10 Feb 1846 – A 60yr old Khalsa General, Sham Singh Attariwala donned white clothes depicting the pure attire of one devoted to death, as he rode into what he knew was his last battle. Some time earlier, he had dismissed his servants and told them to return to his village with orders to tell his family that he would not be coming home.
Mounted on his sturdy white horse,Sham Singh spurred forward at the head of his Khalsa contingent, into the ranks of the 50th Regiment of the British army facing him. The Khalsas fought like men possessed, in a battle for the future of their very lands. Ironically, Sabraon and nearby areas were the scene of another epic battle some two millennia ago when Alexander, in his lust to reach the rich lands of India, fed by life giving waters of its holy rivers, clashed with the native armies under similar circumstances.
The battle was a bloody affair. No quarters were asked for, and none were given. Grossly outnumbered, the Khalsas gave an excellent account of themselves. However, at a critical stage of battle, Misr Tej Singh fled back across the Sutlej with his men, destroying part of the bridge in his wake. Far from being disheartened by this treachery, Sham Singh, along with the last 50 of his men made a spirited charge against the advancing British army.
Needless to say, each and every one of the Khalsas were martyred. In the words of Andrews Adam, “Thus saw the Battle of
Sabraon the basest treachery of all opportunists on one hand, and the shining heroism of noble patriots on the other.” Unquote.
In the evening, after the battle was over, Sikhs swam across the river and recovered Sham Singh Attariwala and his men’s bodies. The General’s mortal remains were found ‘where the dead lay thickest.’ The victors too were suitably awed by this ferocious enemy.
JD Cunninghan wrote, “Gradually each defensible position was captured & the enemy was forced towards the river; yet; although assailed from all sides, no Sikh offered to submit, and no disciple of (Guru) Gobind (Singh) asked for quarter They,everywhere, showed a front to the victors, and stalked slowly and sullenly away, while many rushed singly forth to meet assured death by contending with a multitude. The victors looked with solid wonderment upon the indomitable courage of the vanquished, and forebore to strike when the helpless and the dying frowned unavailing hatred.” Unquote.
Hugh Gough, the British commander-in-chief, under whose leadership the two Anglo-Sikh wars were fought, described Sabraon as the ”Waterloo” of India. Paying tribute to the gallantry of the Sikhs, he said: “Policy precluded me publicly recording my sentiments on the splendid gallantry of our fallen foe, or to record the acts of heroism displayed, not only individually, but almost collectively, by the Sikh sardars and the army; and I declare were it not from a deep conviction that my country’s good required the sacrifice, I could have wept to have witnessed the fearful slaughter of so devoted a body of men“. Unquote.
Lord Hardinge, who saw the action, wrote: “Few escaped; none, it may be said, surrendered. The Sikhs met their fate with the resignation which distinguishes their race” Unquote.
The Khalsas planted a standard on the battlefield that day which stands even today. Assured victory was turned into defeat by the treachery of one of our own. Else the history, and the present of this nation might have been much different. Sham Singh Attariwala was cremated at his native village on 12 Feb 1846.
Shah Mohammed immortalized Sham Singh and his men’s last stand as:
‘They squeezed the blood out of the Whites
As one squeezes juice out of a lemon
If only Ranjit Singh were there,
He would have been proud to see,
How the Khalsa wielded their swords.
Oh Shah Mohammad, without Ranjit Singh, such was our plight
We won the battles, but lost the fight.‘