In the late 19th century, tensions were heightened between Britain and Russia as the nations battled over territories in central Asia. British forces held vulnerable posts on the colonial border between British India and Afghanistan, threatened by both Russian forces and Afghan tribes. Here, Captain Jay Singh-Sohal explores the events of 12 September 1897 at the battle of Saragarhi…
The frontier between colonial India and Afghanistan in the 19th century was a place of danger and unrest. In 1897, at a small outpost called Saragarhi, 40 miles away from the British garrison town of Kohat (in what is now Pakistan), 21 Sikh soldiers stood their ground against an onslaught of 10,000 enemy tribesmen. Their gallantry in fighting to the bitter end cemented their reputation as brave and devoted to their duty, and the soldiers were recognised by the British with memorials, a battle honour and a regimental holiday. So why was Saragarhi viewed with such significance, and how is it still relevant today?
The timing of the battle is crucial: it occurred during the period of the 19th century known as the ‘Great Game’, the name given to the heightened tensions between Britain and Russia as they battled over Afghanistan and other territories in central Asia.
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From 1881 to 1885, as the Russians penetrated eastwards in Turkestan, efforts were made to avoid all-out war. A compromise was reached between the two in 1885: a boundary commission was set up in British India with agreement from the emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan, in order to finally define spheres of British and Afghan influence. This later became the Durrand Line, which is still in dispute today. Following the agreement, Britain developed a ‘forward policy’ of occupying frontier lands and keeping a presence in places inhabited by Pathans, the tribes of people residing in the region.
General Sir Frederick Roberts’ troops behind fortifications at Kabul during the Second Afghan War, 1878-1880. (Photo by Capt James Burke/Getty Images)
A new British post at Saragarhi
In 1891, Brigadier General Sir William Lockhart led two expeditions of the Miranzai Field Force on to the Samana [a mountain range] in order to bring the tribes there under British rule, aiming eventually to build forts on the high ground of the Mastan plateau. By May, a memorandum was issued by the commander-in-chief of India, General Sir Frederick Roberts (later First Baron Roberts of Kandahar) on the posts and roads to be created for the military occupation of the range.
Two new main forts of Lockhart and Gulistan were placed on vital ground. Other smaller ‘picquet’ posts were built nearby, including on the high part of the main range, west of the village of Saragarhi. Roberts’s memorandum stated this post, which was situated a mile and half west of Lockhart and a mile and three-quarters east of Gulistan, should be visible from both forts. Saragarhi was the most important of the picquets because through it, heliographic signal communications – signals using flashes of sunlight – could be maintained between the two main forts.
While the telegraph had been invented much earlier in 1835 by Samuel Morse, the heliograph became a necessary means of sending Morse code on the frontier. While field telegraphs had been put up between Lockhart and Gulistan, the wire laid beneath the ground to carry these messages was continually cut by the locals. When they were repaired, the enemy persevered, so it became necessary to develop another means of sending messages. The heliograph at Saragarhi would send Morse code through the use of flashing lights.
Two main forts of Lockhart and Gulistan (pictured above) were placed on vital ground. (© Charles Eve)
A regiment to combat ‘tribal agitation’
The regiment sent to the Samana was the 36th (Sikh) Regiment of Bengal Infantry. It was raised in March 1887 specifically for service along the unruly north west frontier with the intent of checking tribal agitation. The unit (and its sister regiment, the 35th Sikhs) were raised by Colonel Jim Cooke and the infamous Captain Henry Holmes, the latter being the biggest and strongest man of his time in the Indian army. It is said that he challenged men in Ludhiana, Punjab, to a wrestling match, with the proviso that if they lost, they would enlist. This novel way of recruitment saw young men flock to try and beat the Brit. While recruitment was taking place across Punjab, 225 men were also brought over to the regiment from other units of the Punjab Frontier Force and Bengal Army, bringing the 36th to full strength of 912 men in eight companies by January 1888.
After a period of training and domestic movements, the regiment was eventually led in January 1897 by its commander, Lt Col John Haughton (the son of an Afghan war hero of the same name), to occupy the Samana posts.
While the 36th Sikhs took to their daily duties, the action of drawing boundaries on the frontier led to the Afridi people of nearby Tirah rising up in defiance of the peace they had held for 16 years with the British. By August 1897 the Mullah of Hadda, an influential preacher, had declared a jihad “to go out for a holy war and defend the religion of the Holy Prophet”. The Afridis convinced their neighbouring Orakzai clan to join the cause and marched on the Samana.
A reconnaissance patrol sent out to the Samana Suk [the highest peak of the mountain range] on 9 September found that a strong force of tribesmen was assembled near Khangarbur; 29 standards were counted, giving an indication of enemy numbers. The next day more enemies arrived, pushing estimates to 25,000.
Haughton’s 36th Sikhs were spread along the picquets and forts: 168 soldiers were at Lockhart under his command, while 175 rifles were at Gulistan under Major Charles Des Voeux. The picquet at Dhar contained 37, and Sartop and Saragarhi both contained 21 Sikhs; the latter also held a camp follower named Dadh, who cleaned and cooked for the regiment.
A British soldier signalling with a heliograph, dated 19th century. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
A surrounded post
The enemy surrounded Saragarhi on 12 September, knowing full well that this would cut communications and troop movements between the forts of Lockhart and Gulistan, and that with the British forces spread out it would no longer be possible for Haughton to send aid. The 22 men inside were led by an experienced sergeant in Havildar Ishar Singh, who rallied his men to defend their positions.
The Pathans attacked at around 9am, but were repulsed with around 60 losses as the Sikhs fired upon the mass of men. The enemy dived behind rocks and dips in the ground for cover, but two tribesmen had also managed to get to the post and remained close under the walls of the north-west bastion where there was a dead angle [that cannot be reached directly by defenders’ fire].
Unseen by the Sikhs inside, they began digging beneath the walls. The enemy next set fire to bushes and shrubbery to create a smokescreen with which to edge forward. They concentrated their gunfire on the wooden front door, a defect of planning which presented a weakness.
A signaller, Gurmukh Singh, messaged an account of events, though he did not pick up any incoming messages from Major Des Vouex at Gulistan, who could see the diggers clearly and was trying in vain to alert Saragarhi to the danger. The smokescreen may account for why he did not pick up the flashes, although light is known to penetrate through such haze. More likely is that he was unable to do so, as he was just one man, doing the job of three. Heliography required at least three men: one to flash messages using the mirror; another to read out incoming messages; and a third to write it all down. It is not impossible that Gurmukh Singh could have done all, but the pressure of the situation made it unlikely.
Signaller Gurmukh Singh used a heliograph to message an account of events at Saragarhi, though he did not pick up any incoming messages from Fort Gulistan. (© DHP)
Haughton too tried several times to sally forward with a party of rifles to divert the enemy away from Saragarhi, but the sheer number of tribesmen meant he could not get far without being outflanked. The Sikhs continued to hold back the enemy but by noon, one sepoy [an infantryman in the British Indian army] had been killed and another wounded, with three rifles broken by enemy gunfire.
The battle culminated at around 3pm when a section of wall under attack from the diggers began to cave in; the enemy gave a final cry to advance and rushed through the new gap. As the enemy crowded over their own dead and injured to get into Saragarhi, the few Sikhs remaining inside put up a stubborn defence but were forced to retreat into the inner defences. Ishar Singh is believed to have covered the retreat and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Another sepoy secured the guardroom door from the inside and carried on firing, but was burned to death in an ensuing fire. The signaller Gurmukh Singh is said to have asked permission to pack away his equipment before joining the fight.
The 21 Sikhs had made a valiant last stand, and the enemy had paid a high price for their victory, with around 180 dead.
The remains of the piquet at Saragarhi. (© Charles Eve)
The heliograph, the reason why the men fought to defend Saragarhi, would ironically be the source of their fame: details of their heroism were heliographed and then telegraphed back to London by a Times correspondent and then reported in newspapers around the world. The commander-in-chief of India recorded his “admiration of the heroism shown by those gallant soldiers”.
The British saw the significance of this last stand in inspiring more Indians to serve and fight, and built two Memorial Gurdwaras: one near Sri Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple), Amritsar, and another in Ferozepur. The 36th Sikhs were duly rewarded a battle honour for the Samana and 12 September was set as a regimental holiday.
The unveiling of the Saragarhi memorial at Amritsar in 1902. (Credit DHP)
This commemoration continues to be marked in India by the descendant 4 Sikh Regiment while the chief minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, has recently invoked a Punjab-wide holiday for the battle on 12 September.
Saragarhi is now officially commemorated in the UK too, and other forgotten frontier battles are gaining more attention. This year, for the 120th anniversary, the annual commemoration event will be held at the National Memorial Arboretum, home of the UK’s inaugural First World War Sikh Memorial, to remember and honour all those who fought and died on the forgotten frontier.
Captain Jay Singh-Sohal is the author of Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle (2013) and presenter of the new documentary film Saragarhi: The True Story released on 12 September 2017. He is a journalist and serves as an Army reserve officer.
This article was first published by History Extra in September 2017