In all of recorded history, one of the most consistent traits passed on from one generation to another is that we as humans have always needed a ‘leader’ to guide us as, inevitably, most of us are ‘followers’ by nature. Both are equally important but seldom interchangeable. In case of the military, a few characteristic qualities are necessary to make a good leader – namely courage, cooperation, stamina, determination, self-confidence, liveliness, effective intelligence, initiative, quick decision making ability, social adaptability, the power of expression, the ability to inspire, reason, and organize, as well as a strong sense of responsibility. The soldiers at Saragarhi on 12 September 1897 were not short of a leader; rather, their leader was someone who was a fine example of a military man, with balanced qualities that had been forged in the heat of battle for most of his service. The 20 young men were led by non-commissioned officer Havildar Ishar Singh.
Born in the year 1858 in a village called Jhorarh near Jagraon, Punjab, Ishar Singh enrolled for service in the Punjab Frontier Force in 1876, and was later transferred to the 36th Sikhs in 1887. In the year 1893, he married Jiwani Kaur, little knowing that he would never see his wife again, since he left home a year after their marriage when his regiment moved to the North West Frontier to defend the border against Afghans. While Ishar Singh’s soldierly conduct and his decisions on the battlefield were sound, and the orders passed on to him via heliograph by his senior officers – who were witnessing the battle of Saragarhi from the other two forts in close proximity – were faithfully executed, he was hardly one to blindly follow his superiors. In the words of the British military historian Major General James Lunt, ‘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.’
Ishar Singh, as we now know him, was a feisty and experienced soldier who sometimes preferred to march at the drum of his own beat, but was an exemplary soldier and inspiring leader. Such men, who cannot be fully tamed yet act within the restraints of righteousness, often change the course of history, immortalizing themselves and their deeds forever.
The post of Saragarhi was besieged by Afghan tribesmen on the morning of 12 September 1897, hence cutting off all communication between Fort Lockhart and Fort Cavagnari, and neither Lieutenant Colonel Haughton nor Major De Voeux were able to move out in the open to reinforce the 21 men at Saragarhi as thousands of tribesmen had positioned themselves between Saragarhi and the forts on its either side. The post was now on its own.
How Ishar Singh motivated his men
With numerical superiority on their side, the Pathans attempted to rush the post in the beginning of the attack, with scores of standards flying, ready to raze everything in their path in the inferno of their discontentment. By then, the soldiers inside the post had already been warned and stood prepared to face this onslaught of more than 10,000 Pathans. Havildar Ishar Singh judged the gravity of the situation at hand and took command without delay. A seasoned soldier, he knew how to encourage the 20 men relying on him for leadership. He is said to have quoted Guru Gobind Singh’s verses about how each of them was equivalent to 125,000 foes, and the Pathans they had to fight were not even a fraction of it. He reminded them about the greatness of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the fact that it was his legacy they needed to honour that day. He cited the tale of the brave Hari Singh Nalwa, who had fought the Afghans in these very hills not long ago. His words were enough to ignite a fire inside the 20 young Sikh soldiers to give the impending fight their all, thereby creating military history.
Before an all-out attack, the Pathans offered the Sikh soldiers an opportunity to surrender in return for safe passage. However, no offer could lure Havildar Ishar Singh or any of his men. Singh knew that he had to hold the enemy for a few hours until Lieutenant Colonel Haughton could receive reinforcements and they were therefore ready to defend their posts until their deaths. Unsuccessful in their efforts, the aggravated tribesmen now told the soldiers that they would not survive even for a few minutes if the Pathans charged at them. This, too, did not budge the determined soldiers of Saragarhi. The tribesmen then began to charge at the fort in order to conquer the fort before reinforcements could arrive. Soon, the valley began to echo with the deafening blasts of thousands of Jezails and Henry-Martinis. The Sikhs aimed their rifles at the incoming horde and when the enemy was within effective range of their weapons, they opened fire on Havildar Ishar Singh’s order, shouting their war cry of ‘Bole so nihaal…sat sri akaal!’. Wave after wave of Pathans on the frontlines fell and the ones behind them scrambled to find cover. The battle had begun.
The Pathans, who had seemed in a hurry to take down the post just a little while ago, now took cover behind rocks and in defiles where the bullets could not reach them. Using ground cover, the tribesmen began to fire incessantly at the fort even as the battlefield in front of them was sprinkled with dead bodies from the first attack. A firefight ensued, but the Sikhs had to be very careful while using their ammunition as every soldier had only 400 rounds to sustain him in this bloody battle.
In the meantime, Signalman Gurmukh Singh used their heliograph machine to send a message to Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton that they were under attack. While he was distressed to hear this, Haughton replied that it was impossible for him to send reinforcements at the time as they would not be able to break through the intervening hordes of Pathans. Havildar Ishar Singh then had Gurmukh Singh send a single word as a reply – ‘Understood’. This reply spoke volumes about Havildar Ishar Singh’s stature and his maturity at the time.
Excerpted with permission from 21 Kesaris The Untold Story of the Battle of Saragarhi, Kiran Nirvan, Bloomsbury India.