Battle of Saragarhi: One of the Greatest ‘Last Stands’ in History

Watch the story of the day when 21 Sikh Soldiers ferociously fought 10,000 tribesmen at the Battle of Saragarhi.

3 min read

(One hundred and twenty five years ago, the Battle of Saragarhi cemented the Sikh regiment as a force to be reckoned with. The Quint is reposting this article from its archives to honour their memory. Originally published on 19 March 2019.)

Camera: Shiv Kumar Maurya
Deepthi Ramdas

All of us watched 300. And all of us loved Gerard Butler and his men. Just 300 men led by the King of Sparta, Leonidas, fought against a huge Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae.

Now what if I tell you that a similar battle was fought in India?

21 Sikh soldiers fought to their deaths against 10,000 Afghani tribesmen in the Battle of Saragarhi. It is said that after the soldiers ran out of their bullets, they fought with their swords.

A battle so ferocious that apart from the 21 Sikh soldiers, 600 Pashtun bodies were also found on the battlefield.

Akshay Kumar's latest film Kesari is based on this battle – the Battle of Saragarhi.


How 21 Soldiers Stood up against 10,000

Saragarhi was a small village in the Khyber Pakhtun area of present-day Pakistan.

21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment in the British India contingent were stationed there to set up a communication network between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan on the Hind Kush mountains.

The Saragarhi post was created at a point between the two forts to prevent the violent Pashtuns from attacking the British personnel.
(Photo: The Quint/Deepthi Ramdas/Google Maps)

The Pashtuns, however, wanted to capture both forts for themselves.

To that end, the Afghani tribes mounted numerous attacks on the post between 27 August and 11 September. But the biggest assault came on the final day of the battle –on 12 September 1897. Ten thousand Afghani tribesmen charged the Saragarhi post.

Around 9 in the morning, 10,000 Afghani tribesmen marched towards the post.
(Photo: The Quint/Arnica Kala)
Soldier Gurmukh Singh sent a message to Commanding Officer Colonel Haughton at Fort Lockhart that the post was being attacked.
(Photo: The Quint/Arnica Kala)
When Col Haughton failed to send any help, the 21 bravehearts geared up for a fight.
(Photo: The Quint/Arnica Kala)

Lance Naik Lal Singh and Sepoy Bhagwan Singh fired at the enemies with their rifles. However, Bhagwan Singh was killed in the combat and Lal Singh was injured. The Pashtun tribes asked the soldiers to surrender – but the Sikh soldiers refused.

At this point, a section of the Afghani tribesmen charged at the fort’s gates twice with full force – trying to break them – but failed both times.
(Photo: The Quint/Arnica Kala)

Eventually, however, they entered the fort and a gruesome battle began.

Hawaldar Ishar Singh who was in charge of the contingent quickly stationed himself – along with other soldiers – at the door, while other soldiers were instructed to stay inside the fort.
(Photo: The Quint/Arnica Kala)

Even as hundreds of enemies stood waiting at the door, Ishar Singh and the others struck.

After fighting courageously for several hours, Ishar Singh and his companions were killed. In a bid to enter the fort, the Afghani Army set it on fire.

By this point, only five Indian soldiers were still alive. Gurumukh Singh stood at the signal tower, while the remaining four – hugely outnumbered by the Afghani Army –fought till their last breaths.

Around 3:30 pm, it is said that Gurumukh Singh – the youngest soldier in the contingent – entered the battlefield. He was the last man standing.
(Photo: The Quint/Arnica Kala)

He packed all his belongings in a leather bag and then came down from the tower, carrying weapons in his hands.

Legend has it that Gurumukh Singh killed 20 enemies before they set him on fire.
(Photo: The Quint/Arnica Kala)

It wasn't until the next day that the British Army reached the Saragarhi post. After fighting the tribesmen for another two days, they won it back.

After the Battle of Saragarhi, tributes were paid to the 21 bravehearts in the British Parliament. They were also honoured with the Victoria Cross. Till date, the Sikh regiment celebrates Saragarhi Diwas on 12 September.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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