Perth-based Colonel Harpal Ahluwalia commanded the 4th Sikhs during the 1990s, almost 100 years after the same battalion fought the legendary Battle of Saragarhi on 12 September 1897. Col Ahluwalia has co-authored the book Saragarhi Battalion – Ashes to Glory, based on official records still maintained in the battalion archives. Apart from sharing excerpts from this book, Col Ahluwalia told SBS Punjabi there were actually 22 men (not just 21) stationed at Saragarhi on that fateful day, all of whom were bachelors who had never married, and resisting various inducements from the attacking Orakzais, they all offered their lives in the line of duty. Even today, the battle scene is re-enacted at the regiment every year in India.
Colonel Harpal Ahluwalia, retired from the army and moved to Perth several years ago. He told SBS Punjabi, “ 4th Sikhs is a highly decorated regiment. We have 22 battle honours, when ussually most regiments are proud to have one or two”.
“In fact 4th Sikhs is the most decorated regiment in the entire Commonwealth – not just in the Indian army.”
“Our motto is ‘Nishchay Kar Apni Jeet Karo’ which is also true for any situation in life – if one decides to pursue success with certainty, then victory is inevitable.”
Reflecting on the Battle of Saragarhi, Col Ahluwalia says, “There is no parallel to the bravery displayed by the soldiers of 36th Sikh that day.”
“In fact there were 22 men from the regiment at Saragarhi post on September 12, when the Orakzai tribals attacked. 21 were soldiers, led by Havildar Ishar Singh, and the 22nd was the sweeper, who was officially called a ‘follower’. All of these men perished at the post, fighting to the last.”
“All 21 soldiers received Indian Order of Merit - First Class, which was equivalent to Victoria Cross back then and the same as today’s Param Vir Chakra. Perhaps in no other battle, so many honours have been bestowed on the soldiers.”
“The families of each of the fallen soldier was rewarded with Rs 500 and two ‘murabbas’ of land.”
SBS Punjabi has previously reported the connection between Saragarhi and Australia in a series of articles and interviewed an Australian descendant of one of the key players - Col Charles Des Voeux.
No lineage of the Saragarhi bravehearts
Col Ahluwalia says with regret, that not much is known about the brave men who fought in Saragarhi.
‘When I researched through the official documents at our battalion from the time, there was hardly any information about the Battle. In fact, the entire Saragarhi episode is written up in two pages, because that’s all that the records tell us.”
But he says, the last communication received from Saragarhi on 12 September 1897 is most poignant.
“It was a message from Signaller Gurmukh Singh, who was the last man standing at the post, since all others had died in fierce battle. In his last message, Signaller Gurmukh Singh sought permission from his seniors at Fort Gulistan, to authorise him to leave his signalling duties and pick up the rifle to fight instead.”
Col Ahluwalia adds, “Many movies have been made and a lot has been written about Saragarhi – I think they’ve used a lot of imagination because not much else is known about these brave men in official records.”
“We at the 4th Sikhs have eagerly wanted to find any descendant of the brave men involved in the Battle of Saragarhi. Unfortunately, all the Sikh soldiers deployed at that time, not just at Saragarhi, but also at Gulistan and Lockhardt, were never married – so there are no direct descendants in India.”
He says, “We invited Havildar Ishar Singh’s great-nephew to the centenary celebrations of Saragarhi in September 1997, but he had no idea about the family’s proud history. In fact, he was really surprised when soldiers from 4th Sikhs went over to escort him as a guest of honour for the occasion.
Col Ahluwalia was thrilled when recently SBS Punjabi published a detailed interview with a Perth-based descendant of Col Charles Des Voeux, the second-in-command of 36th Sikhs during the Battle of Saragarhi.
“It was wonderful to meet David Tomlinson and see the photos and memorabilia that his family has preserved for generations.”
Annual re-enactment of the Battle of Saragarhi
Col Ahluwalia says, the valour of the Gulistan Bahadurs who partook in the Battle of Saragarhi is so significant, that even now, the entire battle scene is re-enacted at the regiment on Saragarhi Day (September 12).
“Operational duties permitting, we remember the valour of the brave soldiers of 36th Sikh every year, re-enacting the entire scene, including how the Pathan lashkar tempted them inducements several times.”
“They would say ‘Please leave the post, we will give you escort so you’ll reach Kohat safely under special guard. Save your life and you’ll enjoy many pleasures over there.’ So when we reenact the Battle, we always include these phrases, to highlight the loyalty and supreme sacrifice made by the 36th Sikh soldiers.”
“The tribals pressed on, fearing that their own lashkars would desert them if resistance from the 21 Sikh soldiers continued. They also began worrying that if it is so difficult to overrun one post at Saragarhi, it would be so much harder to capture Forts Gulistan and Lockhart.”
It is estimated that the 21 Sikh soldiers defending Saragarhi post killed hundreds of tribesman, and literally fought unto their last breath.
“Unofficial estimates state that they killed around 1,000 Orakzais, and I would probably say 600-800 must have been killed. But the significance of the Battle goes much beyond that.”
“Tactically for the British Indian troops, the fiery resistance and loyalty shown by the Saragarhi soldiers meant that due to their stand, reinforcements could reach Lockhart and Gulistan in time. That is the greatest significance of the Battle of Saragarhi.”
Cremation of the fallen at Saragarhi, memorials
Col Ahluwalia says, “One can only presume that the fallen soldiers were cremated on-site at Saragarhi. We have photos of a brick cairn shaped like a pyramid, which we think marks that site. A memorial was also erected on the site, which I’m told still stands in the North West Frontier Province of today.”
“Additionally, two memorials were erected in India – one being the Saragarhi gurudwara in Amritsar, which is situated quite close to Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple). The other is a memorial in Ferozepur.”
On the question of whether Guru Granth Sahib ji was taken to the battlefield in Samana ranges back in 1897, Col Ahluwalia says, “Traditionally, Guru Granth Sahib ji has been taken to the field, wherever the regiment was posted. I can’t say for sure if there was prakash (installation) of Guru Granth Sahib at the time of the Battle of Saragarhi, but it is quite possible that there was, because the soldiers remained deployed for quite a while, till at least six months after the Battle took place.”
British officers spoke fluent Punjabi
Col Ahluwalia confirms that all British officers attached to Sikh, Gurkha or Rajput regiments spoke the language which the troops could understand.
He shared a memory from centenary of the raising of Saragarhi battalion in 1987, when two British officers who had served with the 4th Sikhs during the Second World War attended as guests of honour.
“Captain Alan Wimbush and Major John Ennis had served for a couple of years each with our Sikh regiment in the North African campaign during WWII. As guests of honour at the Saragarhi centenary, both of them addressed the troops speaking fluent Punjabi at the Sainik Sammelan. They were really proud that they were able to speak to the soldiers in their own language – considering they had only spoken it for a couple of years during WWII, we were amazed to see how they had remembered the language so well.”
"Capt Wimbush then donated Rs 5000 back them, to instate a Signaller Gurmukh Singh award. Ever since the Saragarhi centenary, that award is given annually to the best signaller, in memory of the last man standing at Saragarhi."
This means that Charles Des Voeux, the officer with the Australian connection commanding the 36th Sikhs when the Battle of Saragarhi took place, must also have been fluent in the Punjabi language.
Col Ahluwalia also spoke of the proud history of the 4th Sikh Regiment (formerly 36th Sikhs), at WWI, WWII and even in Indian military campaigns after Independence of 1947.