November 11, 2019 100

Saragarhi – The Last Stand – Extra History

Saragarhi – The Last Stand – Extra History

Afghanistan… Graveyard of empires… Where Alexander met his match. Where the great Soviets would stumble. But right now, September 1897, the British empire takes its turn, playing out their own tragedy in the heat and the dust. Eventually, they too will leave enervated, sacked of strength by this unforgiving land. But not today! *Intro music* In 1857, a great uprising had swept through India and nearly displaced the British forces there. Since then, British continuously fought smaller rebellions to hold on to the jewel of their empire. Today, it’s September twelfth, eighteen nineteen ninety-seven. Dawn comes to the very boundary of empire. We stand in the uncontrolled borderland, that would today be just on the Pakistani side of the Pakistan/Afghanistan divide. The British Empire has been trying to consolidate its hold on this wild, untamed region for some time. They’ve built a strain of forts to help them project their power into the mountain’s tribeland. In this string of forts, there are two, name Fort Gullistan and Fort Lockhart, and between these two stands a tiny threadbare village called Saragarhi. It is this village that concerns us today because in that village, the British had established a signaling post so that Fort Gullistan and Fort Lockhart could communicate with each other. And they had manned that post with a handful of Sikhs. Dawn breaks. The men wash, go through their morning meditations, affix their turbans, and begin their day. Over the last 10 days, there have been probing attacks on the forts. There’s a sense that something is brewing, and everybody is on high alert. The Sikhs man their posts and begin their morning tasks. The air is dry, thin in the mountain passes. The day is clear. Someone tells a joke to break the tension, and everybody laughs, but the feeling remains. One of the lookouts shouts; there’s a great mass moving on the horizon. All 21 men on this tiny post take up defensive stations. The signal man operates a tiny hand-cranked mirror that lets him send signals to the forts by making Morse code out of flashes of light. He signals Fort Lockhart to let them know the situation. Fort Lockhart signals back that they count at least 14 standards, at least 10,000 tribesmen, once allied with the British, but now in full revolt. And they are descending on the fort, with only the little signaling post standing in their way. All around the signal man, the others are gathering ammunition and barring up the gates of the tiny compound. The signal man sends a fateful message: “Can you send help?” There’s a moment delay, then a reply. “No. They won’t get there in time, and they can’t leave the fort unguarded.” The men in the signaling unit gather around their commander, Havildar Ishar Singh, knowing that they could still make a break for it, but Ishar calmly tells them what they are, in their hearts, already prepared for. They will stay, and they will fight. They will delay the oncoming tribesmen as long as possible. They will buy the forts the time they need to call in reinforcements. There is no disagreement, no mutiny, no desertion. There is only a quiet acknowledgement as the men get back to work. The signalman returns to his mirror. Throughout the day, he will never stop relaying the events. The sound of the onrushing horde grows louder. Rifles crack, then the horde is upon them, assaulting the outer wall. The disciplined fire of the Sikh troops break the first wave of the tribesmen, but they’re like the sea: rolling back, reforming, then rushing back with even greater strength. Bodies drop all along the field
in front of the signaling post. Twenty rifles roaring against ten thousand. But this time, it’s not enough to break the charge. Shells pepper the rough hune walls. One of the signal company falls dead. Then the enemy is at the wall, climbing, clambering up, determined. A brief melee: knives and swords, bayonets and rifle butts. They break the wave again, but this time there’s Sikh blood in the dust, under the baking sun. The bodies of the fallen are carried back into the inner wall. Each loss is a friend, one of only 21 holding this station. And that number is dropping. Shouts are heard from outside the wall. The tribes’ leaders are promising the Sikhs wealth, safety, and positions of importance if they just abandon their post. No man budges. The sun falls low on the horizon, turned a smear of blood-scarlet by the smoke. The attackers have set fire to the low brush that clings to the hills surrounding the fort. The Sikhs look out, trying to see the shape of their foes through the thick gray smoke. Then the signal man shouts. The neighboring fort has flashed a dire warning. From their position on the hill, the fort spotted a handful of tribesmen coming out of the smoke to a blind approach on the side of the signaling station. They’ve breached
the first wall. Ishar Singh
barks orders, raking off a handful of men
to defend the breach. When shouts sound
from the flanking attack, the main force rushes the main gate again,
now with their diminished numbers. Soon, all combat deteriorates
into a desperate melee with bayonet, knife, boot, and sword. Tribesmen
after tribesmen fall to the Sikh’s
cold steel, but the weight of numbers
takes its toll. Inch by inch,
the Sikhs are pushed back. Each soldier of the signal post
sells his life dearly, slaying dozens
for each defender that falls. But soon there are only
a handful of the signal troop left. Ishar Singh orders
his men to fall back, to retreat to the comparative safety
of the inner wall and mount a defense. But they can’t break
and get through the gate without giving their attackers
an opening to force their way through. Ishar knows this. He tells
his men to go, then bellows, charging the swarming tribesmen
with sword and pistol in hand. For a few valiant seconds,
he cuts down attacker after attacker, and then
is overwhelmed. His blood
stains the rock, but, it is enough. His men have taken
to the inner wall and formed a second
defensive position. He knew, and they know, that
the position is still hopeless, but it’ll buy
the forts more time, and cost
their assailants more dearly. Fewer than a dozen men
stand to return fire. Every shot fired into the
swirling mass before them is almost certainly fatal, but axes and clubs and rifle butts hammer
against the thin wooden wall. It’s not long before
the gates come crashing down. The signal man sends out
one final message, requesting permission
to take up his rifle. When the fort
grants it, he packs up his signal gear
back into its leather case and affixes
his bayonet to his rifle. The men from the fort can only watch as the signal man moves to hold the door of his small signal shed. He is the last Sikh
alive in the fort. For a moment, they cheer as he fells
one tribesmen, then another. And then,
eighteen more. The tribesmen
pull back, and for a moment,
the troops are hopeful, but then
they see the smoke. The assailants have lit
the signal station on fire. Later, it will be reported that the signal man yells
the Sikh battle cry over and over as the fire burned, “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal,” or “Shout Aloud
in Ecstasy! True is
the Great Timeless One.” The signal post
is taken, but 21 Sikh’s stand brought
their neighboring forts the time they needed. By the time
the rebelling tribesmen attack, the forts
have been reinforced, and they succeed
in turning back the tide. When at last the British take back the tiny signaling post in the tiny mountain village of Saragarhi, they found that
the 21 men signaling unit had left behind
hundreds of casualties. The Battle of Saragarhi is the only time
in British military history where every single soldier
involved in a military action was awarded the highest
military award available to them. You can argue how much impact
their sacrifice had, of course. The British would lose influence
in Afghanistan in less than 25 years and would lose control of India one month
before the 50th anniversary of this battle. But this group reminds of all groups
that have sacrificed to make great nations great, the groups we often forget when we talk about
the movements of great powers on the world stage. And that alone
is something worth mentioning, even 120 years later. [Outro theme]

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