On 12th September 1897, 21 British Indian Army Sepoys (Sikh soldiers) defended the Saragarhi outpost in the hills of the North West Frontier Province, now Pakistan but then part of British India, against 10,000 Afghan tribesmen. Rather than surrender, the soldiers fought to the death for nearly 10 hours with ammunition and bayonets. Although the outpost was lost, the Afghans later admitted to having lost around 180 of their soldiers and many more wounded, demonstrating the expertise of the Sikh soldiers. To honour the selfless commitment and courage of these Sikh warriors they were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award of the time.
This is the second year that the Armed Forces have commemorated the Battle of Saragarhi. It’s a significant event for Sikh personnel, and the event this year also offered the opportunity to celebrate present Sikh heroes within the Armed Forces; Regulars, Reservists and Cadets.
The bravery, skill and loyalty to duty demonstrated in the battle serve as an example to all military personnel today. There are currently around 180 Sikhs in the British Army performing a range of roles, from infantry soldiers to medics to HR administration, and the integral contribution and success of Sikh personnel in the Armed Forces is undoubtedly due to the values that are shared between Sikhism and the Armed Forces: courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty, and commitment.
During the course of the morning, the First World War Sikh Heritage Platoon recalled stories of their great grandfathers and Jay Singh-Sohal explained about the selfless commitment and bravery of Sikhs from their unflinching loyalty in 1897 to operations today. Serving soldiers and cadets enthused about the benefits they currently enjoy from serving, and the opportunities Army life offers for future careers beyond the military.
Adding colour and pageantry to the commemorative event, the Band of Rifles marched and played traditional music. One of their number Rifleman Mandeep Singh, 25, from Birmingham is himself a proud Sikh. Lance Corporal Ian Chave played the last post and a solemn silence was held in memory of all those who had fallen in service of the Crown, before a dramatic “War Cry” was performed by Captain Makand Singh. Then the guests were treated to a Punjabi lunch with spiced tea in the Honourable Artillery Company’s historic Prince Consort Rooms.
Reserves Minister Julian Brazier said:
We’re determined to make sure that any Sikh joining up will feel at home in the Armed Forces of today. That’s why we have the British Armed Forces Sikh Association providing personnel with a practical support network, complemented by the spiritual guidance offered by our Sikh Chaplain. We have prayer rooms in every unit, vegetarian ration packs for every operation, and a flexible dress code so that these days a Sikh in a turban can stand guard outside Buckingham Palace.
Today is a unique opportunity to come together, not simply to commemorate an extraordinary event, but to strengthen our great bonds and, inspired by the recollection of our shared past, we want to encourage even greater Sikh participation in the future force of tomorrow, so together we can write a proud new chapter in the history of Britain.
Major Sartaj Singh Gogna, 37, from Brentwood is a senior instructor at the School of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineering in Arborfield. He joined the Army 15 years ago and as Chairman of the British Armed Forces Sikh Association he often get asked about the challenges facing Sikhs thinking of joining the Army.
When I signed up I was a clean shaven, short haired bloke. And surprisingly it was the Army that has helped me to grow spiritually and supported my decision to become a fully practising Sikh, wearing my Dastar (turban).
Lieutenant Daljinder Virdee, 25, from Iver Buckinghamshire is a pharmacist officer in 256 Field Hospital Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in London. He said he takes inspiration from the 21 Saragarhi Warriors every day, commenting:
The RAMC motto is strength in adversity and in tough times when odds are stacked against you these soldiers stood their ground and did not give an inch. They were my forefathers and their strength is in all of us.