The Battle of Saragarhi of 12 September 1897, recently dramatised in Akshay Kumar-starrer Kesari, is one of the greatest ‘last stands’ in military history.
The account of the battle is recorded in the Digest of Service of 36 Sikh (now 4 Sikh) and I was its custodian for two years from 1971 to 1972 as the Adjutant. The battle is also described in the personal letters of Lt Col John Haughton, who was the commanding officer of the unit, as reproduced in his biography The Life of Lieut.Col. John Haughton.
The battle saw one non-commissioned officer, Havildar Ishar Singh (played by Akshay Kumar in the movie), 20 other ranks and one ‘follower’ (civilian employed for menial tasks), Daad, of 36 Sikh fighting the Pashtuns till the ‘last man last round’.
But as it often happens, many myths come to be associated with great ‘last stands’, and the Battle of Saragarhi is no exception.
Here is what really happened in the Battle of Saragarhi.
Events leading up to the battle
The Battle of Saragarhi was fought between two sub-nationalities of the subcontinent – the Sikhs, who were in the service of the British, and the Pashtuns, who were fighting for their freedom.
The Sikh-Pashtun rivalry went back 150 years, beginning with the first invasion of Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1748. For the next 50 years, a bitter struggle ensued for the control of Punjab. By 1800, the Sikhs had prevailed and over the next 30 years, they had pushed the Afghans to the later-era Durand Line (1893), which forms the present western boundary of Pakistan. These were the boundaries that the British inherited after they defeated the Khalsa Army in 1849.
In 1893, the Durand Line to demarcate the border between British India and Afghanistan was created, dividing the Pashtun heartland. This led to a simmering discontent among the tribes whose homeland had been divided. Apart from garrisoning the area, the British had to send military expeditions to quell the tribal rebellion.
In January 1897, half of 36 Sikh was deployed on the Samana Ridge. The battalion headquarters and one company plus a platoon, 168 all ranks, occupied Fort Lockhart at the eastern end. One company plus a platoon, 175 all ranks, were located at Fort Gulistan, 5.2 km to the west.
But the two forts lacked inter-visibility, and therefore, a post was set up at Saragarhi, named after the destroyed Pashtun village of Saragarh, which acted as a heliograph (signalling device using sunlight and reflectors) communication post.
Three more posts – Dhar, Sangar, Sartop with 37, 44, and 21 all ranks respectively – were occupied to guard the flanks of Fort Lockhart. Rest of the battalion was deployed 80 km further west, in the area of Parachinar.
In August 1897, the Mulla of Hadda gave a call for ‘Jehad’ against the British and the Afridis, Orakzais and Shinwaris, the Pashtuns of the Tirah region, rose up in rebellion. While the British Indian Army was building up its force in Kohat (garrison town), the Orakzais and Afridis focused their attention on the Samana ridge.
The Tirah region had an estimated 20,000-25,000 Afridis and Orakzais. Of them, nearly 10,000 started surrounding the forts on the Samana Ridge held by 36 Sikh. Between 28 August and 11 September, Fort Gulistan and the outposts around Fort Lockhart were attacked a number of times without success.
The battle & many accounts
On the morning of 12 September, a part of the Pashtun rebels invested the vulnerable small fort at Saragarhi. The battle began at 9 am and ended a little after 3:30 pm with the entire garrison killed in action. Since there was no survivor, little is known of what actually happened at Saragarhi.
The military account is based on the visual observations made with binoculars/telescope from Fort Gulistan and Fort Lockhart, 2.8 km and 2.4 km away respectively from Saragarhi.
Many accounts give a minute-by-minute description of the battle by signaller Sepoy Gurmukh Singh through the heliograph. The official accounts mention only two such messages – one at 12 noon, giving a factual report, and the other just after 3 pm, seeking permission to close the heliograph and join the battle.
There is no record of any Pashtun account of the battle. Hence, most non-military accounts of the Battle of Saragarhi are imaginary and speculative.
However, since it was a literal ‘last man, last round’ battle, which lasted six-and-a-half hours, there should be no doubt that all that can be imagined in terms of individual and collective bravery and human emotions would have been on display.
What military account says
I have read and re-read the Digest of Service of 36/4 Sikh and most accounts of the battle written in the last 122 years. The actual Pashtun force that attacked the Saragarhi post comprised 1,000-1,500 rebels.
Saragarhi had a cliff facing towards the south and a narrow spur linking it to the ridge. It was not practical for more than 80-100 men to attack at one time, but adequate reserves were available for repeated attacks. Rest of the Pashtuns were cutting/blocking the route to Lockhart and Gulistan and also investing Gulistan and other forts.
The Pashtuns initially tried to rush to the post but were unsuccessful. They retreated and took cover behind the boulders and continued firing at the post.
As observed from the Gulistan Fort, two Pashtuns had stayed behind to dig under the fort wall to make it collapse to create a breach. Being at a dead angle, they could not be seen by the defenders at Saragarhi. Gulistan tried to warn the post, but the message never reached.
At 12 noon, the signaller reported that one sepoy had been killed, one non-commissioned officer wounded and three rifles damaged due to firing. Lt Col Haughton sent Lt George Munn with 12 soldiers to create a diversion by firing from a distance, but it had no effect. Between 12 noon and 3 pm, the Pashtuns made two more attacks with 80-100 men each, but were again repulsed with heavy losses.
At 3 pm, Lt Col Haughton with Lt Munn and 98 other ranks set out to create a diversion and ease the pressure on Saragarhi. He had barely moved a kilometre when part of Saragarhi’s wall collapsed due to the digging by the two Pashtun men who had stayed behind, and the final assault was launched.
Just after 3 pm, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh sent his last message seeking permission to join the battle. At 3.30 pm, it was all over.
A great saga of bravery had been enacted. Most ‘last stands’ are rarely literal as there are always some survivors. Saragarhi was literally and metaphorically a great ‘last stand’. Each of the 21 soldiers was awarded the Indian Order of Merit (IOM), the highest decoration awarded to the Indian soldiers by the British till 1911.
A 30-feet pyramidal cairn, using stones from the ruins, was constructed at Saragarhi and a more formal obelisk was built at Lockhart as memorials. Two gurdwaras, one each in Amritsar and Firozpur, were built in their honour.
Myth vs fact
Most writers estimate Pashtun casualties in the Battle of Saragarhi to be around 600 to 1,000.
Pashtuns/Pathans were masters of field craft and minor tactics and never indulged in foolhardy head-on attacks on well-defended positions. As per official assessment, Pashtun casualties on the Samana Ridge were 400 killed and 600 wounded, and of them, 180 died in the Battle of Saragarhi.
The IOM has been equated with the Victoria Cross by most writers. No doubt, it was the highest award given to Indian soldiers, but the fact that in addition to 21 IOMs for the Saragarhi braves, 36 Sikh was also awarded another 14 IOMs in the battle at Samana and for the Tirah campaign that followed dilutes the comparison.
Writer-filmmaker Jay Singh-Sohal in his book Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle busts two more myths – that there was a standing ovation in British House of Commons for the Battle of Saragarhi, and it is listed by UNESCO as one of the seven epic battles. Sohal found no records for both these claims.
According to the military account, soldiers of the Sikh Regiment did not have free-flowing beards but kept them rolled. They also did not carry kirpans (swords) into the battle as shown in movies and documentaries made on the event. Sikh Regiment soldiers of that era wore khaki turbans and not kesari turbans as shown in the movie Kesari. The Akshay Kumar-starrer film delves into the personality of Havildar Ishar Singh, but no such detailed records on him are available in the military account.
The number of men killed at Saragarhi was 22 and not 21. Most accounts are ignorant about ‘follower’ Daad’s presence. As the handyman of the post, he would have cooked for the soldiers and cleaned the fort on most days, but on the fateful day, he joined the battle – a tradition 36/4 Sikh still follows. He remains the unsung hero of Saragarhi.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal.