Balwan Nagial
Balwan Nagial

Battle of Haifa 1918: A Saga of Indian Valour

“Exceptional qualities of character, a deep devotion to duty, and a well-rounded personality are the prerequisites of military leadership. They are necessary to overcome the frictions inherent in war and to reach ‘heroic decisions based on reason’, which are the truest expression of superior leadership.

Clausewitz

Introduction:

The Battle of Haifa in 1918 was part of World War I. In this battle, the 15th Cavalry brigade had regiments of lancers with troops from various Indian princely states such as Mysore, Jodhpur, Hyderabad, and Patiala. The allied army also had a British yeomanry regiment.

The allied armies encircled the Ottoman army. The allied armies captured 2 German officers, 35 Ottoman officers, artillery guns etc. The allied causalities were much about ten dead, thirty-five wounded. The Indian army, formed after independence, still commemorates the battle with ‘Haifa day’.

The Battle of Haifa was a significant battle fought on Sept 23 1918, where the elements comprising mainly of Indian troops of the British Army engaged and defeated the forces of the Ottoman Empire and their German allies. The battle was one of many battles fought during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of World War I.

Approximately 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in World War I, and over 74,000 lost their lives. However, history has mostly forgotten these sacrifices, which were rewarded with broken promises of Indian independence from the British government, writes Shashi Tharoor.[1]

Nevertheless, though the war took the flower of Europe’s youth to its untimely grave, taking away the lives of a generation of gifted poets, artists, cricketers and others whose intellect bled into the trenches, it also included the soldiers from distant lands that had nothing to do with Europe’s hostile outdated hatreds.

Background:

World War I, also recognised as the First World War, was a worldwide war in Europe, which started on Jul 28, 1914, and continued until Nov 14,  1918. The war persisted precisely over four years, three months and 14 days. Before World War II, which commenced in 1939, World War I was termed the Great War or the War to Culmination of all Wars. In total, 135 countries participated in World War I, and more than 15 million people died.

World War I was a military conflict that involved almost all the major powers of the world. The fight was between two opposing alliances, i.e. the Allies and the Central Powers. The Allies’ countries were Russia, France, British Empire, Italy, United States, Japan, Rumania, Serbia, Belgium, Greece, Portugal and Montenegro. The countries of the Central Powers were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria.

Closing to the 19th century, the growing rivalry among the European nations became all too apparent. On Jan 18 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France, the amalgamation of Germany into the German Empire mainly dominated by Prussia with a federalist structure was announced. This event would have had a significant impact on European politics for decades. Before this alliance, Germany was comprised of small kingdoms. These kingdoms came into being after the Treaty of Verdun in 843 AD. These domains would form the basis of the Holy Roman Empire. However, there was no homogenous German identity until the 19th century. This was partly due to the princely states’ independence, and most inhabitants not governed in a straight line by the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire broadly identified with their prince instead of the German emperor.

The new German state would write its chapter on colonialism when it undertook expeditions to Africa and Asia for the first time. This naturally brought the German Empire into conflict with its European neighbours in the continent and elsewhere. The aggressive approach would further antagonise other nations such as Britain, France and Russia. The animosity between them would ignite the fires of the First World War in 1914 and ending the German Empire through the Treaty of Versailles (whose terms were dictated by France) in 1919, ironically in the same halls where the German Empire was first proclaimed.

About this time, the fractured Ottoman Empire gave birth to new nations in the Balkan region. Serbia was one of them that was gaining land and power at the cost of the Austria-Hungary empire. To counter this threat and any future ones, the Austro-Hungarian Empire allied with Germany and Italy to guard each other. Britain, France, and Russia formed the Triple Entente to ward off this with the same aim in mind.

In the 1900s, Britain and Germany added more substantial and improved versions of battleships to their navies. Seeing this, many countries in  Europe also followed this trend. By 1914, the majority of the European nations had their Armed Forces equipped for war. What all was needed was a stimulus to catch fire it, and that trigger emanated when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Jun 28, 1914. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to Austria-Hungary’s throne, and the man who killed him was a Serb loyalist, Gavrilo Princip.  He was putting up a fight against  Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, prompting Russia to mobilise its army to guard Serbia. Germany, in turn, declared war on both Russia and France. A large portion of the German army treaded past Belgium to attack France, infringing its national integrity. This attracted Britain into the war since, in 1830, it had agreed to defend Belgium if it was ever attacked. Many European powers plunged into war at this time together with their external colonies.

The campaign of Sinai and Palestine.

The British Empire’s struggle against the Turks in Egypt and Palestine began with a test of endurance and military engineering in the harsh terrain of the Sinai desert. It evolved into a fast-moving mobile campaign, which resulted in a decisive Allied victory and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

First World War was fought in numerous war theatres of the world and the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire, comprising present-day Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, and parts of Saudi Arabia and Armenia, was the most powerful in the Middle East at the commencement of the war. The Ottoman Empire had united with the Central Powers by 1914 after signing the secret Ottoman-German Alliance.

In the Sinai and Palestine, conflicts between the Allied Powers and the Central Powers commenced in 1915 when the Ottomans launched a futile attack across the Sinai to seize the Suez Canal, intimidating British areas and means of communication. Subsequently, one more failed Ottoman attack was there in 1916. The British forces went on the offensive, attacking Palestine. By the end of 1917, the British had seized both Gaza and Jerusalem. Aggressions ceased on Oct 30, 1918, with the signing of the Armistice of Mudros and, shortly after that, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, and the Turkish War of Independence began.

During the Sinai and Palestine campaign, while the British worked covertly to occupy parts of the Ottoman Empire, they also incited a revolt among the Arabs living in present-day Saudi Arabia. The revolt against the Ottoman forces began in 1916 and was, in large part, planned and directed by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence of the British army, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

The Battle of Haifa 1918.

On Sept 23, 1918, a manifestation of the last cavalry attack in contemporary military warfare occurred when Indian and British troops captured the Israeli city of Haifa from the Ottoman Army. General Allenby, who was deficient in mechanised forces, as his tanks had been diverted to France to fight on the Western Front, was left to defeat Ottoman and German forces through the collective power of the Sherwood Forester Yeomanry and two Indian cavalry brigades: the Jodhpur Lancers and the Mysore Lancers.[2] The 5th Cavalry Division was formed with three brigades. Two of them comprised one British Yeomanry regiment and two British Indian Army cavalry regiments. The Desert Mountain corps was braced by machine guns, artillery, and lightly armoured car units.[3] The Division’s 3rd  brigade was the 15th (Imperial Service) Cavalry Brigade, mainly comprising three regiments from the Indian Princely state of Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad.

On Sept 23 1918, the 15th (Imperial Service) Cavalry Brigade was earmarked to attack and capture the Haifa. The area lying between the Nahr al-Muqaṭṭa, also known as the Kishon River, and Mount Carmel’s slopes were well defended and occupied by Ottoman forces, and gun positionings were placed strategically.

The brigade’s Jodhpur Lancers was ordered to capture this position, whereas the Mysore Lancers moved out to attack the town from two directions, i.e. East and North. Undeniably it was a formidable, if not an impossible task, because the Turks, Austrians, and Germans occupied and defended the heights of Mount Carmel and had well-prepared defences reinforced by several artillery guns and machine guns. Furthermore, these mountains and hills were formidable. It was an uphill task for the cavalry.

The reconnaissance of the positions held by the enemies indicated that Turks had occupied and deployed their machine guns mainly on the lower slopes of Mount Carmel. Furthermore, artillery was deployed at four different locations. The Mysore Lancers were ordered to attack and capture the machine gun positions from the East and give covering fire to the Jodhpur Lancers during their attack from the North to help them capture Mount Carmel and the town of Haifa. The most remarkable accomplishment was that of the Indian soldier of the Jodhpur Lancers and the Mysore Lancers armed with lances and spears and confronted machine-gun fire from well-entrenched and defended positions. Disregarding their safety and security, they moved forward and attacked. Their victory was surprisingly instantaneous, and lightning and the Haifa was lay seized with comparatively few casualties. The other noteworthy feat was that the Indians accomplished this mission without any direct supervision by the British.

A squadron ex Mysore Lancers and a squadron ex Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, supported by B Battery ex Honourable Artillery Company, charged the Austrian battery of light field guns deployed on the slopes of Mount Carmel at 14:00 H. The squadron of Mysore Lancers had marched into positions held by the enemy by climbing up a vertical track to attack, capture and silence the guns. The Jodhpur Lancers launched the main mounted attack on the rear guard of the German machine gunners, which blocked the road 3.2 km from the redoubt captured the day before by the Light Car Patrol.[4]

Finally, the Jodhpur Lancers attacked the Ottoman position but came under heavy artillery and machine guns fire. Furthermore, loose sand on the riverbanks further hindered the momentum of their attack. Nevertheless, the lancers succeeded in moving to the left on the lower slopes of Mount Carmel. The regiment protected the location and captured 30 Prisoners of War (PoW) along with many arms, ammunition, and other warlike stores.

The Jodhpur Lancers sustained their charge into the town and took the defenders by surprise. The Mysore Lancers also followed and led themselves into the town for further exploitation. At the end of the battle, Haifa town fell and captured about 1350 German and Ottoman soldiers as PoW. Their casualties came to 8 martyred and 34 wounded, 60 horses were killed, and another 83 injured. Soon after that, the 13th Cavalry Brigade captured Acre to the North and its garrison of 150 men and two artillery guns. On Sept 26, the 300 substantial remnants of the Haifa garrison arrived at Beirut and were ordered inland to Riyak, North of Damascus.

In this battle, the Jodhpur Lancers’ commander Major Dalpat Singh Shekhawat, Martyr, was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. The Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers are now represented by the 61st Cavalry Regiment in the Indian Army and still celebrate the battle day every year on Sept 23 as ‘Haifa Day’, a memorial service held in the memory of soldiers of the Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers who laid their lives.

Conclusion: More than 100 years ago, the valiant Indian cavalrymen fought and defeated the Ottomans in the heroic  Battle of Haifa, one of the last cavalry charges in the history of modern military warfare. Two months after this famous battle the World War I ended on Nov 11, 1918. This great war changed the geopolitical and geostrategic parallels of the world. Through this battle, India hastened the process of ending the war.

The battle of Haifa should be remembered not just for the conditions it was fought under which it was fought but also for its bearing on human history. With British Allied forces deployed elsewhere in the Middle East, the 15th Imperial Service Brigade was the only available force. The situation’s urgency necessitated an order to capture Haifa, rescuing Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i faith.[5]

The Battle of Haifa had immediate and far-reaching effects for the world:

  • It hastened the process of ending World War I.
  • Exceptional heroism and professional competence displayed by Indian troops led by Indian officers forced the British to shun the racial attitude. It opened the way to King’s Commission for Indian nationals.
  • The Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College in 1922.
  • Further encouraged Indians to intensify the struggle for Independence in India. This act of courage and heroism encouraged many people to fight against colonialism for their freedom.
  • After the release of Abdul Baha, he continued to spread the message of peace, love and brotherhood. He was the eldest son of Baháʼu’lláh and served as head of the Baháʼí Faith from 1892 until 1921 The Baha’i Faith is a dynamic world religion with several million adherents from various religious and cultural backgrounds. The religion’s central figure is Baha’u’IIah. Baha’is considers him the latest in a series of divine messengers.

[1] (BBC News, Why the Indian soldiers of WW1 were forgotten,  Jul 05, 2015).

[2] ( Today in History: 1918: The Battle of Haifa https://www.rosl.org.uk › rosl_news › 670-today-in-hist.).

[3] (DiMarco 2008 p. 328)

[4] (Col(Dr) DPK Pillay,  Chivalry and courage at the Battle for Haifa – The Economic.   https://m.economictimes.com › News › Defence).

[5] (Col(Dr) DPK Pillay,  Chivalry and courage at the Battle for Haifa – The Economic.   https://m.economictimes.com › News › Defence).

About the Author
Colonel Balwan Nagial retired from the Indian Army in 2019 after serving for thirty years. Managed administration, security, project mgt throughout his service. He loves writing and contributing in newspapers and magazines in India. He loves Israeli culture.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments