Courage Unmatched: The Jodhpur Lancers in the Battle of Haifa

Jodhpur Lancers marching into the city of Haifa.

In one of the last cavalry charges in modern military history, Indian cavalrymen from the Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad Lancers displayed exemplary courage and secured a resounding victory over the Ottomans in Haifa, on September 23, 1918. This was not only significant for the war effort, but also turned the tide against the Ottoman Empire, which was dissolved barely four years later.

In the town of Haifa in Palestine, Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha'ullah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, had been sentenced to death by a local pasha, on charges of sedition. When this information was given to Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, by Major Wellesley Tudor-Pole, a British Military Intelligence Officer serving in Cairo, and devotee of the Baha'i faith, he told General Edmund Allenby, the commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, to ensure the rescue of Abdu’l-Baha. The capture of Haifa was also essential in order to ensure that the Allied forces had a landing port in Palestine, which would help with the advancement of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force towards the North.

With the rest of the British Army deployed elsewhere, the 15th Cavalry Brigade, composed of units from the Indian princely states of Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad, was given the task of capturing Haifa. On the previous day, aerial reconnaissance had reported that the Ottomans had evacuated the city. However, this claim turned out to be false, after the Expedition sent to annex Haifa came under heavy artillery and machine gun fire from the Ottomans. Another reconnaissance by the Light Car Patrol revealed that machine guns had been deployed on the lower slopes of Mount Carmel. 2 miles further, a battery of Austrian light field guns, supported by German machine gunners controlled the approach road from the east. This road was flanked on one side by the Kishon river and on the other side by the slopes of Mount Carmel.

The area between the mountain and the river was the most well-defended area in Haifa, with Ottoman machine gun emplacements and artillery. The Jodhpur Lancers were tasked with the perilous goal of capturing this position. One squadron from the Mysore Lancers, along with two machine guns, had to capture Mount Carmel, while another would cover the main road, allowing the rest of the regiment to advance along the Acre railway line. The Hyderabad Lancers were detached from the brigade to escort 12,000 prisoners to Kerkur. With Sir Pratap Singh, the commanding officer of the Jodhpur Lancers, ill with fever due to exhaustion, Major Dalpat Singh was made the commanding officer.

At 1400 hours, a little more than 400 British Indian troops, armed with swords and lances, began the charge against a 1,500 strong force comprising of troops from the Ottoman Empire, Austria and Germany, who were armed with modern weapons, including machine guns and artillery. When the Jodhpur Lancers crossed the Acre railway line to attack the entrenched Ottoman position, they came under heavy artillery and machine gun fire. Manoeuvring left to avoid the quicksand on the river banks, they reached the lower slopes of Mount Carmel. During the charge, Maj. Thakur Dalpat Singh was mortally wounded by a bullet from the Ottoman troops. It was at this time that Lt. Col. Sardar Bahadur Thakur Aman Singh Jodha took over as the commanding officer and led the charge, with the soldiers filled with rage at the loss of their commander.

The defending troops were stunned by the ferocity of the Lancers, and fled to the city. The Lancers quickly secured the position, taking thirty prisoners, and gaining control of the machine and camel guns set up there. The Lancers then engaged in a pursuit of the Ottoman troops retreating to Haifa, where they were joined by the Mysore Lancers. Once the Indian cavalry was in the city, the rest of the Ottoman and German forces surrendered en-masse. Major Thakur Dalpat Singh became a martyr the following day, and was laid to rest under the shade of an olive grove at Mount Carmel. In total, 8 Indians were martyred in the battle, and 34 were wounded. The damage in terms of horses was much more severe. More than 60 horses died in the charge, and 83 were wounded. By the end of the charge, the cavalrymen had captured 1,350 enemy troops, including twenty-five Turkish officers, apart from 17 artillery guns, 11 machine guns, 4 camel guns as well as a 6-inch naval gun.

“We tried to cover the Turks’ retreat, but we expected them to do something, if only keep their heads. At last we decided they were not worth fighting for.”

Captured German Officer

For their outstanding bravery in this battle, Major Dalpat Singh, Captain Anop Singh and 2nd Lt. Sagat Singh were awarded the Military Cross and Captain Aman Singh Bahadur and Dafadar Jor Singh were awarded the Indian Order of Merit. The Government of India erected the ‘Teen Murti’ war memorial in New Delhi’s South Avenue to commemorate the bravery of the Indian Army’s 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade Cavalry during World War I in battles fought in Sinai, and Syria. Major Dalpat Singh is known as the ‘Hero of Haifa’. Every year, 23 September is celebrated by the Indian Army as Haifa Day.

The Battle of Haifa is a significant battle in military history, as it was one of the very rare battles fought by the British Indian Army at that time where not just the troops, but also the officers were Indian. It was one of the last successful cavalry charges in modern history, and one of the most interesting battles to have been fought in the first world war. The feat achieved by the Indian cavalrymen, and the bravery displayed in the face of an enemy equipped with the most modern of weapons, is unmatched in the annals of history.

“My Lords, there were two divisions of Indian cavalry employed in Palestine including an Imperial Service brigade. I believe I am right in saying that they were all Indian. It is well-known to the authorities at the War Office and to the military authorities that these brigades did very good work indeed. They had tremendously hard work to do, so hard indeed that they were the first troops to go into Damascus… What I should like to ask is why the Indian cavalry did not get sufficient credit for what they had done. They fought the Turk and they beat the Turk.”

Seventh Earl of Mayo, House of Lords, May 21, 1919.

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