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Saturday, Aug 17, 2019

Deathless in death: Saragarhi bravehearts were limited by numbers, bullets

Saragarhi, which was being used by the British as a communication tower between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan, could hold 40 soldiers but on that fateful day, it had only 21 soldiers and a non-combatant called “Daad”.

punjab Updated: Sep 12, 2017 20:34 IST
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh

Limitless in courage, they were limited not only by their numbers, but also by the ammunition they had with them. Capt Jay Singh-Sohal, who released a film “Saragarhi: The True Story” to mark the Saragarhi Day in Britain, sheds new light on the epic battle fought on September 12, 1897.

Sohal, a 34-year-old third-generation British Sikh with roots in Kapurthala, says he relied only on primary sources.

Saragarhi, which was being used by the British as a communication tower between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan, could hold 40 soldiers but on that fateful day, it had only 21 soldiers from 36th Sikhs (now 4 Sikh) plus a non-combatant called “Daad”. The soldiers also had limited ammunition. Sohal says they had 400 rounds per man, a fact not lost on their commanding officer Lt Col John Haughton, who continued to ask them to use their firepower with caution.


Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, 23, who communicated using the heliograph system, which uses sunlight and mirrors to flash a message using the Morse code, was also short of hands. Sohal says this system was generally manned by three men. While one would send the message using the sunlight reflected on the mirrors, the other would read the incoming message using binoculars, and a third would write down the message. In this case, Gurmukh was doing all three. He held his ground amid the sounds of the gunfight, the smoke from the fire lit by tribals, and the panic of the battle.

But while he communicated successfully with Fort Lockhart, he missed the signals sent by Major DesVoux, the second-in-command of 36th Sikhs stationed at Fort Gulistan. “He could see the tribals digging under a rear wall, which they finally breached to storm the block house,” says Sohal. Later, the Afridis tried to use the same tactic to take Fort Gulistan. “But since Major DesVoux had already seen them do this at Saragarhi, he took precautions, and saved the fort,” he said.

A former Sky News producer, Sohal has relied heavily on the diary, letters and photos by Lt Col Haughton. Son of a frontier hero, also called Col John Haughton, Haughton junior was born in India. He took over the command of 36th Sikhs in 1894. Sohal says he wrote about Saragarhi with a great deal of regret. He says he tried to sally forward to help the 21 men but was driven back by the tribals. Haughton was killed in the battlefield four months later in January 1898, and lies buried at Peshawar.


Havildar Ishar Singh, the braveheart who led the charge at Saragarhi, says Sohal, joined the Punjab Frontier Force at the age of 17 or 18. He spent most of his life in the battlefield, but for a brief interlude when he returned to his village near Jagraon to marry. Ishar was drafted in the 36th Sikhs soon after it was raised in 1887. Sohal says it’s not known whether Ishar joined as a Havildar or was promoted subsequently.

Writing about him, Maj Gen James Lunt, a British military historian, says: “Ishar Singh was a somewhat turbulent character whose independent nature had brought him more than once into conflict with his military superiors. Thus, Ishar Singh —in camp, a nuisance, in the field magnificent.”

In his book “Saragarhi and the Defence of the Samana Forts”, Captain Amarinder Singh says he must have had the requisite leadership quality to have been given the independent command of such a vital post. Amarinder goes on to write: “While he will always be remembered for his gallant conduct at Saragarhi, within the regiment they will also rue the loss of their best illicit liquor producer, and a man who borrowed meat on hoof for his men, when short of rations, from a neighbouring unit without asking them.”

Gurinderpal Singh Josan, chairman of the Saragarhi Foundation, who traced the families of the 21 soldiers, says Ishar’s family did not have it easy after him. His wife was killed by his brother who was then incarcerated at Kala Pani (Andaman and Nicobar).

Sohal, who filmed his documentary in the North West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan, says the 22 men of Saragarhi are still remembered. As a veteran put it, in death, they became deathless.

First Published: Sep 12, 2017 20:33 IST

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