There are countless tales of the bravery of the Sikhs in battle, but perhaps none is as inspiring as that of Saragarhi in 1897, which saw the 21 sepoys fight to the death against impossible odds.
This week, Britain remembered and paid tribute to 21 British Indian Army sepoys (Sikh soldiers) who died in a last stand against 10,000 Afghan tribesmen while defending the Saragarhi outpost in the hills of the North West Frontier Province, now Pakistan, which was then part of British India.
Around 200 military, civilian and Sikh community leaders, including Colonel Richard Maybery, Deputy Commander of Donnington based 11th Signal and West Midlands Brigade, Mr. Ian Dudson, Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, and members of the British Armed Forces Sikh Association (BAFSA) gathered at the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA) Sikh memorial for a service paying tribute on September 12, the 120th anniversary of the day on which these Sikh soldiers displayed their legendary heroism at the Battle of Saragarhi in Staffordshire.
The commemoration servicech was led by Mrs. Mandeep Kaur, Sikh Chaplain to the Armed Forces, and took place in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy Sikh scripture, regarded as the Supreme Spiritual Authority and Head of the Sikh religion.
The arrival of the Guru at the Sikh memorial was heralded by the Jaikara war cry given by Captain Makand Singh of Coventry-based 159 Regiment RLC. It is an integral part of Sikh liturgy and is traditionally shouted at the end of prayers or said in holy congregation.
Readings and prayers from the Guru Granth Sahib by Mrs Kaur, were followed by the playing of the Last Post by a bugler from the Band of the Royal Armoured Corps, as well as a one minute’s silence in honour of the epic bravery of the 21 men who fought to the end against such monumental odds.
Senior representatives of the Armed Forces, the British Armed Forces Sikh Association, and the Lord Lieutenant also laid a wreath at the memorial.
Speaking after the poignant service, Mrs Kaur said: “It gives me immense gratification to say that the British Armed Forces commemorated the 120th anniversary of the Saragarhi Battle – an icon of bravery, in the pious presence of Guru Granth Sahib ji – the eternal Guru.
“Thinking of the 21 brave soldiers and their source of strength – their Guru- the day inspired many to be true to faith values, humanity, service, extraordinary bravery and actions beyond imagination”.
Colonel Richard Maybery, Deputy Commander of 11th Signal and West Midlands Brigade, said: “It's been a privilege today to host the Saraghari commemoration at the NMA, to remember the incredible actions and sacrifice that took place and to mark the long association between the Sikhs and the British Army. I am delighted that so many people were able to attend and mark this very poignant event.”
Captain Jay Singh Sohal, a serving Army Reservist, who’s factual film, “Saragarhi: The True Story”, was premiered at the event, also paid tribute to the bravery of the Sikh soldiers who were remembered at the commemoration.
He said: “The Sikhs who fought for Britain on the frontier were rightly rewarded and honoured for their bravery and devotion to duty at that time; today we must continue to remember the sacrifices they and others made in such conflicts which might not be so well known but are vitally important.
“We must share it with others, celebrate our long and rich connection to our country, and motivate young people to learn from their historic lessons to take up such acts of public service.”
“It’s been a long but fulfilling journey to research, film and promote for the first time the bravery of the 21 Sikhs at Saragarhi.
“It’s a personal endeavour; I have myself been inspired to serve my country by it because it speaks to the shared history and values that make me proud to be both British and Sikh, and I know many others in my community feel the same.”
Captain Makand Singh, of Coventry based 159 Royal Logistics Corps (RLC) added: “It was great to see so many people from across the country at the NMA to commemorate the Battle of Saragarhi.
“This has become a prominent event in our calendar. I think it is very important to remember our forefathers that made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can live in peace and harmony. This battle was a show of true grit upholding Sikh and Army values and standards.
On behalf of the British Armed Forces I would like to thank all members of the community that joined us today to commemorate the battle.
The event also saw Capt Singh Sohal give a presentation on the history of the battle to invited guests, a presentation by the Army Engagement Group about the British Army of today, and a key note speech by the Lord Lieutenant
There was also a panel session by the British Armed Forces Sikh Association at which serving Sikhs discussed their experience of and took questions about their experience of life in the British Armed Forces today.
The battle took place 12th September 1897 in Tirah region of North-West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan. Saragarhi was a mud-walled signalling post that connected British India forts of Lockhart and Gulistan on the border areas of Afghanistan with a garrison of 20 men under Havildar Ishar Singh.
An estimated 10,000 Afghan tribesmen attacked in mass to block relief and take the signalling post. The Sikhs knew that the mud walls of the post wouldn't stand for long and soon they would be exposed to the brutal might of Afghans.
The morning of 12 September 1897 brought with it an army of 10,000 Afghans. The odds were striking. It would have taken more than just courage to face such a challenge where death was certain.
There are countless tales of the bravery of the Sikhs in battle, but perhaps none is as inspiring as that of Saragarhi in 1897, which saw the 21 sepoys fight to the death against impossible odds. Today, these warriors have rightly passed into the heroic legend of the Sikhs.