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Defence of Saragarhi

The Defence of Saragarhi

In 1849, upon Punjab’s annexation into the British Empire, British India inherited Punjab’s border with Afghanistan. During the Victorian era, this North West Frontier of India gained notoriety as the most turbulent of postings throughout the Crown’s realms. In the summer of 1897, the frontier was set ablaze by the call for Jihad that galvanised a force of over 10,000 Pashtun Afridi and Orakazai tribesmen in an invasion of India. On September 12th 1897, this force zeroed in on a strategic post at Saragarhi on the Samana range. Not wanting to lose time in a skirmish, the detachment of 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry manning the post were given a chance to surrender by the Afghans.
When the defenders elected to stand their ground, a 7-hour battle ensued in which the Sikhs having expended all munitions resorted to hand to hand fighting; before falling to a man they would inflict over a thousand casualties on the Afghans, with over 600 killed according to enemy records.

All of the 21 Sikh non-commissioned officers and soldiers of other ranks who laid down their lives in the Battle of Saragarhi were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit (IOM), an equivalent the Victoria Cross that was highest gallantry award of that an Indian soldier of the queen could receive from the Crown. Later, In 1911 King George V would make Indian soldiers eligible for the Victoria Cross and with that, the last stand at Saragarhi had eclipsed the defence of Rorke’s Drift in 1879 as the conflict with the most awards of the Crown’s top decoration for bravery in a single action.

Martini Henry rifles first entered service with the British Army in 1871 and quickly became its mainstay. Colonial units such as the Sikhs and Gurkhas only received them after all the British units were equipped. It had only been a few months since these frontier regiments were equipped with these rifles replacing the venerable Enfield. Capable of firing ten .303 calibre rounds a minute it proved to be more than a match to the antiquated muzzle loading rifles possessed by the tribesmen. The effective range of the Henry Martini rifle was around 600 yards (550m).