Today marks the anniversary of the heroic defence of Fort Saragarhi by 21 Sikhs in 1897. This picture, first published in Warrior Saints, shows the ruins of the fort after the battle took place.

The Battle of Saragarhi was fought by a detachment of twenty-one soldiers of the 36th (Sikh) Bengal Infantry (later the 36th Sikhs).

During the late 19th century the British maintained a heavy presence on the North-West Frontier and fought for many years against Afghan tribesmen. Havildar Ishar Singh and twenty comrades held the signal post of Saragarhi, a small block house with loop-holed ramparts and a signalling tower situated on a rocky ridge between two British-controlled fortifications. A surprise attack by thousands of Afghans on 12 September stranded the twenty-one men without reinforcements. Although massively outnumbered, they inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. It was a battle that could not be won, so they fought to the last man.

All this time, the signaller Sepoy Gurmukh Singh continued flashing the details of the action back to the commanding officer of the regiment at Fort Lockhart. When the tribesmen finally breached the fort walls, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh asked headquarters for permission to shut down the heliograph and take up his rifle. Permission was flashed back. The final message from the signaller said that every other member of the team had died fighting and now he would kill as many as he could before also dying; that would therefore be the last signal. He dismounted his heliograph equipment, packed it in a leather bag, fixed bayonet on his rifle and joined the fight. From this vantage point in the tower he wrought havoc on the intruders in the post. He died fighting, but took twenty of the enemy with him.

All twenty-one soldiers were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award given to Indian soldiers in those days, in an event that remains unparalleled in military history. Memorials were raised at on the site of the Saragarhi post, at Amritsar in the form of a gurdwara, and on the cantonment at Ferozepur, where most of the men hailed from.

Source: British Library. Text from Warrior Saints soon to be republished in a new expanded second edition

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