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'They died fighting like demons': the Australian who witnessed the Battle of Saragarhi

The unparalleled bravery of 21 Sikh soldiers who died defending the Saragarhi post, fighting gallantly against hundreds of Orakzai tribesmen back in September 1897, is commemorated in the annals of military history as the greatest tale of valour ever recorded. The valiant soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment have already been the subject of many books, articles, documentaries and movies. But did you know that there is an Australian link to the legendary Battle of Saragarhi?

The fabled Battle of Saragarhi took place at a small British outpost in the Samana Ranges on 12 September 1897, when anywhere between 10,000 and 12,000 Pashtun tribals launched an all out attack for many days. 

Saragarhi was a small rocky outpost situated between Fort Gulistan (Cavagnari) and Fort Lockhart in the North West Frontier Province, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. 

It was manned by just 21 Sikh soldiers who repelled a ferocious attack by the tribals for many hours. Led by Havildar Ishar Singh, the valiant soldiers fought unto their last breath, going on to killing and wounding hundreds of their attackers. 

News travelled fast and almost every Australian newspaper reported this within days...

...The Hobart Mercury of 15 September 1897 added, “This handful heroically defended the position for six hours, but all perished. One gallant fellow defended the guard room singlehanded, killing twenty of his assailants and was finally burnt at his post.” 

And the Brisbane Courier published on the same date went on to say, “News from the north-west frontier of India states that the Afridi tribesmen, who to the number of 10,000 had been intercepted by the force under Brigadier General Yeatman-Biggs, are now attacking all the posts on the Samana Range.” 

This is where the Australian connection comes in, because a British officer who was second-in-command of the 36th Sikhs, called the fallen sepoys of Saragarhi “men of mine”, adding “they died fighting like demons.” He and his band of soldiers went on to defend the ensuing attack on Fort Gulistan, despite a siege that went on for three days.

Siege of Fort Gulistan and the Australian connection 

Six years before the Battle of Saragarhi, an officer from Australia’s Queensland Defence Force had joined the  36th Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry.  

Major Charles Des Voeux had been serving as the Deputy Assistant Adjutant General and Infantry Staff Officer at QDF, before he was posted to India. He and 166 of his men from the 36th Sikhs, along with his family were stationed at Fort Gulistan, during the uprising of 1897, when Saragarhi fell. 

Thousands of tribesmen laid siege at Fort Gulistan, where Major Des Vouex, his heavily pregnant wife Eleanor and their three children were confined along with the garrison. Heavy fighting ensued and under the Major’s command, the 36th Sikhs did not “give an inch”, and despite heavy casualties, they “captured three of the enemy’s standards”. The bravery of Havildars Kala Singh and Sundar Singh during this seige, was especially highlighted in an article published in the Australian Town and Country Journal on 8 July 1898.

Records indicate that Eleanor Des Vouex and their Australian nanny Teresa McGrath nursed the injured soldiers, and tended to their wounds until reinforcements could come and the attack was finally quashed after three days. 

Mrs Des Voeux gave birth to a baby girl during this siege. She was named Violet Samana, after the name of the mountain range around them....

De Vouex family.png


Major Des Voeux describes his Sikh soldiers as ‘tigers’ 

A letter written by Major Des Voeux on 18 September 1897, describing the siege of Fort Gulistan was later published by the Brisbane Courier Mail, highlighting the effort of “two brave Queensland women” and the “gallantry of the Sikh soldiers.” 

“We have had severe fighting here. We were attacked and closely invested for three days – 12th, 13th and 14th September, when we were relieved.” 

Talking about Saragarhi, Major Des Voeux wrote, "The fort next to us, with twenty-one men of mine and one follower, was taken by storm, and fell at 3.40pm on the 12th”. 

"The whole garrison were killed. I hear they died fighting like demons." 

"My men here (Fort Gulistan) fought like tigers, but we lost heavily – forty-four out of the 166, killed, wounded and missing. Things are very serious indeed but my men pulled me through." 

“The enemy were all around, within twenty yards, well under cover, and firing like mad. I ordered a sortie at 8 am on the 13th, as the enemy were getting too close, and it was carried out in the most splendid gallantry, we captured three standards.” ...


...Asked if the events at Saragarhi and Gulistan changed the way that the British viewed Sikh soldiers, Captain Singh-Sohal said, “Sikhs were already respected as a martial race. The brave defence, not just at Saragarhi but the actions of the Sikhs and their Christian officers at Gulistan and Lockhart was recognised in the London Gazette and the Times newspaper.”

“Sikhs such as Sundar Singh and Harnam Singh, who acted in the defence of Gulistan, were named and recognised. The heroics at Saragarhi would be recognised later. But in the immediate aftermath, it was the defence of Gulistan that won applauds.” 

What happened to the Des Voeux family thereafter? 

Des Voeux received the Indian Medal, with clasps for the Punjab Frontier, Samana and Tirah. A year after the tribal uprising, he served in operations in Sudan, for which he received both the Queen's Sudan Medal and the Khedive's Sudan medal. He and the Sikh soldiers who fended off the siege are still fondly remembered as 'Gulistan Bahadurs' (the brave men of Gulistan).

Although there are no known photos of Des Voeux wearing a turban, it was common for British officers commanding 'native regiments' like the 36th Sikhs, to wear a turban like their troops, and follow their traditions.

Capt Singh-Sohal says, “Charles Des Voeux continued to serve with the 36th Sikhs, and remained in India. He commanded the 5th Mhow Division in 1907 and later rose to the rank of Lt General but died in Worthing, UK in 1911.” 

He adds that one of his sons went on to serve in the same regiment as their father. “The Des Voeux sons, Henry and Seymour, fought in the Great War. Seymour was with the 36th Sikhs in Mesopotamia but died in Feb 1917 during the Second Battle of Kut.”  

Capt Singh-Sohal and SBS Punjabi are keen to establish contact with the descendants of the Des Voeux family, to continue this research about the Australian links to the Battle of Saragarhi. 

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