September 23 is a seminal date in the annals of the Indian Army. It was on this date in 1918 that Indians were leading possibly the finest cavalry action in history.
Armed with just lances, swords and bayonets, these brave cavaliers charged well-entrenched Turkish positions over treacherous terrain and against heavy odds. Taking on an Ottoman Army far better equipped with modern instruments of war, which might seem basic today, like machine guns and armour. It was ridiculously lopsided, with the Indians comparatively unarmed.
The Great War for Civilization, or The First World War - as it came to be known – would perhaps not have affected India, several thousand miles away, had it not been for the fact that the British Raj in India was at its zenith. With British and Allied troops coming under intense pressure on the Western Front, India responded with immediate support, dispatching thousands of troops from the British Indian Army to help.
The Indian Princes too responded enthusiastically to the plea for assistance from the Crown, in numerous cases personally commanding their forces. By late September, the first troopships began disembarking Indian troops at friendly European ports. And, luckily for the Allies, they could not have come sooner. Many military historians agree that had the Indians not reinforced and held the line, thus turning the tide in important battles like the one at Ypres, the progression and outcome of the war may have been very different.
In the four years that the war raged on many fronts, India contributed approximately 1.3 million troops; an estimated 75,000 of whom were killed, or missing in action, by the end of the conflict.
The epic cavalry assault on Haifa took place towards the tail end of the war, during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, and seems to have been triggered by an event that occurred post midnight on the 21st of September 1918.
The 18th King George V’s Own Lancers, a celebrated Cavalry regiment of Punjabi Mussalmans and Sikhs from the Sindh Sagar Doab in Punjab, was attacked while on patrol advancing down a road to the west of Haifa by Ottoman troops. In the skirmish that ensued, the 18th managed to kill around 30 enemy soldiers and capture over 200.
Lieutenant General Henry Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps, (DMC) had begun enveloping the 7th and 8th Turkish Armies a few days before, for what was to culminate in the Battle of Megiddo. The attack on the 18th Lancers resulted in an order that the 15th Cavalry Brigade (Imperial Service), which formed part of the DMC, launch an attack to capture the city of Haifa the very next day.
Three regiments formed the fighting nucleus of the 15th Brigade; the Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad Lancers. The latter had however been dispatched to escort Prisoners of War, and had been replaced by The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry.
On 23rd September, the Jodhpur Lancers commanded by Major Thakur Dalpat Singh of Deoli, were tasked with leading the charge. Having to carefully negotiate quicksand on the banks of the Kishon River, and riding over the rocky, lower slopes of Mount Carmel while raising their battle-cry, the Jodhpurs’ charged machine gun and artillery emplacements; their lances shimmering in the fierce Palestinian sun.
Parallel to this momentum, two squadrons of the Mysores’, reinforced by supporting fire from The Sherwood Rangers and the Honourable Artillery Company, attacked the Turkish positions on Mount Carmel from the north and the east. Despite taking heavy fire, and having to swing the body of the main charge owing to quicksand and a steep river bank, the Jodhpurs’ successfully managed to fight through, carrying their charge into the streets of Haifa itself; the regiment by now enraged on losing their Commanding Officer, Major Dalpat Singh who had been hit while single-handedly capturing a Turkish machine gun piquet.
That action earned him a well-deserved Military Cross. And, there were two other Military Crosses awarded that day, to Captain Anoop Singh and 2/Lt. Sagat Singh also of the Jodhpur Lancers.
In his Despatches, General Sir Edmund Allenby wrote;
"Whilst the Mysore Lancers were clearing the rocky slopes of Mount Carmel, the Jodhpur Lancers charged through the defile, and riding over the enemy's machine guns, galloped into the town, where a number of Turks were speared in the streets. Maj. Thakur Dalpat Singh, M.C., fell gallantly leading the charge."
1,350 enemy prisoners were taken, including 2 German and 35 Ottoman officers. The Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers combined lost 1 officer, 7 soldiers and 60 horses. 6 officers and 28 soldiers were wounded, as were 83 horses.
“No more remarkable cavalry action of its scale was fought in the whole course of the campaign. Machine gun bullets over and over again failed to stop the galloping horses even though many of them succumbed afterwards to their injuries…”
- The Official History of the War (Military Operations Egypt and Palestine: Volume II)
The Teen Murti, designed by Leonard Jennings, was erected to commemorate the singular sacrifice made by these heroic cavalry regiments. It is this memorial that lent its name to the residence of the Commander of the British Indian Army, which latterly became the official residence of the Prime Minister of India. Today, it houses the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
When the Princely States acceded to the Union of India, most of their state-forces, were absorbed into the Indian Army. Some elements of the cavalry that had fought at Haifa continue to remain in active service, some forming part of armoured regiments like the 20th Lancers, as well as one horse cavalry regiment.
The 61st Cavalry, a largely ceremonial mounted regiment which was formed by combining a number of these princely state forces, including the Patiala and Gwalior Lancers, as well as Jaipur’s Kacchawa Horse, continues the tradition to commemorate and celebrate Haifa Day’ each year. Last evening, The Commandant and All Ranks hosted the Haifa Banquet at the Cavalry Officer’s Mess in Jaipur, and today there are to be a number of events to mark this heroic and last great cavalry charge. This year is a double celebration for them; it also happens to be the Diamond Jubilee of this young regiment, which inherited an invaluable legacy from its illustrious and valiant forebears.