|The Epic Battle of Saragarhi||sikhspirit.com|
|1 November 2001
The Imperial War Museum in London was the venue for the Second Annual "Portraits of Courage" Lecture hosted by the Maharaja Duleep Singh Centenary Trust. MDSCT Trustee, Daljit Singh Sidhu Introduced the lecture, saying that when topic of the lecture, which conveys the bravery and valour of Sikhs in the battlefield, was chosen over two years ago it was not thought that it would have so much relevance to the current World situation. The Battle of Saragarhi was fought on the undivided India's North West Frontier with the modern day Afghanistan.
Robert Crawford the Director General of the Imperial War Museum welcomed Cabinet Office Minister Rt Hon Charles Clark MP and representatives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the American Embassy and English Heritage and all those present to the Museum and introduced the speaker, Viscount John Slim OBE DL.
Saragarhi, a communications post was beseiged by over 10,000 tribesmen with only 21 soldiers, all Sikhs, of the 36th Sikh Regiment. The battle of Saragarhi Hill fought on 12 September 1897 has been cited by UNESCO as one of the five most significant events of its kind in World history. When news of the battle reached London both Houses of Parliament gave a rare standing ovation in honour of the 21 Sikhs who died holding the post.
Viscount Slim, who was born in Queta and spent over 20 years living in India said: "You are never disappointed when you are with Sikhs". While at school in Dheradoon he was regarded as a good boxer, he was only ever beaten once, by a Sikh (but the Sikh did not tape down his Kara as he was supposed to!). He is still in touch with that Sikh and he remains one of his closest friends. He said that he knew many British Officers who had such a close affinity with their Sikh soldiers that they felt that they were also Sikhs alongside them. He himself used to wear a "pagri" (turban) because you feel silly wearing a "topi" (hat) when all those around you are in their "pagris".
Viscount Slim described what he thought the state of mind of the soldiers would have been in the fort. As a soldier you always pray when you are frightened, you pray that you have faith and that if you do die that you will go to a better place. In the 1940's, when he was in India, "there were different places of worship, but when the bell rang you just went to the nearest, whether it was a gurdwara, church or whichever faith".
He spoke of the extrovert reputation of Haveldar Ishar Singh, the soldier in charge at Saragarhi. He was probably told to stay in the post and fight to the death and he would have positively said Yes asking no questions. The soldiers did not have machine guns, but just 21 rifles and an unknown amount of ammunition.
The signaler, Gurmukh Singh, must also have been a remarkable character. It was his job, using a heliograph to send messages to and from the two forts Lockhart and Gullistan (see map). A heliograph is a simple device for sending Morse code using a mirror catching the sunlight. He would signal all day and signaled though the battle. One of the messages sent by Ishar Singh was "Down to half strength, but now each man has two rifles". The last message sent was "The enemy are inside now, request permission to stop signaling so I can join the fight". But he did not just throw down the heliograph, he packed it into its case before leaving his post.
Viscount Slim ended by saying: "Those 21 soldiers all fought to the death. That bravery should be within all of us. Those soldiers were lauded in Britain and their pride went throughout the Indian Army. Inside every Sikh should be this pride and courage. The important thing is that you must not get too big-headed it is important to be humble in victory and to pay respect to the other side"
Rt Hon Charles Clark then took to the stage and read out a message from the Prime Minister and said that the PM is very committed to the aims of the MDSCT of bringing together history and culture. He took the opportunity to thank the Sikh community for their important contribution to today's British Society and said that Sikhs play a critical and much valued role in British Society. Referring back to Daljit Singh's comment about voice of the Sikh Community in Britain not being heard, he stated: "I give you an absolute assurance that your voice is being heard".
The evening was ended with the Director of Projects at the MDSCT, Harbinder Singh Rana, thanking all those who helped make the event such a successful one.
A role call of the 21 soldiers was then made: