THE Armed Forces last week celebrated the contribution of 21 Sikh soldiers who fought in a epic battle against 10,000 Afghan tribesmen.
The event, which took place last weekend at Armoury House in East London, marked the anniversary of the Battle of Saragarhi fought on September 12, 1897.
Dozens of Sikh personnel in the armed forces, from regulars, reservists and cadets were present to honour the soldiers, who were defending 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.
They 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 leaving many more wounded, demonstrating the expertise of the Sikh soldiers.
The soldiers were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award of the time.
During the event, the First World War Sikh Heritage Platoon recalled stories of their great grandfathers and explained about the commitment and bravery of Sikhs from their loyalty in 1897 to operations today.
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 gets 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 took inspiration from the bravery of 21 Saragarhi Warriors every day: “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.”
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.”
He added: “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.”