One must have watched the movie 300 depicting the Battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans (along with 7000 other soldiers) managed to hold off the Persian army of over 100,000 which lasted for about 3 days. Many consider it as one of the most heroic battle in the annals of military history. But a far greater battle was fought in our own country (yet unknown to us), in Saragarhi by 21 Sikh soldiers of British army, defending an army post against the 10,000 Afghans.
The saga starts near the late 19th century, when the British Empire was ruling the Indian subcontinent. On the Samana Range of the Hindu Kush mountains (in present day Pakistan), the British Army manned a series of posts. Saragarhi was built to act as a communication relay post between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan, since the two forts were not in a visual line of sight due to their geographical attributes and were miles apart from each other. Saragarhi had a signaling tower which was used to establish communication with other forts in case of any emergency with the help of heliograph (reflecting sunlight with a mirror and transmitting it via coded messages). The Saragarhi post was vital in ensuring the defence of the war prone region and for the protection of the two forts.
Back in 1897, things were getting tense in the region since the Afghans and allies were making attempts to capture the British Army posts in the month of September. On the morning of 12 Spetember 1897, a troop of 10,000 Afghans advanced towards Saragarhi to destroy this vital post. The Saragarhi post had only 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Army led by Havaldar Gurmukh Singh who tried to make contact with the Fort Lockhart but the Afghans had systematically cut-off the supply route between Fort Lockhart and Saragarhi.
The 21 Sikh soldiers had an option to retreat to the nearby Fort Lockhart where a more sizeable British force was stationed, by abandoning their position. But they chose to stay, defend the post and hold back the assault as long as possible. The 21 brave soldiers had no machine guns but only 21 rifles, swords and certain amount of ammunition.
What happened next was a unique display of valour and courage! The 21 Sikh soldiers fought on continuously for 7 hours without any food or water. They were completely surrounded by the Afghans. The ratio of Sikhs against the Afghans was 1 Sikh against 477 Afghans. The Sikhs ran out of ammunition but they did not abandon their post and fought bare handedly, till all made the ultimate sacrifice. They stood their ground against overwhelming odds, repealed wave after wave of assault and fought till their last breath.
When the relief column arrived a day later, they found the burnt out bodies of all the 21 Sikh soldiers, together with at least 600 dead bodies of the Afghans scattered untidily only yards in front of their positions.
This memorable act of conspicuous bravery and reckless courage received a standing ovation from every member of the British government in the Parliament. It issued a statement:
“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.”
Each of the 21 soldiers was awarded the Indian Order of Merit (the highest gallantry award an Indian soldier could receive from British) and their families received a plot of land and 500 Rupees in cash.
The Battle of Saragarhi is listed by UNESCO as one of the eight stories of collective bravery. The British Armed Forces and modern Sikh Regiment celebrate the day of the Battle of Saragarhi each 12 September as the Saragarhi Day. The historic battle has also found a place in the French school curriculum.
The words of Guru Gobind Singh were proved true by these 21 brave souls:
Chidiya te main baaz tudaaun,
Gidran te main sher banaun,
Sawaa lakh se ek ladaaun,
Tabe Gobind Singh naam kahaun.
Jo Bole So Nihaal, Sat Sri Akaal.
Posted by – Vivek Swamy