Battle of Saragarhi

Battle of Saragarhi

Coordinates: 33°33′N 70°56′E / 33.55°N 70.933°E / 33.55; 70.933

The Battle of Saragarhi
Part of the Tirah Campaign War
Burnt-out interior of Saragarhi as it looked on 14th September, 1897
Date September 12, 1897
Location Tirah, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (then called North-West Frontier Province), British India (modern day Pakistan)
Result Afghan Pashtun tactical victory, British Indian strategic victory
36th Sikhs of British Indian Army An alliance of Afridis and Orakzais
Commanders and leaders
Havildar Ishar Singh   Gul Badshah
21[1] 10,000[2][3]
Casualties and losses
21 killed (100%)[1] at least 180 killed[4]
The map of the battle site

The Battle of Saragarhi was fought during the Tirah Campaign on 12 September 1897 between twenty-one Sikhs of the 4th Battalion (then 36th Sikhs) of the Sikh Regiment of British India, defending an army post, and 10,000 Afghan and Orakzai tribesmen. The battle occurred in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, now part of Pakistan, which then formed part of British India.

The contingent of the twenty-one Sikhs from the 36th Sikhs was led by Havildar Ishar Singh. They all chose to fight to the death. Sikh military personnel and Sikh civilians commemorate the battle every year on 12 September, as Saragarhi Day.



Saragarhi is a small village in the border district of Kohat, situated on the Samana Range, in present day Pakistan. On the 20th April 1894, the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Army was created, under the command of Colonel J. Cook.[5] In August 1897, five companies of the 36th Sikhs under Lt. Col. John Haughton, were sent to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, stationed at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar and Saragarhi.

The British had partially succeeded in getting control of this volatile area, however tribal Pashtuns attacked British personnel from time to time. Thus a series of forts, originally constructed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Ruler of the Sikh Empire, were consolidated. Two of the forts were Fort Lockhart, (on the Samana Range of the Hindu Kush mountains), and Fort Gulistan (Sulaiman Range), situated a few miles apart. Due to the forts not being visible to each other, Saragarhi was created midway, as a heliographic communication post. The Saragarhi post, situated on a rocky ridge, consisted of a small block house with loop-holed ramparts and a signalling tower.

A general uprising by the Afghans began there in 1897, and between 27 August - 11 September, many vigorous efforts by Pashtuns to capture the forts were thwarted by 36th Sikh regiment. In 1897, insurgent and inimical activities had increased, and on 3rd and 9 September Afridi tribes, with allegiance to Afghans, attacked Fort Gulistan. Both the attacks were repulsed, and a relief column from Fort Lockhart, on its return trip, reinforced the signalling detachment positioned at Saragarhi, increasing its strength to one Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) and twenty troops of Other Ranks (ORs).

On September 12, 1897, 10,000 Pashtuns attacked the signalling post at Saragarhi, so that communication would be lost between the two forts.

The battle

Members of the 11th Sikh Regiment in 1860

Details of the Battle of Saragarhi are considered fairly accurate, due to Gurmukh Singh signalling events to Fort Lockhart as they occurred.[5]

  • 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 the open 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 regimental 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.[1] The Pashtuns later admitted that they had lost about 180 killed[6] and many more wounded[4] during the engagement against the 21 Sikh soldiers, but some 600 bodies[7] 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,[8] which may have caused many casualties). The total casualties in the entire campaign, including the Battle of Saragarhi, numbered at around 4,800.


British parliament

When the gallantry of Saragarhi was recounted to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the recitation drew a standing ovation from the members. The saga of Saragarhi was also brought to the notice of Queen Victoria.

"The British, as well as the Indians, are proud of the 36th Sikh Regiments. It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war" - Parliament of the United Kingdom[5]
"You are never disappointed when you are with the Sikhs. Those 21 soldiers all fought to the death. That bravery should be within all of us. Those soldiers were lauded in Britain and their pride went throughout the Indian Army." - Field Marshal William Joseph Slim, 1st Viscount Slim[9]

Commemorative tablet

The tablet (pictured right), inscription reads;

Tablet commemorating Saragarhi, raised by the British Empire
"The Government of India have caused this tablet to be erected to the memory of the twenty one non-commissioned officers and men of the 36 Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry whose names are engraved below as a perpetual record of the heroism shown by these gallant soldiers who died at their posts in the defence of the fort of Saragarhi, on the 12 September 1897, fighting against overwhelming numbers, 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."

Order of Merit

All the 21 Sikh non-commissioned officers and soldiers of other ranks who laid down their lives in the Battle of Saragarhi were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award of that time, which an Indian soldier could receive by the hands of the British crown, the corresponding gallantry award being Victoria Cross. This award is equivalent to today's Param Vir Chakra awarded by the President of India.

The names of the 21 recipients of the gallantry award are:

  1. Havildar Ishar Singh (regimental number 165[10])
  2. Naik Lal Singh (332)
  3. Lance Naik Chanda Singh (546)
  4. Sepoy Sundar Singh (1321)
  5. Sepoy Ram Singh (287)
  6. Sepoy Uttar Singh (492)
  7. Sepoy Sahib Singh (182)
  8. Sepoy Hira Singh (359)
  9. Sepoy Daya Singh (687)
  10. Sepoy Jivan Singh (760)
  11. Sepoy Bhola Singh (791)
  12. Sepoy Narayan Singh (834)
  13. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (814)
  14. Sepoy Jivan Singh (871)
  15. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (1733)
  16. Sepoy Ram Singh (163)
  17. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1257)
  18. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1265)
  19. Sepoy Buta Singh (1556)
  20. Sepoy Jivan Singh (1651)
  21. Sepoy Nand Singh (1221)

Remembrance and legacy

In 1915, Chuhar Singh wrote the epic poem "Khalsa Bahadur" in memory of the Sikhs who died at Sargarhi.[11]

According to the Indian Express,[12] Saragarhi is "one of the eight collective stories on bravery published by UNESCO for children" (bibliographical details not given) which also, according to other sources, include the heroic Battle of Thermopylae.[13][14][15] The battle has become iconic of eastern military civilization, British empire military history and Sikh history.[16] The modern Sikh Regiment continues to celebrate the day of the Battle of Saragarhi each 12 September as the Regimental Battle Honours Day. To commemorate the men the British built two Saragarhi Gurudwaras: one in Amritsar very close to the main entrance of the Golden Temple, and another in Ferozepur Cantonment, which was the district that most of the men hailed from.

In Indian Schools

The Indian military, in particular the Indian Army have been pushing for the battle to be taught in India's schools. They want it taught due to the heroism shown by the Indian soldiers to acts as inspiration for young children – in the field of bravery. There were articles like these, printed in the Punjab's longest-established newspaper, The Tribune in 1999: "the military action at Saragarhi is taught to students the world over and particularly to students in France."[17] Although there seems to be no evidence for this claim (it is not, for example, on France's national school curriculum[18]) the news was enough to provoke political debate, and the battle has been taught in schools in the Punjab since 2000:

The decision to include the battle story in the school curriculum was taken last year during a public rally presided over by the Punjab Chief Minister, Mr Parkash Singh Badal. Following this, the State Government had issued a notification that the battle story should be included in the school curriculum from this session. There had been a constant demand from the Sikh Regiment and various ex-servicemen's associations that the battle be included in the school curriculum. A similar request had also been put forward to Mr Badal during the battle's state-level centenary celebrations at Ferozepore in 1997. A subsequent letter sent to the Punjab Government by the Saragarhi Memorial and Ethos Promotion Forum had also urged the State Government that the battle has many inspiring lessons for children. On hearing the acts of valour, the British Parliament had then risen in unison to pay homage to the fallen soldiers. The unique battle is also taught in schools of France and figures as one of the eight collective stories on bravery published by the UNESCO.[19]

Saragarhi Day

Saragarhi Day
Official name Saragarhi Day
Observed by India[3] & (Also observed by Sikhs worldwide)
Type national & international
Significance Honors the 21 military Sikh soldiers who died at The Battle of Saragarhi
Date September 12 (or nearest weekday)
Observances Parades, school history projects, government buildings
Related to Remembrance Day

Saragarhi Day, is a Sikh military commemoration day celebrated on the 12th of September every year to commemorate The Battle of Saragarhi.[3] Sikh military personnel and Sikh non-military people commemorate the battle around the World every year on September 12. All units of the Sikh Regiment celebrate Saragarhi Day every year as the Regimental Battle Honours Day.

Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara (temple) was built in memory of the 21 Sikh soldiers that fought at The Battle of Saragarhi.[20]

Saragarhi and Thermopylae

The battle has frequently been compared to the Battle of Thermopylae,[16] where a small Greek force faced a large Persian army of Xerxes (480 BC).

The comparison is made because of the overwhelming odds faced by a tiny defending force in each case, and the defenders' brave stand to their deaths, as well as the extremely disproportionate number of fatalities caused to the attacking force.

It is important to note that during the Battle of Saragarhi, the British did not manage to get a relief unit there until after the 21 had fought to their deaths. At Thermopylae, the 300 Spartans and their allies also stayed after their lines had been outflanked, to fight to their deaths.

Further reading

  • Saragarhi Battalion: Ashes to Glory by Kanwaljit Singh and H.S. Ahluwalia, New Delhi : Lancer International, 1987 (ISBN 8170620228)


  1. ^ a b c London Gazette: no. 26937. p. 863. 11 February 1898. Retrieved 10 November 2008.
  2. ^ The Tribune Online Edition (2007-04-15). "Of blood red in olive green". The Tribune. Retrieved 2007-11-01. 
  3. ^ a b c Tribune News Service (2005-09-14). "Battle of Saragarhi remembered". The Tribune. Retrieved 2007-11-05. 
  4. ^ a b Subramanian, L.M. Defending Saragarhi, 12 September 1897, accessed 2008-01-25
  5. ^ a b c Pall, S.J.S. "The story of Valiant Sikhs", Amritsar, B. Chattar Singh (2004) page 98
  6. ^ Maj. Gen. Jaswant Singh Letter to H.M. Queen Elizabeth II Institute of Sikh Studies (1999)- accessed 2008-03-30
  7. ^ Sharma, Gautam Valour and Sacrifice: Famous Regiments of the Indian Army, India, Allied Publishers (1990) ISBN 817023140X, via Google Books- accessed 2008-01-25
  8. ^ "The Frontier War," Daily News, London (16 Sep 1897)
  9. ^ The Sikh Spirit (2001-11-01). "The Epic Battle of Saragarhi". Sikh Spirit. Archived from the original on 2007-12-13. Retrieved 2007-10-25. 
  10. ^ Regimental numbers from photo of Saragarhi memorial plaque
  11. ^ Singh, Gurdev (1995). Harbans Singh. ed. The Encyclopedia of Sikhism (2nd edition ed.). Patiala: Punjabi University, Patiala. 
  12. ^ A century later, Punjab resurrects some of its bravest men
  13. ^ Sikh Regiment
  14. ^ The Tribune, Chandigarh, India - Mailbag
  15. ^ Chap
  16. ^ a b Singh, Kanwaljit & Ahluwalia, H.S. Saragarhi Battalion: Ashes to Glory, India, Lancer International (1987) ISBN 8170620228
  17. ^ Robin Gupta An epic performance: A slice of history Chandigarh, The Tribune (20 March 1999)- accessed 2008-04-19
  18. ^ French Education Ministry website- accessed 2008-04-19
  19. ^ Vijay Mohan (2000-04-05). "Recounting battle of Saragarhi". The Tribune. Retrieved 2007-11-01. 
  20. ^ Sharma, Dinesh K.The legend of Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara, Times of India (11 Sep 2003)- accessed 2008-01-25

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