Beneath Saragarhi’s ruined walls, They found a fitting grave; For Saragarhi bears the fame, They gave their lives to save.
What does ‘Honour, Courage and Sacrifice’ mean to a soldier. Perhaps there is no better way of explaining these words than in the telling of the epic battle of Saragarhi, which was fought on 12 September, 1897 during the Tirah campaign of 1897-1898.
Tirah is a mountainous tract of country, inhabited mainly by the Afridi and Orakzai tribesman. A harsh place, it is embroiled even today in bloody conflict, though now it forms part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. At that time, this region was a part of British India and was home to a multitude of battle-hardened tribes for centuries. This was the period when the Russians were trying to make inroads into the continent via Afghanistan and the British, in response, made several incursions into Afghanistan to stop this adventurism by the tribes allied to Russia. The rivalry between Russia and Britain, played out over Afghanistan was popularly called the ‘Great Game’. To contain and keep the tribes in check the British manned a series of posts along the Hindu Kush ranges. These posts had in earlier times been constructed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh during the hey days of the Sikh empire and after its decline, these were taken over by the British for the same purpose.
To enable the smooth flow of trade via the Khyber Pass and prevent tribal raids, the British Indian Government paid a subsidy to the Afridi tribesman. In addition, they also maintained a regiment, composed entirely of Afridis, at the Khyber pass. That notwithstanding, the troopshad to be ever vigilant against constant raids and skirmishes by the local tribesman. The arrangement put up by the British remained reasonably successful for the 16 years it was in operation. However, in 1897, the tribes rose in revolt against the British. To suppress the revolt, The British Indian Government launched the Tirah expedition under the command of General Sir William Lockhart in the latter part of 1897. Five companies of 36 Sikh, which had been raised on 20 April 1894 under the command of Col J. Cook, were sent in August 1897, under Lt Col John Haughton, to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. These troops were stationed at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar and Saragarhi.
In the tribal uprising, the tribals captured all the posts in the Khyber held by their own countrymen, and attacked the forts on the Samana Range near the city of Peshawar. During the first week of September, the Afridi and Orakzai tribesmen also launched anumber of attacks on Fort Gulistan and Fort Lockhart, which too had earlier been constructed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Elements of 36 Sikh, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton, which had been moved to the area, had been successfully repelling these attacks from the tough, hardy Pashtuns.Fort Lockhart was located on the Samana Range of the Hindu Kush mountains. Situated a few miles away from Fort Lockhart, was Fort Gulistan, on the Sulaiman Range. Due to the forts not being visible to each other, Saragarhi was created midway, as a heliographic communication post.Saragarhi Postwas thus nothing more than a small signalling station situated on a barren, wind-blown hillslope between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan.
Despite repeated attempts, the tribesman could not breach either Fort Lockhart or Fort Gulistan. So, on September 12, 1897, they changed their strategy and attacked Saragarhi instead, aiming to cut off the vital communication link between the two forts. The Pathan attack plan was simple. The tribesman would block the entry of reinforcements, which could come to the aid of Saragarhi and thereafter attack the post with full strength. By the morning of 12 September, the tribesman were in position, and were simply raring to go. At this time, Saragarhi was being guarded by a detachment of Sikhs. It was providential that the post had been reinforced just a day earlier, and now comprised of Havildar Ishar Singh, and 20 other ranks.
On the morning of 12 September, when Havildar Ishar Singh peered through the binocular from the watch tower of his post, he was rudely awakened by the sight that met his eyes. Far in the distance, columns upon columns and row upon rows of Pathans were advancing to his post, waving their swords and guns menacingly. The dust cloud kicked up by the thousands of horses was of such intensity that it partially blocked the rays of the sun. With a grim determination, Havildar Ishar Singh, readied his men for the battle – a battle that was to resound in the annals of military history as a feat of collective heroism, unparalleled in the history of the fighting arms.
Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, the detachment signaller, then went up an elevated mound to set up his heliograph and sent the first of many signals to Fort Lockhart. “Enemy Approaching the Main Gate. Need Reinforcements.”
But there were no reinforcements forthcoming, for as Lt Col Haughton soon found out, the enemy had effectively blocked all routes from where aid could come.
“Unable to break through. Hold Position” was the terse message that was flashed from Fort Lockhart to the beleaguered troops at Saragarhi.
“Understood”, was the response flashed back by Gurmukh Singh. The fate of the post at Saragarhi was thus sealed. Haughton could do nothing but watch from Fort Lockhart, the events unfolding before his eyes. He counted at least 10 enemy standards (each representing 1,000 tribesmen) facing the 21 soldiers from 36 Sikh.
In the Saragarhi post the bugle was sounded and in a flash the troops formed up two line abreast, one row in a squatting firing position and the other standing as per the bugle’s tone.The troops were equipped with the Martini Henry breech loading rifle, which at that time was the standard British infantry rifle. They had first entered service with the British Army in 1871 and quickly became their mainstay. The Sikhs had only recently received these rifles, after all the British units were equipped, replacing the venerable Enfield. Capable of firing ten .303 calibre rounds a minute, it proved to be more than a match to the antiquated muzzle loading rifles possessed by the tribesmen. Bur mere superiority of the rifle was no match for the hordes that confronted Ishar Singh.
The defenders now stood ready to face the advancing enemy. Ten thousand soldiers of the enemy against just 21 of the defenders. Though the rifle had an effective range of 600 yards, Havildar Ishar Singh held his fire, allowing the enemy to come closer, the better to deal with them.
“Fire”, he yelled, when the enemy was just 250 yards from the post. The massed fire effect was deadly and the leading lot of the enemy crumpled to the dust.
“Reload”, ordered Ishar and then the next volley was fired. But the enemy was not to be halted and the following lots of the enemy continued to advance towards the post.
“Reload and Fire at Will”, ordered Ishar Singh and a hail of bullets soon followed the command. The ding dong battle continued till the first wave of attacks was beaten back and the enemy forced to regroup. However, the manual breech loading rifle had to be cocked every time to shoot, which was time consuming. The first wave of the enemy had fallen, but there were countless waves behind them. It would be but a matter of time before the hordes were at the gate.
The Pathans now changed their strategy, and approached the post from two directions., one towards the main gate and the other towards the gap at the fort. To counter the charging enemy, Havildar Ishar Singh gave his next set of commands.
“Squatting Soldiers to the Left, Standing Soldiers to the Right…QUICKLY…QUICKLY.
The highly disciplined soldiers followed the orders like clock work and once again the enemy attack was repulsed. This level of resistance was not expected by the tribesman and so they tried a different tack. With casualties on their side mounting, they offered the defenders favourable terms to surrender. This off course was rejected with contempt by the Sikhs. They were well aware of the atrocities committed against captured soldiers by the Pashtun or Afghani tribesmen. Castration, mutilation and skinning captured soldiers alive was one of the many ways tribal leaders instilled fear and control. The Pasthun were fierce warriors just like the Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army but lacked the chivalry aspect of the warrior ethos. In a poem titled “The Young British Soldier”, Rudyard Kipling had written these immortal lines:
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.”
The enemy now reformed and resumed his attack on the hapless Sikhs, watched all along by their commanding officer from Fort Lockhart. All the while, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh continued flashing messages to the Fort, apprising them of the latest situation. Wave after wave came upon the defenders, who however, stoutly refused to either budge or flinch. The death toll on the enemy kept mounting, but their supply of manpower was endless. The defenders, however could not replace their losses and by noon were down to just ten men. After many unsuccessful attempts, the tribesman finally managed to breach one of the walls. By this time the battle, observed from the fort, had raged for the better part of the sunlit hours. With the enemy now in the inner perimeter, a determined Ishar Singh ordered his troops to fall back into the inner layer of Saragarhi, while he distracted and held the attackers at bay — another classic delaying tactic. After fierce and brutal hand-to-hand combat, Ishar Singh was killed, and the enemy now came into the inner perimeter, where the last phase of fighting took place. Each man stood up to be counted, and fought on till there was no breath left in him to fight. Finally, only one man, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh remained. At 1530 hours, Gurmukh passed his last message to Fort Lockhart.
“Closing down the wireless.” Request Permission to fix bayonet and fight the enemy. Permission was accorded and Gurmukh packed his equipment into a leather bag, fixed his bayonet and prepared to take on the enemy from the strong room. One soldier, alone against thousands. With the Sikh battle cry, “Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal (Victory belongs to those who recite the name of God with a true heart)” on his lips, he took on the enemy, and reportedly killed about 20 Pashtuns, before he was killed, the Pashtuns having to set fire to the post to eliminate him. And then a deep quiet descended on the post, even the gods acknowledging the feat of heroism, rarely witnessed in the annals of military history.
Having destroyed Saragarhi, the Afghans turned their attention to Fort Gulistan, but they had been delayed too long, and reinforcements arrived there in the night of 13-14 September, before the fort could be conquered. Thus ended this epic saga – a feat of resistance, unparalleled in history. When the relief party finally arrived at Saragarhi, there were over 600 dead Afghans and 21 soldiers of the 36th Sikhs. Of the six hundred enemy dead, some would have been the result of artillery fire in the retaking of the post. The Afghans themselves stated that they had lost about 180 killed and many more wounded during the engagement against the 21 Sikh soldiers. But for just 21 men, to have held off thousands of the enemy tribesman for over seven hours, was in itself a remarkable feat of gallantry, achieved earlier only in the classic battle of Thermopylae, fought between a Greek alliance and the Persian Empire in 480 BCE.
When informed of this feat, Britain’s Parliament interrupted proceedings and rose to give a standing ovation to these 21 valorous soldiers — all of them Indians, all of them Sikhs — for what was undoubtedly a tremendous act of collective bravery, and one of the greatest ‘last-stands’ in military history. The collective courage of the 21 Sikh soldiers moved Queen Victoria so much that her majesty decreed that due to conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity beyond and above the call of duty displayed by the 21 soldiers, all of them shall be awarded the Indian Order Merit (IOM) posthumously. IOM is the highest award for bravery given to colonial troops and it was equivalent to the British Victoria Cross. This was the only time in history of warfare where each soldier who took part in the same battle was given the highest award.
ROLL OF HONOUR
1. Havildar Ishar Singh (165)
2. Naik Lal Singh (332)
3. Lance Naik Chanda Singh (546)
4. Sepoy Sundar Singh (1321)
5. Sepoy Ram Singh (287)
6. Sepoy Uttar Singh (492)
7. Sepoy Sahib Singh (182)
8. Sepoy Hira Singh (359)
9. Sepoy Daya Singh (687)
10. Sepoy Jivan Singh (760)
11. Sepoy Bhola Singh (791)
12. Sepoy Narayan Singh (834)
13. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (814)
14. Sepoy Jivan Singh (871)
15. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (1733)
16. Sepoy Ram Singh (163)
17. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1257)
18. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1265)
19. Sepoy Buta Singh (1556)
20. Sepoy Jivan Singh (1651)
21. Sepoy Nand Singh (1221)
INDIA’S FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS MALDIVES
During the recent visit of India’s Foreign Minister, Smt Sushma Swaraj to the Maldives on 10 and 11 October, 2015, the two countries decided to ramp up cooperation in various fields including defence, security, energy and health as the two nations restarted the Joint Commission talks after a hiatus of 15 years. For the first time, defence and security matters were also included within the ambit of the India-Maldives Joint Commission. Smt Swaraj also assured the Maldives that India will always be the net security provider to the Indian Ocean archipelago, stating … “India has always been there for Maldives. I would like to assure you that India will always be the net security provider for Maldives. This is a very privileged relationship,” and adding that such a relationship requires to be ‘handled carefully’ on both sides. She also stressed the importance of insulating both countries from trends towards radicalisation and terrorism and noted that a framework agreement of cooperation signed in November 2011, has empowered the joint commission further and also mandated them to discuss defence and security issues of mutual concern.
While the visit is seen by some as a precursor to a visit by the Indian premier, the issue of the jailing of Maldives former president Mohammad Nasheed who is now Maldives’ main opposition leader, remains contentious. Smt Swaraj stated that India expected the situation to be handled in accordance with laws and rules of Maldives and hoped that the outcome would be seen by everybody as being fair and just.
AFGHANISTAN US TROOP WITHDRAWAL HALTED
The United States has halted its military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Making the announcement from the White House on October 15, 2015, President Obama said that while he does not support ‘the idea of an endless war’, he was dropping plans to withdraw nearly all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 and that 5,500 troops will remain on the ground to help protect gains made during 14 years of war. As a result, the winner of the 2016 presidential election will become the third American commander in chief to oversee the Afghan war. The president had originally planned to withdraw all but a small embassy-based force from Afghanistan in late 2016, shortly before leaving office. Under the new $15 billion-a-year plan, the U.S. will maintain its current force of 9,800 through most of 2016, then begin drawing down to 5,500 late in the year or in early 2017.Some of the troops will continue to train and advise Afghan forces, while others will carry on the search for militants of Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other groups who have found a haven in Afghanistan.
The Presidents decision comes after months of briefings by military commanders who stated that Afghans needed additional assistance and support from the U.S. to beat back a resurgent Taliban and keep the Islamic State from using the country as a haven. This has paid put to the President’s aim of ending the wars he inherited, while assuming the Presidency. This had already been tarnished by the return of U.S. forces to Iraq in 2014, 2½ years after they left, to fight the Islamic State. Analysts believe that Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq created the vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to thrive. Tp prevent a similar situation occurring in Afghanistan probably prompted the President to take this step.
IRAQ 70 PRISONERS FREED IN JOINT U.S.-KURDISH RAID
U.S. Special Operations Forces and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga conducted a joint raid on an Islamic State prison in Hawija, Iraq, on Thursday. Defense officials say valuable intelligence on Islamic State operations was recovered and nearly 70 prisoners were recovered, though not the individuals U.S. and Kurdish forces expected to find. One U.S. soldier was killed in the attack, the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011. Three Kurdish fighters were wounded.
U.S. involvement in the operation was authorised by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the White House was informed of the plan. The Baghdad government was not notified in advance of the operation. The Peshmerga “were going with or without us,” a U.S. defense official told the New York Times. “We wanted to stand behind an important ally.” U.S. Special Operations Forces have conducted operations against the Islamic State in Syria, as when they captured senior Islamic State figure Abu Sayyaf in May, but this is the first reported incident of U.S. forces participating in combat in Iraq. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook stressed that the raid does not prefigure a greater combat role for the United States. “This was a unique circumstance in which very close partners of the United States made a specific request for our assistance,” he said. “So I would not suggest that this is something that’s going to now happen on a regular basis.”
PAKISTAN SUICIDE ATTACK IN JACOBABAD
In a suicide attack on 23 October 2015, a powerful blast ripped through a Muharram procession in Jacobabad city of Sindh, killing 24 people, mostly children, and injuring more than 40 others. According to the Sindh Interior Minister, Suhail Anwar Siyal, the banned sectarian outfit Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ) has claimed responsibility for the attack. Despite the attack, Shah stated that the overall security situation of the province has improved as only two terrorist attacks occurred in the province during the year. The earlier attack had taken place inside a central imambargah (mosque affiliated with Shia Muslims) in Shikarpur on 30 January 2015, in which over sixty people were killed and an equal number were injured. The present Jacobabad attack has been referred by the Sindh government to military courts. A day earlier, in another suicide attack outside an Imambargah in Bolan district of Balochistan, at least ten people were killed and over a dozen injured. Pakistan has a history of attacks on religious processions in the Islamic holy month of Muharram, especially on 9th and 10th of the month, claimed by banned militant outfits targeting people belonging to Shia sect of Islam.
SAUDI ARABIA CHEAP OIL PUTS THE HOUSE OF SAUD AT RISK
An International Monetary Fund report suggests that without massive spending cuts, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will exhaust its monetary reserves in five years at current oil prices. While Saudi Arabia is a rich country, a Saudi newspaper using social service data, estimated that 6 million of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million population is poor. The House of Saud has bought a lot of legitimacy by subsidising its subjects.After the 2011 “Arab Spring” disturbances, Riyadh increased social spending by $37 billion–or $6,000 for every poor person in the kingdom–in order to preempt the spread of discontent to its own territory. The dynasty however, might not survive the sort of austerity measures that the IMF insists are necessary to keep the Kingdom from running out of reserves by 2020, though it has managed to do so till date, despite the many predictions of its doom. It has a strong 100,000 man National Guard, staffed by tribal personnel loyal to the royal family and spends USD 45 billion on defence, this amount being set to increase to USD 63 billion by 2020 to match Iranian capability.
A stabilising factor for the Kingdom is its clerical establishment. Salafist Wahhabi ideology requires obedience to the confirmed ruler, which in Saudi Arabia’s case, is the king, but only so long as he enforces Islam.In order to keep the favour of the Wahhabi clerical establishment, the monarchy has allowed wealthy Saudis to provide freelance financing for Islamist causes that Riyadh officially rejects. It has also styled itself as the Sunni champion against Iran. To keep the clerical establishment onside, the Saudi rulers have allowed the clergy to use highly charged sectarian language targeting Iran and the Shia, but the rulers are facing a challenge from the Islamists and ISIS. However, it is the economic problems which present the gravest threats to Saudi Arabia.