Sikhs and Pathans,
Victory over the tribesmen on
the North-West Frontier of
British India is still
commemorated by Sikh Regiments
by James Lunt 1977
THE NORTH WEST FRONTIER of India used to be described as the British Army's finest Training Ground, where a real enemy fired real bullets at one - rather like Mr Jorrocks' definition of Fox-Hunting as being 'The image of war without its guilt, and only five-and-twenty per cent of its danger.'This may have been true enough, so far as guilt was concerned, because the Pathans, as the Frontier tribesmen were collectively known, regarded war as being an inevitable part of their way of life. It was another matter, however, when it came to danger, since the tribesmen were cruel and ruthless adversaries who neither gave nor expected quarter. The history of the British campaigns on the Frontier tells as much of tragedy as of triumph, and one of the greatest tragedies occurred at the little-
known fort of Saragarhi -little-known, that is, until September 12th, 1897, since when what happened at Saragarhi has been commemorated each year wherever the various battalions of the Sikh Regiment happen to be garrisoned. Saragarhi was a small stone blockhouse situated roughly midway along the five miles long Samana Ridge, which divided the Kurram and the Kanki valleys. Its function was to serve as a signalling station between Fort Lockhart at the eastern end of the ridge and Fort Cavagnari, usually known as Gulistan, on the west. Because signalling at that time was confined toheliograph and flag semaphore, the outcrop of rock on which Saragarhi stood interrupted the line of sight between the two main posts; hence the need for a signalling station to transmit messages between the two.
On Saragarhi's southern flank the ground fell steep and sheer to the Kurram valley 3,000 feet below; on its other three sides the slope was less precipitous, but seamed and broken by numerous ravines. These, together with great boulders with which the ground was littered, provided a perfect covered approach to within a few yards of the blockhouse walls. There had been attempts to clear a field of fire for Saragarhi's defenders but it was never envisioned that the blockhouse should withstand
a serious assault. Aid could soon be sent from either Fort Lockhart or Gulistan - or so the military planners had reckoned.The Indian infantry battalion defending the Samana Ridge in September 1897 was the 36th Sikhs, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Haughton, veteran of many a Frontier battle.
His regiment was relatively new by Indian Army standards, and, unusually, was composed entirely of Sikhs. After the Indian Mutiny the British had taken the precaution in most regiments to mix the Class Composition, Hindu Dogras and Jats providing some kind of a check on Punjabi Mussalmans, and vice versa. Only a few regiments- Gurkhas, Mahrattas and Sikhs - recruited from all the same class.
The fact that the 36th were wholly Sikh (apart, of course, from their British officers) lent an extra dimension to the drama that was about to unfold. The Sikhs, a martial Hindu sect immediately distinguishable by their neatly coiled beards and distinctively-tied turbans, first made their impact on the Indian scene in the fifteenth century, as a result of the teachings of their first Guru, Nanak. Dwelling mostly in the Punjab, the Sikhs gathered strength under the greatest of their Gurus, Gobind Singh, despite the ruthless attempts by successive Moghul Emperors to suppress them. Thus there developed a deep hatred between the warrior Sikhs,determined to defend their Faith, and the Moslems, equallydetermined to force them to recant.It was after the collapse of the Moghuls, andduring the early days of British rule, that the Sikhs reaped their revenge. They produced a man of genius, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who between 1800 and 1839 extended the Sikhs' boundaries until they included the Vale of
Kashmir and marched with those of Afghanistan. Ranjit, short and unprepossessing in appearance, for he lacked an eye and was heavily pockmarked, was equally successful in the bedchamber and on the battlefield. He wasfond of quoting the old Persian couplet, 'Four things greater than all things are, Women, and Horses, and Power, and War,' and he certainly lived up to it. His harem was filled with beautiful women, his stables with superb horses, and he had as much war as even he could have wanted. Power, too, but he took great care not to fight the British, reasoning that along that road he might meet with disaster. Sikh rule pressed harshly on Ranjit's Moslem subjects, particularly on the Pathans in the North-West, and the tribesmen had many scores to settle. This they remembered at Saragarhi. Tribal uprisings on the Frontier had a habit of appearing out of nowhere, and that of 1897 was no exception. Sometimes the British political officers, moving among the Tribes, were able to forecast trouble, but equally as often rebellion came almost overnight. There was some warning in 1897, because the tribal gatherings (jirgahs) had been debating the pros and cons of a rising against the government, but no-one could have guessed the extent of the uprising, nor the speed with which it swept through the tribal areas like a prairie fire. From Swat to Waziristan the tribes rose in their tens of thousands - Afridis and Orakzais, Mahsuds and Mohmands - egged on by their religious leaders, the Hadda Mullah and the Mullah Powindah. The Mullahs preached a Jihad, or Holy War, promising all those so fortunate as to die in the act of cutting a Hindu or Christian throat with eternal bliss in a Paradise where all the fields were well-watered and all the women more beautiful and willing than human imagination could conceive. The first news ofthe uprising came from Fort Chakdara in distant Swat. There the tribesmen allowed the officers to complete their afternoon's polo before pinning them down in their fort. At Maizar in the Tochi Valley there was a different story. British officers enjoying a meal with some tribal chiefs were treacherously shot in the back. When reports of incident after incident were brought to Colonel Haughton in Fort Lockhart by his Political Officer, the latter added that it could not be long before the local tribes joined in the fray, and made a determined attempt to capture Samana Ridge. This was on September l Oth , and Haughton'sfirst concern was for Saragarhi. Half his battalion (Headquarters of the 36th Sikhs and four Companies) was located in Fort Lockhart; the other four Companies held Gulistan. In between there were small detachments manning pickets and observation posts who could be withdrawn without undue risk to the main positions. Saragarhi, however, was a different proposition. Without Saragarhi, Haughton could not keep touch with the other half of his battalion. Reluctantly, and with every recognition of the risks he was running with his soldiers' lives, Haughton decided that Saragarhi must be held - to the last man, and to the last round. There were twenty-one soldiers defending Saragarhi, most of them young, and few with more than five years' service. The majority of them belonged to the Signalling Platoon, trained in the use of helio and semaphore. Allwere Sikhs. They were commanded by Havildar (Sergeant) Ishar Singh, aJat Sikh from the Punjab, who had left his village twelve years before to enlist in the Sirkar's service. His subsequent career in the 36th Sikhs had not been one of unqualified success, because Ishar Singh was a somewhat turbulent character whose independent nature had brought him more than once into conflict with his military superiors. His career in many ways was a reflection of the advice given to young British officers when first they joined a Sikh unit: 'Work your men until they drop and you'll find they make the best soldiers in India; but if you relax and let them idle around in barracks, there's no kind of mischief known to man they won't become involved in.' Thus Ishar Singh - in camp a nuisance; in the field magnificent! Little more could be done within Saragarhi to make the place more secure; but what could be done was done by Ishar Singh's twenty men under his watchful eye and blistering tongue. And after it was done, all they could do was wait, sweltering in the narrow confines of the fort as the sun rose higher in the sky. Meanwhile, the messages between Fort Lockhartand Gulistan continued to pass, faithfully intercepted and transmitted onwards by winking helio from the high roof of Saragarhi. There was not long to wait. On the morning of September 12th, not long after Ishar Singh
had stood down all those not on duty, and had set them to cleaning their rifles, a message was flashed from Gulistan warning that a tribal lashkar, several thousands strong, had comeswarming out of the Kurram Valley and had been launched against Gulistan's outer perimeter. Thwarted there, the tribesmen had withdrawn momentarily; but soon afterwards Aridis and Orakzais, shouting 'Death to the Infidels,' had poured up on to Samana Ridge, cutting off Gulistan from Fort Lockhart, and sweeping round Saragarhi like the waves of the sea. To the handful of Sikhs peering down from the loopholes cut high in Saragarhi's walls it must have seemed as if every Pathan on the Frontier was screaming for their blood. At first the chiefs came forward to offer surrender on easy terms. Ishar Singh's reply, delivered in Pushtu, the language of the Frontier, was as uncompromising as it was obscene. Then the tribesmen turned to threats, taunting the soldiers with the prospect of a slow and painful
death if they chose to remain faithful to their salt. Neither promises nor threats made the slightest impression on Ishar Singh. As the bullets from a thousand muskets screamed overhead, ricochetting as they struck the masonry, he calmly reported by helio to Fort Lockhart. that Saragarhi was now surrounded. Then, taking his rifle, he went to his post, aiming carefully and picking off any tribesman so unwise as to show himself from behind his cover. Saragarhi must have seemed an easy prey to the tribesmen as they took up position beneath its walls. Their Intelligence was good, and they knew precisely the strength of its garrison. Wild-eyed, unkempt, and smelling rankly from the goats and camels that shared their mud hovels in the valley below, they were halfdrunk with religious fanaticism and hatred of their enemy. Time after time they moved forward in an unsteady line, only to be cut down by the withering fire from the Sikhs above. For six long hours the battle continued, as the heat grew fiercer and a man's thirst more unendurable but nothing the tribesmen did could make the slightest impression on Ishar Singh and his band of devoted Jawans. Time was not on the Tribesmen's side- or so their chiefs reasoned; for they were not to know that Colonel Haughton had left Saragarhi to look after itself. At any moment, the Pathans feared, a relief column might move out from Fort Lockhart, and shortly afterwards the dreaded high explosive shells from the mountain howitzers would be bursting around them as they sheltered among the rocks. If Saragarhi was to be taken before relief could arrive, it must be done before nightfall; and already the shadows were beginning to lengthen.
Meanwhile, within the blockhouse, conditions were deteriorating fast. The tribesmen
may not have penetrated as far as the walls; but their bullets had killed or wounded many of the tiny garrison. After nearly six hours' fighting more than half the defenders had been either killed or wounded; but when Ishar Singh laconically reported the fact to Fort Lockhart, he added that this meant all the more ammunition was available for those who remained on their feet. For a time there was an uneasy lull, apart from the occasional sniping shot, and then suddenly the tribesmen opened fire in a sustained fusillade. Many of the Sikhs drew back from the embrasures to protect themselves; but those who were braver, or more foolhardy, saw a party of the enemy rush out from behind the cover of their rocks and make for an angle of the, fort where they would be in dead ground from the fort's walls above. The tribesmen ran crouched, carrying on their backs a string bed, or charpoy, covered to a depth of three feet with layers of straw, earth and stones. This would protect their backs from fire from above while they worked to sap the foundations of the fort.It was an old Frontier ruse. At that height, and in those extremes of climate, mortar quickly becomes friable. Soon the long knives of the tribesmen had loosened the mortar between two great blocks of stone. Inserting a crowbar, they soon succeeded in levering away sufficient blocks to make a narrow opening into one of the lower rooms of the fort. They worked frantically to enlarge the breach, and with a great shout of triumph the tribesmen surged forward. But Ishar Singh had the measure of them. Hastily collecting his few remaining men, he ordered them to fix bayonets and kill every Pathan as he emerged through the breach. This they did - and faithfully. The breach was choked with dead and dying, and once more the tribesmen withdrew. When next they came forward, they brought with them great bundles of burning brushwood, thrusting them into the breach without regard for the bodies of their comrades already lying there; and the dark and narrow room beyond was filled with smoke and the smell of burning. Now Ishar Singh knew that the game was up. Returning to the roof, he flashed his last message to Fort Lockhart. The enemy was in the fort - the Sikhs were overrun but would not surrender. Then, placing the heliograph carefully in its case, and leaving it in a corner by the battlement, he went down for the last time to join his men in their final stand. By now the interior of the fort was a milling mass of men, arms rising and falling as the tribesmen thrust their long knives into the few remaining defenders. Somewhere in the midst of this holocaust of blood, smoke and flames Havildar Ishar Singh of the 36th Sikhs fell to a Pathan's knife. Soon there was only one soldier left on his feet, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh; and he died, as so many Sikhs had died before him, shouting the Sikh war-cry - 'Wake Guru ji ka Khalsa, Wahe Guruji ki Fateh!' Saragarhi hadbeen defended to the last man and the last round. The frenzy of destruction then seized the tribesmen. Little caring that their own wounded lay bleeding beside the enemy, the Pathans brought bundle after bundle of flaming brushwood into Saragarhi until the blockhouse became engulfed in a sea of flames. Those who watched the drama from the walls of Forts Lockhart and Gulistan saw a great pillar of smoke and fire mount high into the evening sky, destroying dead and dying alike, but by some quirk of fate sparing the heliograph, which was later found undamaged in its charred leather case. And as Saragarhi burned, the tribesmen slipped away down the ravines to their houses in the valley, leaving behind as witness to the valour of Havildar Ishar Singh and his twenty comrades the bodies of more than two hundred of their own.
Few Frontier battles ever quite captured British imagination as did the defence of Saragarhi. When the story of the siege was told to the House of Commons by the Secretary of State for India, every member rose spontaneously to his feet in tribute to the men of the 36th Sikhs. Each one of the defenders received the immediate posthumous award of the Indian Order of Merit, and their dependants were given a grant of 500 rupees and two acres of land. The Sikh community raised three memorials in their honour - at Amritsar, Ferozepore, and at Saragarhi itself. An Army Order was promulgated declaring September 12th as an annual holiday for all regimen ts enlisting Sikhs. Perhaps the tribute that would most have pleased Havildar Ishar Singh and his comrades was decided upon by their Regiment. Out of all the many Battle Honours awarded to the Sikh Regiment, for battles fought all over the world, that of Saragarhi would be commemorated each year on 'Saragarhi Day'. That is why on September
12th, wherever they may happen to be, every battalion ofthe Sikh Regiment (and there are now nineteen of them) solemnly commemorates the 'Immortal martyrs' of the old 36th.