Historical reliability and authenticity of the details concerning the Battle of Saragarhi (1897)

In 1897 there was a great uprising of Pashtuns against the British occupiers in which an outpost called Saragarhi (in Orakzai district), manned by 21 Sikh soldiers of the British-Indian army, was attacked by a lashkar of local Pashtun freedom fighters. The latter bravely climbed the ascent despite of being fired upon from the top of the hill. They reached the hill-top, killed the 21 Sikh soldiers and destroyed the outpost. This small event is regarded by the Sikhs as most momentous chapter of their history, and they commemorate this event as Saragarhi day (12th September) which is a holiday in the Indian state of Punjab. To give you an idea of the ascent, check the following photo taken in 1897:

saragarhi 21 sikhs

In the absence of any written accounts from Pashtun side, all we have is an exaggerated and one-sided British account. Sardarjis have added their own masala to the story produced by their former masters, making it more fantastic. We are told that 21 Sikh soldiers, who were fighting for the glory of British raj, faced around 10,000 Afghans (some articles also give numbers of 14,000 and 20,000) and were able to kill more than 600 of them before succumbing to ‘martyrdom’ (for the noble cause of British colonialism), thus achieving greater feat than 300 Spartans of the Hollywood movie. Astonishingly 10,000 to 14,000 Afridis and Orakzais were available from sparsely populated Khyber and Orakzai agencies just for the siege of one picquet of Saraghari. The question arises how reliable and trustworthy were the British assessment of numbers of their foes? For example, in one report they assessed the fighting strength of the Afridis to be 227,000 while the total population of Khyber agency after a century was 284,256 in 1981 census. So, claim of Afridis and Orakzais being numerous as ants and locusts for siege of Saragarhi post, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Unlike British, Afridis and Orakzais did not keep written records of their exploits and they did not have any Newspapers. Sikh-Indian articles are saying that more 600 dead bodies of Pashtuns were found on the scene. But a British report in “Navy and Army Illustrated” magazine of 1902 says, “The Afridi dead been, as usual, carried away by their comrades. There was no one left to harass them in doing so” [1]. So, no dead bodies of Pashtun tribesmen were found on the scene as their comrades had carried it along with them, and casualties’ numbers were unknown. Another British source [2] claims: “From friendly Rabia Khels, they afterwards learnt that the losses of the enemy, all told during these several operations, were over 400, including some 180 killed in the taking of Saragarhi”. These casualty figures of Pashtun insurgents reported by a British officer, who is citing a pro-British clan as his source, should also be taken with a pinch of salt.

Wikipedia says that military historians have declared it to be history’s greatest last stand but every site which is making such statement about Battle of Saragarhi, is Indian. I am interested to know the names of those military historians and their credentials. I have also come across the claim that “the Battle at Saragarhi is one of eight stories of collective bravery published by UNESCO”. I did not find any such statement on any website or book of UNESCO. The only sites and books which are reporting it are Sikh-Indian like “Sikh Studies”, “The Sikh Review” etc.  If anyone has proper reference from UNESCO, then share it in comments section. The other battle that Sikhs-Indians are including in the “Eight stories of collective bravery” is Battle of Thermopylae (the battle which is shown in the 300 Spartans movie of Hollywood). Despite of my exhaustive search, I could not find the names of other six battles included in the said list by UNESCO. Sikhs themselves are puzzled and are asking the names of other six battles in the list. It seems like made-up information. Sikhs also claim that the marvelous story of battle of Saragarhi is taught to school children in France. Only Sikh-Indian sites are reporting it, again seems to be made-up information.

Its rather very strange that Sikhs celebrate 12 September as Saragarhi day and are very overwhelmed and emotional about their “achievement”. They get offended if you are not impressed by it. They should know that Sikhs were described as underwhelming by the same British when they were enemies during Anglo-Sikh wars, and the British hyped those Pashtuns who were fighting for British against Sikhs in that war. For example, British tell us that Risaldar Fateh Khan Khattak and his 70 men (serving British) defeated the entire brigade of Sikh cavalry (approximately 1500 to 4000 soldiers, comprise a brigade) in open field [3]. That’s far more impressive feat than what those 21 Sikhs accomplished at Saragarhi.

A colonial British remark: “Pathan soldiers are notoriously disloyal and are not thoroughly trusted by British commanders” [4]. This may be insult of Pashtuns in the eyes of Sikhs and other Indian people but it’s actually a greatest compliment for Pashtuns. It reflects the patriotism of Pashtuns. Churchill writes:

“An officer of the Guides Infantry, of long experience and considerable distinction, who commands both Sikhs and Afridis, and has led both many times in action, writes as follows:  “Personally, I don’t blame any Afridis who desert to go and defend their own country, now that we have invaded it, and I think it is only natural and proper that they should want to do so”. [5]

Also read this brilliant research piece by Dr.Nafees Ur Rehman : The battle of Saragarhi – The cover-up of a failure marketed as a brave sacrifice

battle of saragarhi 1897

fort cavangri saragarhi

Fort Lockhar saragarhi



1– “Navy and Army Illustrated” magazine of 1902 , p-236

2- Pathan revolt in North West India, p-139
3-The Story of the Guides by G. J. Younghusband, p-24
4- McBride’s Magazine, Volume 58, p-503
5- The Story of the Malakand Field Force: Century People


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