Towards the end of the nineteenth century the British had been trying to solidify their imperial borders in what is today Pakistan. Despite the enormous wealth India had brought the empire it also provided its share of problems. Arguably more so than any other region under British control. The tried and tested method of arming the local populous to enforce British rule had gone very wrong in the 1850s when an uprising almost led to complete loss of control in the subcontinent. Thousands of British troops were required to maintain order. Troops that given the size of the empire at this time were badly needed elsewhere.
Side Note: One of the key reasons India was so important to the British Empire was because it secured the opium trade into China which created a MASSIVE revenue stream. Pablo Escobar had nothing on King Edward VII.
To prevent further insurrection significant restrictions were placed on the native population, even those serving in a British uniform. These included curfews for civilian population, harsh penalties for what equates to sedition and native military personel were provided outdated weapons, including rifles that could only prove effective in combat if used as a club.
Side Note: I can only imagine the body count that resulted from deliberately under-equipping a military force and then marching them against a well equipped enemy. It certainly wouldn’t have improved sentiment towards the British however it was effective in preventing any further uprisings and mutinies …. for a time.
In a place called Saragarhi, a small, lightly fortified signal station sat between two large forts. The forts were built by the British to secure their control over the Khyber Pass. The signal station placed in what it would be generous to call a village was designed to ensure communication between the two forts which had a mountain between them. Strategically this meant that the forts could respond to threats much more quickly. The signal station was manned by 21 men of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Army.
Shortly after dawn on 12th September 1897 a sentry notices a dust cloud on the horizon. Its not long before it becomes evident the cloud is caused by thousands of men on the march. A signal is sent to the fort placed slightly closer to the incoming men, the reply received estimated twelve to fifteen thousand tribesmen on the move directly for Saragarhi. The signaller asked the forts if they could send help. Each of these forts held garrisons of nearly two thousand men however to mobilise a realistic fighting force would leave both fortresses exposed. A larger British force was moving up the pass and may be able to support the forts if the tribesmen could be delayed. Saragarhi are told that no support is coming.
The orders were issued by the station sargeant, Hold. Each man stoically went about his duty. Barring the gate, stockpiling ammunition at defensive points, checking rifles and swords. No argument is made, not even a complaint. The signaller was ordered to remain at his post and relay details of what happened next.
Its important to remember that despite the fact the station was only made of wood and mud it held an elevated position that an attacking force would have to climb to reach. This would have helped but absolutely wouldn’t have done much against 500:1 numbers especially given the Sikh regiments were provided old and inefficient weapons. The most optimistic thing I can say about this situation is that as long as the defenders aimed in roughly the right direction they were pretty much certain to hit an enemy.
The first attempt on the gates was made at about 0900 this was turned back when the incline became too slick with blood and an alternative approach was considered. Clearly no better approach was found as some time later a second identical attempt was made on the gate and duly repulsed. At this point the tribal leaders decided to get creative, they set fires around the station to obscure their approach with smoke and created a breech by undermining a wall opposing the main gate. The defenders are given some small warning as one of forts signalled having spotted a detachment of tribes men sneaking around the outer wall. The warning isn’t enough to prevent the breech and at close quarters the rifles are useless, the next moments are a blinding whirr of steel and blood, of sword and knife and bayonet and gore. The tribesmen are forced to withdraw one last time. The defenders are offered lands and riches to surrender. No one moves. A second melee ensues and the Havildar(Sargeant) Ishar Singh single-handedly holds off an advance to allow his remaining men time to withdraw to the second wall. He is reported to have killed ten men before being overwhelmed.
The handful of remaining defenders steadied themselves for another assault, the gate to the inner wall erupts and and tribesmen flow through. As the remaining defenders fight fearlessly, imposing a terrible cost on their attackers the signalman sends one final message to the fort, requesting permission to take up his rifle. It is reported this man kills about twenty tribesmen before they fall back. Rather than assaulting again they set fire to the signal tower. As he burns he screams the Sikh battle cry “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal”.
The post was taken but these 21 men held off an army for a day. Long enough for the reinforcements to arrive to support the forts and drive the tribesmen back. When the post was reviewed the bodies of almost six hundred tribesmen were found with the twenty-one Sikhs.
This story has been told in a lot of places, using much more skill than I have been able to apply here. As a rule I don’t write about something if I cant add quality to the narrative however despite the incredible work of youtubers like Extra Credits and historians like Amarinder Singh, I feel its a story worth telling and repeating.
I remember being told in school, that at its height the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe. I was never taught how the empire was spread and maintained with the strength and the blood of recruited indigenous people. Their bravery and contributions were rarely acknowledged. I have found references everywhere citing that these 21 men were given “the highest honours available to them” whilst I cant find reference explicitly stating what those honours were I think its unlikely they would have been decorated as highly as British born soldiers.
I won’t delve too deep into Empire here. The devastating affect imperial expansion has had on cultures across the world has resulted in entire civilisations falling out of the history books. Whilst there was often some benefit to the cultures being ruled it was often small and not worth the cost.
I do however find myself wondering; if the best military wisdom at the time was that native recruited soldiers couldn’t be trusted, which is evidenced by the allocation of laughably archaic weapons, and given the very obvious importance of the signal station, why was the post manned by native troops and led by a non-commissioned officer. Practically speaking I know that if you want to get a job done, your first task is to distract the officer to get them out of your way. However this was not the wisdom of the nineteenth century.
I first heard the story of Saragarhi a few years ago and t remains one of the greatest stories of duty and courage I know. I am sure the social, political and emotional truth of that September day is infinitely more complicated than I have relayed here. Its always worth remembering that the British Empire wasn’t built without an incredible cost and that our taught history doesn’t always reflect who paid that cost.