[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
- 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.