British Indian Army officers besieged at Gulistan

Absolute Legends: Major Charles Des Voeux, A Forgotten Hero On A Forgotten Frontier

The story of Major Charles Des Voeux, who led his men to battlefield glory in incredible circumstances, repelling thousands of enemy...

British Indian Army officers besieged at Gulistan

Captain Jay Singh-Sohal FRSA is the author of Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle (2013) and presenter of the docu-drama Saragarhi: The True Story. He is a writer and filmmaker and serves as an Army reserve officer.

In the latest of Forces Network's Absolute Legends series, he tells the story of Major Charles Des Voeux, who led his men to battlefield glory in incredible circumstances.

They heroically repelled thousands of enemy tribesmen who had surrounded the British Indian Army's Fort Gulistan with a force of just four English officers and 175 Sikhs.​​​​​​

The frontier between colonial India and unruly Afghanistan in the 19th century was a place of danger and unrest.

It was also where many British officers earned their spurs before the Great War, fighting to help secure the 'jewel in the crown' against local tribal agitation during the period known as the 'Great Game' with Russia.

It's a forgotten history but one so utterly relevant today.

Then, as in more recent times, this unruly land saw jihad being waged against the British and the need for regular operations to put down uprisings.

Into this mix went British colonial officers including a young Winston Churchill who served at Malakand and Sir William Lockhart who rose to become a General, following his exploits on the Khyber.

But it is the story of Major Charles Des Voeux (above, centre) that is of particular interest to me due to the unique place he and his family found themselves in during 1897.

He showed leadership and courage in the face of peril during the Battle of Saragarhi, which has become legendary in both the British and Indian armies.

Charles Hamilton Des Voeux was born in 1853, the son of a British Army officer, and followed in his father's footsteps with admission into Sandhurst.

Ruins of Saragarhi
The post-battle ruins at Saragarhi

Upon passing out he first joined the 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment of Foot before passing selection to join the India service with the Bengal Staff Corps and then transferring to the Queensland Defence Force in Australia.

He returned to India, married and with children, in 1891, to be appointed the second in command (2IC) of the fledgling 36th Sikhs.

Officers such as Des Voeux held the highest position in leading native Indians. It would have been an impossible task had there not been mutual respect and understanding between the two.

The officer was expected to learn the local language and respect local customs (indeed, without it they would not have been selected for India service). Many donned the turban as part of the regimental headdress.

The native Indians were raised both into class regiments (made up of one race) and company-class regiments (such as the Punjabis, made up of a double-company mix of Sikhs, Hindus and/or Muslims). Des Voeux's regiment was the 36th (Sikh) Regiment of Bengal Infantry.

Raised in March 1887 specifically for service along the unruly North-West Frontier, with the intent of checking tribal agitation, the unit - and its sister regiment the 35th Sikhs - was raised by Colonel Jim Cooke and the infamous Captain Henry Holmes.

It is said that the latter, being the biggest and strongest man of his time in the Indian Army, challenged men in Ludhiana, Punjab, to wrestling matches, with the proviso that if they lost they would enlist.

The 36th was led to man forts and outposts on the strategic Samana range (modern-day tribal Pakistan) by another product of Sandhurst, who was also both schooled in frontier warfare and a son of a famous Afghan hero, Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton.

Named after his father, who had served during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Haughton rose quickly in rank and fame as a staunch and dedicated sort who led his men from the front - indeed, this would tragically see him killed during the Tirah Campaign in January 1898.

The Durand line, which sought to demarcate areas of interest between British India and Afghanistan, had raised tensions with the Pathan tribesmen and a jihad had been declared against the British.

In September 1897, reconnaissance of the surrounding Samana areas found that a strong force of around 25,000 tribesmen had assembled to attack the British forts at Lockhart and Gulistan.

The 36th Sikhs were spread thinly along the range, with 168 native Indian soldiers at Fort Lockhart under the command of Haughton while Des Voeux commanded 175 rifles at Fort Gulistan five miles away.

On September 12, the signalling post of Saragarhi, which was in between them, fell as around 10,000 tribesmen attacked and overcame its walls.

Inside, 21 Sikhs led by Havildar (Sergeant) Ishar Singh put up a brave last stand, fighting for just over six hours but with limited ammunition.

Saragarhi had been crucial to the defence of the Samana as it relayed messages via heliograph from Lockhart to Gulistan, so Haughton could manoeuvre his men to check the enemy. Their bravery earned the men a battle honour for Saragarhi and the Indian Order of Merit (IOM) 3rd class, the then-equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

While Saragarhi has become well-known in recent times - indeed we in the British Army now hold a regular commemoration on its battle honour day - the immense gallantry at Gulistan is less-so but deserves its own focus.

The command of Des Voeux and all those within the besieged fort ensured the garrison survived and held back the warring tribes, with Gulistan having been surrounded by thousands of enemy tribesmen.

It meant that as Saragarhi fell Des Voeux was powerless to come to their rescue, due to his own position being invested. Commanding three other English officers and 175 Sikhs, they would remain in their positions without rest or relief for more than 50 hours.

Fort Gulistan
Fort Gulistan

On the night of September 12, the Pathans kept up a steady fire. By dawn, it was discovered that they had crept up within 20 yards of the walls and built crude sangars from rocks and stones. The Pathans were planning on breaching the wall.

Des Voeux saw that the enemy could deliver a similar blow to Saragarhi at Gulistan. The construction of the fort had a similar defect, with dead ground immediately at the point of each bastion, so guards were posted inside the fort to listen out for any hammering noises.

Then a sortie of Sikh went out to the position where the Pathans had placed their standard - 20 yards south-west of the fort. 

Havildar Kala Singh volunteered with his section of 16 for the attack. Heavy gunfire poured out of the fort as the men slipped out of the southern gate.

They crept along the face of the fort to the south-west corner. Then, with bayonets fixed, they charged the sangar.

They had the element of surprise but it wasn't enough. The Pathans returned fire and the Sikhs dropped to the ground for cover.

Instantly - without orders - Havildar Sunder Singh and 11 other Sikhs leapt over the walls of Gulistan to help their comrades. They picked them up and carried them forward in an attack against the sangar.

The Pathans were driven out - and the Sikhs captured three of their flags, a deep loss for the proud tribesmen. 13 of the 29 men involved in the attack were wounded.

British Indian Army 36th Sikhs with captured Pathan standards
The 36th Sikhs with the standards captured from the Pathans

It was a custom on the frontier that wives and even children would visit the British officer in their positions. This meant Eleanor Des Voeux found herself also besieged with her three children during that September uprising.

She was heavily pregnant and had at her side a nursemaid by the name of Theresa McGrath. It was during the siege that Mrs Des Voeux went into labour and gave birth to a girl, who would later be named Violet Samana.

The siege was lifted on September 14, when field guns fired upon the Samana and the Pathans fled. General Yeatman Biggs had arrived from the garrison town of Hangu with reinforcements.

Of the men under Des Voeux's command who had shown such exemplary valour, 33 received the IOM, including three posthumously. They are known as the Gulistan Bahadurs (braves).

The 21 Sikhs at Saragarhi also received the IOM posthumously. All those who fought on the Samana and the subsequent Tirah expedition to subdue the Pathans received a campaign medal; the India Medal 1895-1902, with clasps for their areas of operation.

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 for his invaluable service.

He advanced quickly to lieutenant colonel and then major general in 1904, before taking command of the 5th Mhow Division from 1907.

He retired as a lieutenant general in 1911 and was decorated with the Order of the Bath that same year but died later in October, aged 58.

Mrs Des Voeux & family
Mrs Des Voeux went into labour and gave birth during the siege at Fort Gulistan

His sons Henry and Seymour, both besieged at Gulistan, would continue the family's tradition of Army service by fighting in the Great War.

Seymour served with his father's regiment, the 36th Sikhs, in Mesopotamia but died in February 1917 during the Second Battle of Kut.

This often-overlooked history is one worth re-evaluating, particularly as 2019 will bring the centenary anniversary of the Third Anglo-Afghan War - a conflict immortalised in the Indian Army Memorial Room with a stained glass window dedicated to the Sikhs who played an important part during it.

Let us not forget - but rather rediscover - the bravery and heroism of men who served on the frontier, and continue to do so in Afghanistan.

If you'd like to find out more about this fascinating period of history, you can buy 'Saragarhi: The True Story' here.

Saragarhi - The Forgotten Battle book cover