The Tirah expedition of 1897 is now mostly remembered for the courageous storming of the heights of Dargai, but the action on the Samana in September of that year, fought by the 36th Sikhs, must surely rank, in terms of bravery, as highly as Dargai, and in terms of calamity as highly as Maiwand. The Samana is a ridge of hills running east-west, south of Khanki valley, marking the southern edge of the Tirah region. It is about 12 miles long and its highest point is 6000 ft. The Khyber Pass is some 30 miles to the north. It had been captured by the British in 1891 and two main forts built on it, Fort Lockhart in the middle and Fort Gulistan on the western end. They were rectangluar in shape with stone walls 12 or 15 foot high and loop-holed bastions at the corners. Lockhart could hold about 300 men and Gulistan, 200. The two forts were 3 miles apart and in between was a smaller fort called Saragarhi used as a signalling post. Another outpost, called Sangar was on the highest peak to the east.
In August 1897, the Samana was garrisoned by 5 companies of the 36th Sikhs. The commanding officer was acting Lieutenant-Colonel John Haughton, aged 45 at the time. He survived this action but was killed at Shinkamar the following year. There were 5 other British officers, only one of whom had seen action before. He was the adjutant, Lieutenant George Munn who, as an officer in the Derbyshire Regiment had served with the Hazara Field Force in 1891 and as a member of the Indian Staff Corps, had been with the Chitral Relief Force in 1895. The 7 Indian officers had seen active service while serving with other regiments as rank and file. Amongst them was Subadar Diwan Singh who had been in Afghanistan in 1878/9 including the capture of Ali Musjid, and Jemadar Jwala Singh who had served on the Suakin expedition in 1885 and the battle of Tofrek. Both these officers were posted at Fort Gulistan under the command of Major Des Voeux, while Colonel Haughton and Lt. Munn were with the HQ at Fort Lockhart..
Major Des Voeux had his pregnant wife, children and a nanny in the fort with him, but most of the other families had left. The first sign of trouble was on 15th August when a few shots were fired into Fort Lockhart, there was a period of calm for a few days after that. On 27th August, 4,200 Orakzai tribesmen occupied high ground about a mile to the west of Gulistan. Haughton went over to the fort with two officers and 134 men. Later the fort came under heavy fire from tribesmen who had reached high ground 1000 yds away. Lts Blair and Munn took 30 men to a rise called Piquet Hill 350 yds to the west of the fort, but Blair was shot in the lung and they returned. The tribesmen withdrew at about 6pm and Haughton went back to Fort Lockhart leaving Blair at Gulistan. Things quietened down for a few days during which time Major Des Voeux’s wife gave birth to a daughter who they named Violet Samana. The lull ended on 3rd September when a bhisti was killed and 5000 Orakzais were seen advancing on Fort Gulistan. Col Haughton again left Lockhart , taking 50 men, 15 of whom were left at Saraghari, to reinforce Gulistan. There was a hornwork on the west side of the fort consisting of an enclosure 80 yds by 30 yds surrounded by a low stone wall on the three sides (the fort wall making up the fourth side). Outsde the wall there was a thorn hedge to impede attackers. The tribesmen managed to set fire to this hedge but the flames were extinguished by Sikhs working under heavy rifle fire. That night the firing from the Orakzais increased and it was decided that a prearranged bonfire be set alight to provide some light in the way that flares are used now to illuminate approaching enemy troops. Two men volunteered for this suicidal task; Sepoy Ghula Singh and Sepoy Wariam Singh. They rushed towards the enemy and lit the fire before returning to the fort under a hail of bullets, reaching safety unharmed.
On the 9th Sept the sentries on the eastern outposts saw something that caused great excitement thoughout the Samana fortifications. A large body of soldiers marching towards them under a British flag, about 2000 men of the Royal Irish Regiment, 2nd and 3rd Gurkhas, and 2nd Punjab Infantry commanded by Major-General Yeatman-Biggs. He was the senior officer in the area and he had brought supplies for a month to the Samana posts from Hangu. They stayed two days, during which time sappers improved the defences of Fort Gulistan. The Orakzais had been joined by a large number of Afridis and the Pathans now numbered 10,000. Yeatman-Biggs feared that they would cut off his route back to Hangu, and as there was insufficient water to supply his men on the Samana, he decided to return. But on the way to Hangu on the 11th and 12th, they clashed with tribesmen and casualties sustained were 6 Indian soldiers, a British officer and 8 other Indians wounded.
The Pathans were encouraged by the apparant retreat of the British and renewed their attack on the 36th Sikhs. There were nearly 500 fighting men of the 36th there, including 7 Indian officers and 6 British officers. Gulistan had 179 including 4 British officers, Major Des Voeux, Lt Blair, 2nd Lt Pratt and Surgeon Captain Cedric Barkley Prall of the Indian Medical Service, attached. Fort Lockhart had 170 of whom 2 were British officers, Lt Col Haughton and Lt Munn. Attached to the strengh of Lockhart were two other British officers, Lt Lillie RIR and 2nd Lt Haslam RE. Sangar on the eastern end had 44 other ranks, Dhar, 37 and there were 21 other ranks at each of the other posts, Crag Picquet, Sartope and Saragarhi.
There was a night attack on Sangar on 11th/12th Sept but it proved a difficult nut for the Pathans to crack. The next morning, 2 Sikh cooks left Gulistan to find firewood and went missing. Their bodies were discovered several days later tied up and burned. Meanwhile the Pathans turned their attention to Saragarhi which they attacked in force. The 21 were under the command of Havildar Ishar Singh and they held out for several hours, sustaining one injured naik and one killed sepoy. A small group of tribesmen managed to find some dead ground at the north-west corner of the building and busied themselves dislodging the stones at the base of the wall. Although this could be observed from Gulistan, Des Voeux was unable to signal the information to the unsuspecting men in Saragarhi.
The signaller at Saragarhi was able to let Haughton, at Lockhart, know that they were short of ammunition, so at 3pm Haughton led a sortie of 93 men to relieve Saragarhi, but he was just too late because at 3.30pm the corner collapsed and the enemy poured into Saragarhi. The gate was forced at the same time and the 19 men fought a desperate hand-to-hand fight with their few remaining bullets and their bayonets. The sheer weight of numbers soon overwhelmed them and they were all killed. Even the naik who had been wounded earlier shot four attackers from his sick-bed. The last man to die locked himself in the guardroom from where he managed to shoot 20 Pathans, but they set fire to the building and left him to burn to death.
The attack on Fort Gulistan:
After the fall of Saragarhi, the Orakzais and Afridis turned their attention to Gulistan. Major Des Voeux posted men at the base of the corners of the fort to listen for any sign of tampering with the stones on the outside.. The tribesmen concentrated their fire on the fort and this continued into the night, wounding several of the Sikhs. Daylight showed that the attackers had built stone sangars for cover during the night and the nearest one was only 20 yards from the hornwork.
It was decided that an attack had to be made on this sangar and Havildar Kala Singh volunteered to take 16 men to carry it out. At 8am on the 13th they made the sortie, charging towards the sangar, but heavy fire wounded several of them and forced the others to stay flat on the ground. Another havildar, Sunder Singh saw this and without waiting for orders, took 11 men to help them. A concerted effort was made and the sangar was reached. They drove out the tribesmen capturing 3 Pathan standards in the process, returning to the fort in triumph.Unfortunately, two men had been left behind, wounded. When he realised this, a sepoy called Bela Singh leapt over the wall and, joined by two of the Sikhs who had just returned from the sortie, brought the wounded men back to safety. Of the 29 men who had taken part in this action, 14 were wounded, 3 of them fatally. One of these three was Havildar Kala Singh, the original volunteer; he died on the 15th September. Their efforts had a positive effect on the morale of the regiment and made the Pathans more cautious.
The Cavalry Arrives:
The defenders suffered under constant rifle fire for the rest of the day and all that night. Twenty-five more men were wounded, adding to the casualties being tended by Surgeon Captain Prall and Mrs Des Vouex’s nursemaid, Teresa McGrath. Water was running short and no help could be supplied from Fort Lockhart as it was too dangerous to put troops in the open ground between the forts. Yeatman-Biggs received news of their plight and sent the 3rd Bengal Cavalry, a squadron of the 3rd Punjab Cavalry and four guns of the 9th Field Battery RA down the Miranzai Valley to give support to Fort Gulistan. The artillery fired some long range shells at 7 pm on the 13th, hitting few tribesmen but raising the spirits of the besieged men and causing the Pathans to be confused about the direction that the relief troops would come from.
Sangar was the first post to be relieved at 8 am on the 14th. The 44 men there had suffered no casualties. When Col Haughton saw that relief was at hand he sallied out of Fort Lockhart with about 50 men, firing on the retreating Pathans. Yeatman-Biggs and his relief force reached Lockhart by 10 am and they all moved on to Saragarhi where they found no survivors.
Gulistan was still under attack from about 8000 Pathans, but 4 guns of No 2 (Derajat) Mountain Battery were part of Yeatman-Biggs’s force and they were put to good use, causing the enemy to retreat. Gulistan was reached at 1 pm on the 14th September 1897, thus ending the seige.
The 36th Sikhs had been under continuous fire since 9 am on the 12th, a total of 52 hours. During that time, 39 rank and file Sikhs had been wounded plus one Indian Officer. Of these, at least 4 died of their wounds, bringing the total fatalities, with the 21 at Saragarhi, to 25. None of the civilians, apart from the poor cooks, was hurt.
This was not the last action of the 36th during the Tirah Campaign. Over the next few months they took part in some of the heaviest fighting. Lt Munn was severely wounded in the Waran Valley on 16th November and in the last battle of the campaign, Lieutenant-Colonel John Haughton was killed leading the 36th.