The story of 21 Sikh soldiers who died fighting against very heavy odds, while defending the Saragarhi post against an attack of nearly 10,000 Pathans is a story of "an instance of the most daring and calculated feats of bravery and devotion to duty that one reads in the history of mankind."
In the year 1897, there was the general uprising in the North-West Frontier led by Mullahs. The Pathans started attacking the troops everywhere. The 36th (Now 4/11) Sikh Regiment- then only ten years old- was raised at Jullundur in 1887 under the command of Colonel Cooke- was ordered from Kohat to Fort Lockhart on the bare, scraggy hills of tribal areas. Gulistan and Saragarhi were two outposts of Fort Lock-hart. The former could be reinforced and was reinforced but Saragarhi was in a different category.
On September 12, 1897, thousands of Afridi and Orakzai Pathans swarmed on the ridge and soon the two aforesaid posts were surrounded. Lieutenant Colonel Haughton, Commanding officer of Fort Lock Hart was in constant touch with Saragarhi from where signals were coming on the heliograph. This post of Saragarhi was being then manned by Havildar Ishar Singh as the Post Commander along with Naik Labh Singh, Lance Naik Chanda Singh and 18 Sepoys.
This signalling post for that was its main function and a link between Gulistan and Fort Lockhart on either end of the ridge, situated on the top of a narrow barfren hill, was a square shaped block of solid stones with long loopholes in the parapet on all sides, to enable marksmen inside to fire at any approaching enemy.
One side of this stronghold was protected by an abrupt fall making any approach impossible from that direction. The remaining three sides had gentle slopes along which an assault could be attempted. Though these were well covered by the fire from the post above, yet there were enough places behind many rocks and boulders for determined marksmen to hold on for hours and it is these which caused maximum casualties among the beseiged. Thorny bushes and scrub, mostly dry, completed the grim scene.
On September 3 and again on September 9, 1897, the Pathans attacked Gulistan which was held by four companies. Both the attacks were repulsed with very heavy losses to the enemy. Stung by these reverses thousnads of Pathans fell on the small post of Saragarhi on the morning of September 12. At that time there were only 21 brave Sikh soldiers in Saragarhi post. They returned the fire on reply to fire opened on them by Pathans, who had taken postions within thousand yards. Outside help was out of the question.
Sepoy Gurmukh Singh sent a heliographic message to Colonel Haughton that Saragarhi was under heavy attack by the enemy. On orders from the commander, these soldiers returned the fire. When the firing had continued for about half an hour, Naiks Lal Singh and Bhagwan Singh and Sepoy Jiwan Singh got out of the post and began firing at Pathans. They killed several of the enemies before Bhagwan Singh was killed and Lal Singh, though wounded, kept on firing on the enemy while lying on the ground. The Sikh soldiers practically proved the prophetic saying of SIkh's tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji that "Sawa Lakh se ek Laraon, Tabhi Gobind Singh Naam Kahoon" (one sikh will face 1,25,000 enemy and then alone I will be called Gobind Singh). These 21 soldiers died one by one, after each one of them had killed hundreds of Pathans. Gurmukh Singh through heliograph- which then was the most efficient media of communication as radio at that time was a far cry- kept the commandant of Fort Lockhart fully informed of the situation.
It was about 2.00 PM that the ammuniation ran short and a request was made to the Colonel for more supplies. But these hard-pressed soldiers were told to stick to their guns and hold on. In the meantime, the Pathans asked the Sikh Soldiers to surrender, but these Sikhs being the true followers of Guru Gobind Singh told the enemy that they could not go against the command of their Guru, who beckoned them not to lost heart and surrender in a battle. They further told the Pathans that they (Sikhs) would not allow the enemy to come near the Post till their last man was alive.
The intimates of Saragarhi Post again signalled to the commander that the enemy was climbing the Post by piling the dead bodies of their (Pathan's) comrades against the walls. The Commander was also informed that the seven surviving Sikh Soldiers were left only with swords and bayonets. Two of them were fighting against those Pathans who had climbed the walls of the Post, while the other five were giving a grim fight to those who had forced their way into the post by burning the gate.
Ultimately the leader Havildar Ishar Singh was left alone, twenty bodies of his brave comrades lying around him. With consumate coolness regardless of bullets who stling over and around him, Havildar Ishar Singh had kept up heliographic communication with Fort Lockhart. Now flashing across that the enemy was in the Post, he asked permission to close the signal station. According to a contemporary Army authority "Havildar Ishar Singh the only man alive and unwounded out of the devoted little band, taking his rifle placed himself in front of a doorway leading from the room into which the enemy had forced their way, prepared to sustain the fight alone. Calmly and steadily, as if on the range, he loaded his rifle and delivered his fire. Unconquered even in death, the Sikh war cries "Wah Guru Ji ka Khalsa, Wah Guru Ji Ki Fateh" rang from his dying lips.
Unable to make any headways the Pathans then collected some bushes and wood and pushing it through the opening set it on fire. Smoke and flames filled the post.
The Pathans took their revenge from the dead. Having removed the rifles, the Post was set on fire, the silence being broken only by cracking of the burning wood of the doors and the flames.
Each one of these 21 men was awarded the Indian Order of Merit (IOM) for their VALOUR- the highest award for gallantry and their widows were given the pension then admissible. A cash reward of Rs. 500 and two squares of land were also given to the dependents.
The Indo-Pakistan border town of Ferozepur has the privilege to have their permanent memory in the form of historic Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara in which, it is stated, same stones had also been used which had witnessed the grim battle between these brave Sikhs and Pathans at Saragarhi Post. This Gurudwara at Ferozepur was built at a cost of Rs. 27,118 and was publically declared open on January 18, 1904, by Sir Charles Montgomery Rivas, the then Lt Governor of Punjab.
The heroic deed of these 21 brave Sikh soldiers was brought to the forefront by the daily newspaper Pioneer of Allahabad, who praised the chivalrous deeds of these soldiers in a number of articles. This led to an agitation in Britain demanding that the heroic deed of these brave soldiers should not go unnoticed. The paper had demanded that a befitting memorial must be raised in memory of these soldiers who had set up an unparalleled example of bravery about which not only the Sikh military but entire Indian Army is proud of.
These articles of the Pioneer then produced the desired effect as it was decided to raise memorials at Waziristan- where these soldiers had laid down their lives, at Kesari Bagh Amritsar- the holy seat of the Sikhs and at Ferozepur, to which district most of these 21 Sikh Soldiers belonged.
Such heroism as demonstrated by the Sikh Soldiers in North-West Frontier was never witnessed ever before. An Indian Heroes Fund was opened which was liberally subscribed to in India as also in England. Her Majesty the Queen of England had also subscribed 250 guineas.
Every year a special Dewan is held in the historic Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara in Ferozepur Cantonment on September 12 to pay homage to these brave Sikh Soldiers. The memorial, besides a brief account of the battle of Saragarhi, also contains the names of these 21 Sikh Soldiers who are: Havildar Ishar Singh, Naik Lal Singh, Lance Naik Chanda Singh, Sepoys Sudh Singh, Sahib Singh, Uttam Singh, Narain Singh, Gurmukh Singh, Jiwan Singh, Ram Singh, Hira Singh, Daya Singh, Bhola Singh, Jiwan Singh, Gurmukh Singh, Bhagwan Singh, Ram Singh, Boota Singh, Jiwan Singh, Anand Singh and Bhagwan Singh.
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