Battle of Haifa: When Indian lancers charged heavily defended Ottoman and German positions for a glorious victory

·6-min read

Over a 100 years ago on 23 September, 1918, gallant Indian Cavalrymen fought and defeated the Ottomans in the legendary Battle of Haifa which is believed to be one of the last cavalry charges in modern military history.

Two months later, World War I ended on 11 November 1918 €" the Great War €" changed the world in ways that nobody could have imagined.

A trip 200 years down the memory lane will help to recount the battle and why Indian are honoured by the Israelis even today.

Background

The city of Haifa was under the hold of the German-Turkish forces in 1918.

World War I was at its peak at the time, and the Allied Forces and the Central Powers were trying their troops to get seize control of every strategic port, base and city to gain advantage and win the war.

Haifa was one such supply base, thanks to its rail access and harbour.

The Allied Forces comprising France, Great Britain and Russia had planned to annexe Haifa, Nazareth and Damascus. Haifa and Nazareth are in present-day Israel while Damascus is the capital of present-day Syria.

Haifa was to be annexed by the 15th Cavalry Brigade of the British Empire, which consisted of the Imperial Service Troops from the princely states of Hyderabad, Mysore, Patiala, Alwar and Jodhpur; it was initially called the Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade.

The battle

The 15th Imperial Service Brigade comprising of the Lancer Regiments from the state forces viz Hyderabad, Mysore, and Jodhpur were given the responsibility of carrying out the attack, as British forces were deployed elsewhere.

It was a formidable if not an impossible task considering the fact that the Turks, Austrians, and Germans occupied the heights of Mount Carmel and had well prepared defences supported by several artillery guns and machine guns; additionally, mountains and hills were a no-go terrain for the cavalry.

Reconnaissance of the enemy's positions revealed that Turks had deployed most of their machine guns on the lower slopes of Mount Carmel and artillery was deployed in four different positions. The Mysore Lancers were tasked to capture the machine gun positions by attacking from the East and providing covering fire to the Jodhpur Lancers during their charge from the North to capture Mount Carmel and the town of Haifa.

On the afternoon of 23 September, a squadron of the Mysore Lancers attacked the Austrian battery of light field guns on the slopes of Mount Carmel while the Jodhpur Lancers launched the main mounted attack on the rearguard of German machine gunners, which blocked the road.

The Jodhpur Lancers came under machine gun and artillery fire. They were further obstructed by quicksand on the river banks.

However, defeating the odds, the Jodhpur Lancers continued their charge into the town, surprising the defenders. Those Mysore Lancers who had been giving fire support to the attacking regiment, mounted and followed them into the town.

Machine gun bullets over and over again failed to stop the galloping horses even though many of them succumbed afterwards to their injuries

Together the two regiments captured 1,350 German and Ottoman prisoners, including two German officers, 35 Ottoman officers, 17 artillery guns including four 4.2 guns, eight 77mm guns and four camel guns as well as a six-inch naval gun, and 11 machine guns. Their own casualties amounted to eight dead and 34 wounded.

One of the major losses that India experienced was that the Indian cavalry lost Major Dalpat Singh who earned his Military Cross that day. The entire story of his bravery is mentioned in the textbooks of Israel. He was anointed as 'Hero of Haifa'.

The great feat was that the Indian soldiers were armed only with lances and cavalry sabres and faced machine gun fire from well entrenched Turk and German soldiers.

"No more remarkable cavalry action of its scale was fought in the whole course of the campaign," the Official History of the War observed while aptly describing the resilience of the Indian troops.

"Machine gun bullets over and over again failed to stop the galloping horses even though many of them succumbed afterwards to their injuries."

Outcome of the battle

The Battle of Haifa did not only leave the Turks smarting, but it also broke the morale of their army and its retreat became a rout which resulted in the Armistice being signed by not only the Turks but also Germany.

Another major outcome of the battle, which is not known to many, is that the valour displayed by the Indians forced the British government to break racial barriers and opened the way for grant of Kings Commission as officers to Indians which they had been resisting on the grounds that Indians lacked the leadership qualities to make good officers.

Entry to Sandhurst was opened soon after the War and The Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College was founded in 1922 to prepare suitable applicants for entry.

Formation of the 61st Cavalry Regiment

Post-Independence, with the abolishment of princely states in India, it was decided to disband all regular and irregular erstwhile state forces cavalry units and raise a new horse cavalry regiment.

Designated as 61st Cavalry, the regiment raised in Jaipur in 1953 comprised of the Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers who had fought the Battle of Haifa.

The iconic 61st Cavalry, one of the world's last remaining horse-mounted regiments, has a decorated past other than its honours at Haifa. It has earned a Padma Shri, 11 Arjuna Awards, nine Asian Games medals, a gold medal in Polo World Cup against Pakistan, silver in Jakarta Asian Games, among other accolades in equestrian sports.

"The regiment is a symbol of India's heritage," Colonel Atul Gupta (retired), who has served in the regiment, told ThePrint.

However, in 2020, the decision was taken to convert this unit into a full-fledged armoured regiment. The move was initiated to cut costs and drew from a proposal to change the regiment's role to an active armoured regiment based on the recommendations of the 2016 Shekatkar Committee report.

Honouring the heroes of Haifa

Delhi's Teen Murti Chowk inaugurated after the World War celebrates that great victory. It was renamed as Haifa Chowk in 2018 in the centenary of the Battle.

In 2017, Prime Minister Modi accompanied by Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu €" visited Haifa €" a first by an Indian prime minister signifying a testimony to the linkages in liberating Haifa, the creation of Israel and the chivalry in rescuing a pacifist religious leader from persecution from the Ottoman regime.

Israel has also issued a postage stamp to commemorate the Sikh, Indian and British soldiers during victorious war of Haifa (Israel) which was fought valiantly against Ottoman Turks.

With inputs from agencies

Also See: Narendra Modi in Israel: PM visits Haifa cemetery to pay homage to Indian soldiers

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