WARRIOR WEDNESDAY: 21 SIKHS
Lately, I’ve been on a hardcore ”Last Stand” kick for my Warrior Wednesday Posts. Not to romanticize combat or death, but there's something beyond glory about suppressing every human instinct to survive in order to fight against impossible odds. Nearly every civilization on the planet has stories of such actions, and they all hold the heroes of those desperate last stands as paragons of bravery.
So without further ado, I’m about to drop some knowledge bombs on you about some of the hardest, toughest, motherfuckers around. These dudes were rocking full beards and killing with rifles in Afghanistan way before any Special Operator was. This is the story of the 21 Sikhs and the Battle of Saragarhi.
In August of 1897, A-F Co. of the 36th Sikh Rifles Regiment, under LTC Haughton, was sent to the northwest frontier of British India and stationed along the mountain chains between modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. The British were sorta successful in controlling this volatile area, but badass Pashtun face-stabbers continued to attack British personnel. To limit these attacks, a bunch of old-ass forts, originally built by Ranjit Singh, were repurposed to give the British Forces a forward line and act as a show of force. Two of these forts were Ft. Lockhart and Ft. Gulistan. They were situated a few miles apart from each other straight line distance, but the terrain made it impossible for the forts to maintain visibility with each other, so Outpost Saragarhi was created between the two forts as a heliographic “commo” post. (a heliograph is basically a fucking tripod with a mirror on it that you can use to shine flashes of sunlight in Morse code to other locations).
Outpost Saragarhi, situated on a rocky ridge, was isolated and much smaller than Ft Lockhart or Ft Gulistan. Havildar (Sergeant) Ishar Singh and 20 riflemen were tasked with holding this location. Ishar was one of those "Field" NCOs. He joined the Punjab Frontier Force around 18 years old and spent almost his entire adult life on the battlefield. Contemporary primary sources suggest that his independent, hard-charging nature, and willingness to stick up for his men brought him into conflict with his superiors more than once. He was also known for being the best Moonshiner of the entire 36th Sikh Regiment and was willing to go the extra distance to take care of his men. He even stole goats from a sister regiment that had a surplus once to make sure his boys had meat for dinner when rations were starting to get scarce. British historian Maj Gen. James Lunt had this to say about Ishar Singh: “Ishar Singh —in camp, a nuisance. In the field, magnificent.” Every combat arms guy can think of an NCO who is similar to Ishar, I'm sure.
On 12SEP1897, over 10,000 Afridi and Orakzai tribesman said "Fuck you, get out of our mountains" and attacked the signal post at Saragarhi to cut communications between the two forts. The 21 Sikhs had to make a choice. Try to escape and most likely be cut down while doing so, or sodomize these tribesmen with bayonet mounted Martini-Enfield Rifles and continue to provide as much up-to-date intelligence as they could to their comrades in the other forts. Ishar brought it down to a vote. The Sikhs have an innate warrior culture; they unanimously voted to stand and fight. They hoped this would give enough time for their comrades to ready their own defenses. 21 men versus a literal horde of over 10,000. This is the stuff that legends are made from.
Details of the battle are considered fairly accurate because Sepoy (Private) Gurmukh Singh signaled SITREPs to Ft. Lockhart by heliograph even as shit went down. LTC Haughton tried to sally forth a party of riflemen, but the sheer size of the Pashtun horde made it impossible to reinforce the 21 Sikhs without being outflanked and killed. On two separate attacks, the Pashtuns hurled themselves at the walls of Saragarhi, attempting to climb the walls on ladders, laying heavy rifle and cannon fire into the fortress, and on both occasions, the 21 defenders kicked down the ladders and cranked up their rate of fire to drive back these Pashtun warriors.
This is completely fucking insane, cause this is 1897 and these bat shit crazy soldiers were using breech-loading single-shot rifles. No CAS, No IDF, No belt feds. Just their small arms and mammoth-sized balls, and were somehow firing them so quickly and accurately that 10,000 trained warriors with guns could not assault through this ridiculous wall of gunsmoke and bullets. That type of suppressive fire puts any MG team to shame.
Surround on all sides by a mob of warriors, the Sikhs continued to dish out withering gunfire with soul-crushing speed. Eventually, while the Sikhs were busy with the defense, a team of Orakzai sappers breached a section of the outer defenses, snuck in, and torched the perimeter of Outpost Saragarhi. With the Sikhs trying to avoid burning to death as their positions became engulfed by the smoke and flames, the rest of the enemy troops managed to charge in and break through the perimeter.
Havildar Ishar Singh ordered his men to break contact and pull back to the inner courtyard, barricade the walls, and deny the enemy for as long as possible. Havildar Singh himself didn't make it back to the final redoubt– with his rifle ammunition spent, he bought his men time to fall back. He drew his Kirpan dagger in one hand, and his Webley Revolver in the other and charged into the horde, and died valiantly in hand-to-hand combat against an impossible swarm of rifle and sword swinging tribesmen. He held the breach long enough for his men to regroup in the inner courtyard.
Eventually, as the day progressed the Sikhs were killed one by one as exhaustion slowed them down and ammunition started to run out. In the end, the only soldier left was Gurmukh Singh, the Heliograph Operator. The Pashtuns, understandably wary of a soldier who now had nothing left to lose, decided to set fire to Singh’s position instead of rushing in and getting killed when they were so close to victory.
Completely out of ammo and surrounded by flames and smoke that quickly consumed his position with every second, Gurmukh Singh managed to signal the last update stating he was the last man alive at the post, he then signaled a request to leave his post and fight the enemy. His request was granted. The observers at Ft. Gulistan, looking through binoculars, last saw him fixing his bayonet to his rifle before charging through the flames to deny the enemy. Two days later, when British follow-on forces retook the outpost, they found Gurmukh Singh's burnt body surrounded by the corpses of over twenty Pashtun warriors punctured with bayonet wounds. He went 20:1 without any fucking ammo.
He was only twenty-three.
The 21 enlisted Soldiers of the 36th Sikh regiment fought and died to the last man, last bullet, and last minute against impossible odds. Their tenacious defense and updated intelligence reports gave their comrades the time to shore up their defenses at Ft. Gulistan and defeat the Pashtun Army. The total number of enemy casualties is hard to verify because the British forces attacked The Tribesman at Saragarhi two days later and recaptured the outpost Saragarhi. The Pashtuns claimed they lost 180 men. Contemporary historical numbers suggest close to 600 Tribesmen were killed in action, with hundreds more wounded. Even if we take the lowest estimate that means on average every Sikh warrior killed about 9 men before he died.
The second in Command of the 36th Sikhs, Major Charles Des Voeux gave the 21 Sikhs their just due in a letter he wrote home lamenting the loss of his men. “...They died fighting like Demons.”
I'm still trying to figure out how these 21 men were able to move and fight like Gods of War with testicles the size of boat anchors. Each Soldier who fought and died in the Battle of Saragarhi were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, at that time the highest gallantry award which an Indian soldier could receive and are still celebrated today by the modern Sikh Regiment as well as the British Armed Forces every year on the 12th of September.
About the author: Andy, is a US Army Infantryman and your local Friendly Neighborhood Rooftop Korean. When he's not burning through his savings at the range, you can find him online sharing memes, playing video games, and writing stories about the baddest warriors throughout history. You can follow all of Andy's NSFW content at @call_me_ak on Instagram.