On 12th September each year, we pause to remember the heroic sacrifice of 21 Sikh soldiers of the Army of British India who, against insurmountable odds, defended a signal station on the North West Frontier of modern Pakistan in 1897.
Enshrined in the consciousness of every British soldier are the values and standards by which the British Army expects them to conduct themselves on operations and in barracks: Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty, and Selfless Commitment.
The history of the British Army is filled with stories of men and women who have displayed these values and paid the ultimate sacrifice in defence of their nation and its interests. Perhaps the finest example of self-sacrifice was displayed by the 21 non-commissioned officers and men of the Saragarhi outpost who gave their lives on 12th September 1897.
Saragarhi was a hilltop post on the border of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Strategically important, it lay between two British forts which kept marauding Afghan tribesmen out of British India. On the morning of that fateful day, Saragarhi was surrounded by around 10,000 Afghans, the station signalled one of the forts to ask for assistance and found that the forts were already under attack and could not help the beleaguered Sikh soldiers.
The defenders of Saragarhi decided to fight and die if necessary to protect the soldiers of their regiment in the forts. After fighting off several attacks, the Sikh soldiers fell back and were gradually overwhelmed, by the end of the action none of the defenders remained alive, but the 21 Sikhs had accounted for around 1400 Afghans. The last Sikh soldier was said to have killed over 40 tribesmen in the defence, dying with the Sikh war cry on his lips.
The actions of Havildar (Sergeant) Ishar Singh and his men helped save the two forts and eventually force the Afghans back through the Khyber Pass. For their actions, the defenders of Saragarhi were awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest award available to soldiers of the British Indian Empire.
An example to British soldiers then and now: ‘Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal!’