Army Today

Trekking to Triumph

 Sainik Samachar - Vol.51, No.7, 01-15 April 2004

The Sikh Pioneers are the forefathers of the present Sikh Light Infantry Regiment. The 23rd Sikh Pioneers, also called Punjab Pioneers or the Bengal Native Army, actively participated in the Abyssinian Campaign as an integral part of the British Expeditionary Force. Abyssinia, the present-day Ethiopia, is the place for which the Expeditionary Force was raised in 1868 in Bombay under Lieutenant General Sir Robert Napier for the release of the British hostages held on the orders of Emperor Theodore II. The Sikh Pioneers acquitted themselves creditably during the campaign.

Living up to the high standards set by its forefathers, the proud descendents of the Sikh Pioneers gave a sterling performance in operation Rhino which saw the unit bagging a total of 53 awards including the Chief of Army Staff's unit citation and the GOC-in-C's Eastern Command unit citation, three Shaurya Chakra Medals and eight Sena Medals. It was selected to represent the country abroad on a United Nations mission in Ethiopia. The officers and jawans of the 15 Sikh LI availed this opportunity to revisit the historical route taken by the Sikh Pioneers in the Abyssinian Campaign. Captain Anuj Lal Maini and Havildar Swaran Singh had the opportunity to retrace the route which their forefathers had followed and to visit the same spots where their predecessors had fought. Emperor Theodore II, also known as Negusa Negast (King of Kings), was the ruler of Abyssinia. His aim was the liberation of Jerusalem. Muslims had for centuries surrounded Abyssinia from the west, north and east. Emperor Theodore II expected to be helped by other Christian powers, especially Britain. However, the British did not want any to offer any help as it would annoy the Turks who had been the allies of Britain.


A joint Indo-British expedition to Magdala being flagged off from Adigrat, Ethiopia.


To embarrass the British monarchy and to use them as a bargaining chip, Emperor Theodore II took the British envoy Wormuzd Rassam and 60 other British citizens as hostages and moved them to the fortress of Magdala. In spite of repeated conciliatory gestures by the British Prime Minister, the prisoners were not released. An ultimatum was given in April 1867, to the Emperor, to liberate the prisoners within three months. When the ultimatum expired and the Prime Minister received no reply, the British cabinet met and raised $2 million to mount a force and free the hostages. With the proximity of Abyssinia to India, it was decided that the force would comprise units of the Indian Army. The Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army, Lieutenant General Sir Robert Napier was placed in command of the force. The mixed force comprised the British and Indian Cavalry and infantry regiments including the 23rd Sikh Pioneers. It was a logistic nightmare to organise the move of about 20,000 troops, food, firewood, 35,000 pack animals and 44 Indian elephants from Bombay to the port of Massawa.

Magdala was about 720 km off south of the Red Sea at Zula. The march for Magdala began in January 1868. By March end, the Expeditionary Force reached the base of Magdala Fort. Emperor Theodore's army attacked the British army and a bloody battle was fought, in which the 23rd Sikh Pioneers played a major role. The Abyssinians were easily subdued due to superior firepower of the British, but more to the superiority of the men handling the bayonets. The total casualties suffered by the Napier's Army were 20 of which 12 were from the 23rd Sikh Pioneers. The Magdala Fort, after the clash, was captured without any resistance as the Abyssinians had deserted the place and fled. For their exceptional fighting during the campaign, the 23rd Sikh Pioneers was awarded the battle honour Abyssinia carried till date by Sikh Light Infantry Regiment.

In a bid to relive the history and glory of their illustrious ancestors, a joint Indo-British expedition to Magdala was undertaken by the 15 Sikh LI from Jan 31st to Feb 5th, 2004. The team, comprising Captain A.L. Maini and Havildar Swaran Singh, was flagged off from Adigrat, location of Central Sector Headquarters in Ethiopia by Colonel A.S. Rawat, Sector Commander, Central Sector. The team started the trek on the same route, which about 136 years ago, was taken by Lieutenant General Sir Robert Napier to reach Magdala. The trek involved scaling heights up to 2900 meters. It is impossible even to imagine today how Napier's Army would have moved their guns, motors and supplies on this inhospitable terrain.


Following in their ancestors' glorious history, men of the 15 Sikh LI relive history.


After a trek of three days, the team finally reached the location. A sense of nostalgia dawned on the team as it was the same spot where Lieutenant General Napier stood and planed out the battle of Magdala. Continuing its trek, the team reached Aroje Plateaux and Aroje ravines the areas wherein the 23rd Sikh Pioneers had valiantly fought. The team, on reaching Selamge (Selaisse), could also feast its eyes on Sebastopol, a seven ton giant canon. The legend behind this canon, when fired, was that it would cause an abortion to all pregnant women and the old people would turn deaf and hence it was never fired. The Tomb of King Theodore, graves of the Theodore's soldiers, remains of a gate known as Kote Bir and the ruins of the once magnificent Magdala Fort interested the team. The team returned to Adigrat with a sense of pride as they have walked the path once their forefathers had taken.

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