICKLY, QUICKLY.

The tribals launch a second attack and breached the picket wall. The Afghan leaders promise the soldiers to entice them to surrender. Another attack fails. There is no question of surrender. And by early evening the inner wall is breached. By now the post has run out of all their ammunition. The tribesmen pour into the inner sanctum.

Some of the fiercest hand-to-hand battle takes place. Hav Ishar Singh orders his men to fall back into the block house, while he continues to fight. The soldiers refuse and remain fighting alongside their leader. Fighting with their bayonets and kirpans.

Sep Gurmukh Singh, who communicated the battle to Lt Col Haughton, was the last Sikh defender. He signs off his communication and goes to fight and is claimed 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” (shout aloud in ecstasy, True is the Great Timeless one). Akal, meaning immortal.

Having destroyed Saragarhi, the Afghans turned to Fort Gulistan, but they had been delayed far too long and reinforcements had arrived. Some 500 bodies are said to have been seen around the ruined post when the relief party arrived. The planning figures for any offensive is to the ratio of 1:3. It goes up to 1:9 in the mountains. At Saragarhi the ratio was 1:500!!!!!!

All the 21 soldiers who laid down their lives in the Battle of Saragarhi were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award that time; corresponding to the Victoria Cross and the Param Vir Chakra of today. Till date this is the highest number of gallantry awards given for a single day battle in the world. When the details of the battle were read in the British Parliament, the entire house rose in unison and paid homage to the valiant soldiers. The SIKH Regiment continues to celebrate Sep 12 each year, the day of the Battle of Saragarhi, as the Regimental Battle Honours Day. The battle is taught in the Schools of Punjab and in France’s National School curriculum.

A number of you questioned me why would the soldier lay down his life? Why would they unflinchingly display such acts of valour? What makes them tick? I’ll answer them in my next communique. Till then ‘Bole so Nihal, Sat Sri Akal’.

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