Battle of Saragarhi: 21 Sikhs vs. 10,000 Afghan Rebels

Photo Credit: Felice Beato / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Felice Beato / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Between two British forts on the Samana Range stood a signaling outpost. It was operated by a small crew and became the target of a powerful Afghan rebel attack. Refusing to surrender, the 21 Sikhs manning the outpost fought to keep the tribesmen at bay. Their efforts during the Battle of Saragarhi are still commemorated to this day through a number of ceremonies.

The Saragarhi outpost was necessary for communications

Man operating a heliograph outside
The Saragarhi outpost’s signaling tower used heliography to transmit messages. (Photo Credit: Macchess / US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In the 1800s, the British controlled India and had prepared Sikh infantry companies to aid in their attempt to invade Afghanistan, which was altogether not fairing well. The infantrymen were posted at a series of forts in the rural areas along the border of what’s now present-day Pakistan.

The distance between the military structures was far, due to them being situated in the mountains. As such, signaling posts were constructed to aid in communications. The Saragarhi outpost, located between Forts Lockhart and Gulistan, was manned by 21 members of the 36th Sikh Regiment, British Indian Army. Of that number, three were non-commissioned officers and 18 were other ranks.

The Saragarhi outpost was constructed on a ridge and consisted of just a small block house and a signaling tower. It transmitted messages between its designated forts using heliography, a method of communication wherein light is reflected off a mirror and flashed toward the recipient to relay a coded message.

Afghani rebels prepare to launch their attack

Map showing the locations of Fort Gulistan, Fort Lockhart and the Saragarhi outpost
The Saragarhi outpost was located between Forts Gulistan and Lockhart. (Photo Credit: No Attribution / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Najmuddin Akhundzada, known as the Mulla of Hadda, was an influential religious figure in Afghanistan during the 19th century. After gaining a hefty following, he declared Jihad in August 1897 and began planning an attack on the British. In the subsequent weeks, continous attacks were launched, with one group of Afridi tribesmen attempting two sieges on Fort Gulistan, which were repelled.

A group of around 10,000 from the Afridi and Orakzai tribes came together to attack the Saragarhi outpost, in what became known as the Battle of Saragarhi. The Pathans marched toward the site and surrounded it, aware that, by taking out the site, they’d effectively be cutting off communications between Forts Lockhart and Gulistan. This would therefore make them vulnerable to further attacks.

The Sikhs, unwilling to become prisoners, retaliated to buy the forts time to prepare their own defenses.

Battle of Saragarhi

Four Sikh soldiers standing in front of a tent
Soldiers with the 36th Sikh Regiment, 1896. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The 10,000-strong Pathans attacking the Saragarhi outpost were met with intense fire by the Sikhs. Led by Havildar Ishar Singh, the 21 soldiers set up defensive positions along the outer wall, blocked the entrance, and handed out 0.303-caliber rifles with ammunition.

They were successful in cutting down 60 Afghanis during the first wave, forcing the enemy troops to temporarily withdraw. Unbeknownst to the defenders, however, two had made it past, reached a dead angle along the wall and begun tunneling. All the while, the Sikhs defended against six more waves of Pathans. After hours of digging, the wall began to cave in. Before they advanced, the Pathans set the surrounding grass and bushes ablaze to provide a hazy veil over their rushing attack.

At around 3:00 PM, they made their way past the outer wall. This wave forced the Sikhs to their inner defenses, but, to get there, the Pathans needed to be slowed. Ishar Singh ordered a charge, while he and a few others engaged in hand-to-hand combat. The order was a desperate attempt to buy time, and he was swiftly cut down.

Supplementary forces couldn’t break through the Afghan rebels

Sikh officers standing together in a makeshift camp
Sikh officers with the British 15th Punjab Infantry Regiment, 1858. (Photo Credit: Felice Beato / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

From the beginning, the Sikhs stationed at the Saragarhi outpost were aware the Pathans had been approaching. Prior to the first attack, one of the heliographers, Sepoy Gurmurkh Singh, signaled to Lt. Col. John Haughton at Fort Lockhart, “ENEMY APPROACHING THE MAIN GATE…NEED REINFORCEMENT.” Haughton sent a force to assist, but it was too late. As such, the heliographer at Fort Lockhart responded with, “UNABLE TO BREAKTHROUGH…HOLD POSITION.”

As the Battle of Saragarhi waged on, Gurmurkh signaled the course of events. Through the waves of attacks, he sent a number of messages, including, “LOW ON AMMO…NEED AMMO…URGENTLY.” Again, Haughton tried to provide aid, but his personal orderly was unable to break through to provide the necessary ammunition.

Sepoy Gurmurkh Singh was the final Sikh soldier standing

Illustration of a Sikh soldier holding a rifle
Illustration of a Sikh soldier, 1880. (Photo Credit: Print Collector / Getty Images)

After the Pathans successfully charged the outer wall, Gurmurkh Singh signaled, “MAIN GATE BREACHED…DOWN TO ONE…REQUEST PERMISSION TO DISMOUNT AND JOIN THE FIGHT.” He was granted permission and disassembled the heliograph device, prepared for battle.

Gurmurkh picked up his rifle and made his way down from the tower. Unfortunately, the further the Pathans made it into the Saragarhi outpost, the more success they experienced, mowing down four out of the five remaining Sikh soldiers. The only one remaining, Gurmurkh ran into the thick of the battle, with his final words reportedly being, “One will be blessed eternally, who says that God is the ultimate truth,” the Sikh battle cry.

In the end, the Pathans burned down the outpost, in the hopes they wouldn’t lose anymore men; against 21 Sikhs, they’d lost a whopping 180 rebels. They then turned their sights to Fort Gulistan, but they’d waited too long, allowing for reinforcements to arrive at the military base.

The Sikhs’ last stand is remembered to this day

Exterior of the Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara
Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara, constructed in honor of the 21 Sikh soldiers who died defending the Saragarhi outpost. (Photo Credit: RameshSharma1 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

The efforts of the Sikh soldiers during the Battle at Saragarhi successfully bought Forts Gulistan and Lockhart enough time for reinforcements to arrive, preventing an uprising. They were posthumously presented with the highest British military award for Indian soldiers at the time, the Indian Order of Merit (IOM). Additionally, the Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara was erected in their honor.

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Each year on September 12, the Sikh military recognizes Saragarhi Day, in recognition of the soldiers’ sacrifice. The United Kingdom also continues to recognize their heroics, regularly paying tribute and holding their own day of commemoration.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!