Last Stand: the Battle of Saragarhi 1897

By | March 1, 2020

[March 1, 2020]  Like all little boys, I was fascinated by a military last stand.  The tales told to me by WWII, and Korean War soldiers were a part of my growing up, and they help instill in me a sense of duty, honor, and courage.  Today, I will highlight one of the most vivid last stands in history; the Battle of Saragarhi.

On the 12th of September 1897, a small force of 21 Sikhs of the British Indian Army fought to the death against a force of more than 10,000 Afghan tribesmen.  In a defensive battle that is often viewed compared to the Spartans last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae.1  Due to the enormous odds stacked against them and facing certain death, the men unanimously agreed to defend the remote outpost they were guarding.

By the time the battle was over, more than 600 bodies of Afghan tribesmen lay at the outpost and showed the fierce fighting that had occurred.  This battle was a bloody price the Afghan warriors paid in the struggle.

This area of what is modern-day Pakistan had been a volatile area for the British to maintain control.  With rebellion and attacks by tribesmen, a common occurrence, five companies of the 36th Sikh Regiment were defending a series of forts in the area, which provided an unbroken line of defense against raiding Afghans.  Yet, two of these forts were out of sight of one another.

Due to the lack of a line-of-sight between Forts Lockhart and Gulistan, a heliographic communication outpost was constructed to enable the two forts to relay messages back and forth.  Outpost Saraharhi was crucial for the survival of the two forts and the entire region.  If the outpost fell, the forts would fall one-by-one and the whole defense collapse.  Everyone understood the importance of this small outpost.

At 9:00 am, the Sikh Post Commander Havildar Ishar Singh saw an approaching horde of 10,000 Afghans.  An urgent request for reinforcements was sent to Fort Lockhart, but none would come.  The men of the outpost were on their own.  Outnumbered nearly 500 to 1, the men of the 36th Regiment knew they had no chance against the enemy.  They could have retreated or surrendered but decided to stand and fight.

Fierce hand-to-hand fighting occurred and captured by the Afghans.  With the outpost destroyed, the Afghans turned their attention to Fort Lockhart.  However, the 21 Sikhs had delayed the Afghans long enough for the fort to get reinforcements, and when attacked, the Afghans were repelled.  Men from Fort Lockhart re-captured outpost Saragarhi.2

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Thermopylae
  2. Recently recognized in the West as a great military last stand, a movie was made depicting the heroic action of the British Indian Army. Called “21: Battle of Saragarhi”, more information can be found here: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6424216/.  The movie is currently on Netflix https://www.netflix.com/title/80212701.
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

17 thoughts on “Last Stand: the Battle of Saragarhi 1897

  1. Dennis Mathes

    Thank you Gen. Satterfield for this important history lesson. I look forward to more “last stands” like this one.

  2. Karl J.

    I saw the movie last week so what a pleasant surprise to see it highlighted here. But, far more important, is the actual event that took place well over 120 years ago. Yet it still rings in our consciousnesses.

  3. JT Patterson

    Thanks for another worthy article for this weekend. I plan to watch the 2018 movie soon. However, a few questions. How did these Sikh warriors get into this situation? How were they trained to be such fierce soldiers? Why were they willing to leave their families to go to a foreign land to help the British? Interesting.

  4. old warrior

    Sikh Post Commander Havildar Ishar Singh = HERO
    ’nuff said
    There is nothing else in life than to have honor! Some never get the chance to show it but these 21 Sikh’s did.

    1. Deplorable John

      Hero, yes ….. good man, yes …. to be looked up to, yes …. a model of soldierly character, yes. These are what heroes like Ishar Singh show us. They are to be emulated.

  5. Kenny Foster

    As a kid, I heard a lot about last stands from a military standpoint but never could see for myself WHY anyone would fight to the death for a cause, any cause. As I aged, I got better at realizing that there are things more important than you own life … like dignity and honor, self-sacrifice for the good of your family & community, and to be a good human being. We all will die, only a few get to chose the time and circumstance in which that will occur.

    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Excellent point, Kenny and well said, BTW. We are here on Earth to make things better. We are only temporary. To be a coward, however, is to be selfish, not selfless. That is why there are moral imperatives.

      1. Doc Blackshear

        Right, Willie and you have to be a leader to do it. But being a leader doesn’t mean you lead a team of 10,000 soldiers but simply be there to help coach, train, and mentor others. Those that eat candy in the basement of their parents are the greatest failures of all times.

  6. Eric Coda

    This is a short movie on Saragarhi. Saragarhi’s battle is considered one of the most insane battles of history where 21 Sikhs fought 14,000 Afghans. The Greatest Last Stand. (Powerful Storytelling by Rocky Saggoo)

  7. Scotty Bush

    I never heard of this battle before and never thought anything about it until I saw the movie. Fabulous info.

    1. Autistic Techie

      Same here, but I do recommend the movie.

      1. Randy Goodman

        Yes, I plan to watch it sometime next weekend when I’m off from work. I did bring it up at work and no one had seen it. I plan to have a weekend movie party and this 21 movie will be the central theme. Plus a few cold beers and my dog. Good to see everyone on so early this morning and talking about Gen. Satterfield and his choice of movies. 👍

  8. Greg Heyman

    Another good article and like yesterday’s post, I find these not just informative but entertaining as well. I would ask that you consider another mini-series on “last stands.” Thanks, Gen. Satterfield.

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