On February 21, the trailer of Akshay Kumar and Parineeti Chopra starrer Kesari was launched. The Anurag Singh film is based on the battle of Saragarhi. While the reactions to the trailer were mixed there can never be any doubt about the bravery of the men who fought the battle. Lost in the pages of history the battle of Saragarhi was unlike any other.
Unknown to many, a few kilometres from the Golden Temple in Armritsar lies a memorial to these brave men – Saragarhi.
The origin of the battle can be traced to the end of the 19th century, when Britain and Russia clashed over territories in central Asia. The area between India and Afghanistan became the theatre of conflict between them where they were threatened not just by the Russians but by the sturdy Afghans. Saragarhi was a small outpost, about forty kilometres away from the garrison of Kohat.
The battle took place on September 12, 1897 when 21 soldiers of the 36 Sikh Regiment of the British Indian Army fought an army of about 10,000 Afghans comprising of the Pashtun Orakzai tribesman and killed more than 600 of them before perishing to enemy bullets. It was fought in the Tirah region of North West Frontier Province, now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.
The area was located between the two important forts of Lockhart and Gulistan and was immensely important to the British as it was from here that heliographic signal communication or Morse code using flashes of sunlight was done. Unseen from the army the tribesmen has begun digging beneath the walls and covering them with shrubs.
When the Afghans attacked, they marched down with 10,000 soldiers and Sikhs faced the fearful odds of 1:476. Threatened by the sudden attack by Afghans, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh sent signals to Colonel Haughton who was positioned at Fort Lockhart. Sepoy Singh received a disheartening message that no immediate help could be sent to them. But instead of being discouraged, the soldiers decided to jump headlong into battle.
Led by Havildar Ishar Singh, aided by their helper Daad, the Sikhs chose to fight to death. The bravery of Havildar Singh can be measured from his final act of bravery where, though grievously injured, he asked his men to retreat inside while he and two others took on the Afghans in a one to one fight. Singh and the two men soon succumbed to their injuries. The fight lasted long and the remaining Sikhs began to run out of ammunition. A section of the wall caved into the underground tunnel and the tribesmen took advantage of it and entered the outpost, where all but five men including Gurmukh Singh remained. In the seven hour hand to hand combat that followed all of them died but not before killing a hundred tribesmen and giving enough time to the two British forts to fortify themselves.
The heliograph communication that the men defended soon became the source of their fame all across the world. The British Army recorded, “admiration of the heroism shown by those gallant soldiers.” The british Parliament gave them a standing ovation.In an extraordinary move, the 21 martyrs were awarded the Indian Order Merit class III, on par with the Victoria Cross. It was the only time when an entire unit received the highest gallantry award for the same battle.
The bravery of the soldiers of the Sikh Regiment has been recorded in history as one of the greatest last standoffs. September 12 is celebrated as the Saragarhi Day in honour of the sacrifices made by those 21 brave soldiers and it’s observed as the Sikh military commemoration day.