On September 23, 1918, the 15th Imperial Cavalry Brigade of the British Indian Army, won a decisive victory for the Allied powers against the Ottoman Empire, in what has come to be termed as the historic Battle of Haifa
One of the greatest achievements perhaps in India’s pre-independence military history is the role played during World War I, by the Indian troops in the Liberation of Haifa, in present day Israel, from the rule of the Ottomans in 1918. The feat of the Indian troops, an achievement creditable by all standards, appears to have been relegated to the archives of history.
Now 104 years later, Haifa has once again assumed significance for India as a consortium led by the Adani Group won the bid for the privatization of the Haifa Port, thereby rekindling a sentimental connection between India and the city of Haifa that one feared might have faded away. Haifa is Israel’s third largest city located around 90 km from Tel Aviv. The port incidentally is one of the country’s largest commercial ports handling nearly half of Israel’s’ container cargo. Besides it is also a principal port for passenger and cruise liners.
On September 23rd 1918 the 15th Imperial Cavalry Brigade of the British Indian Army, won a decisive victory for the Allied powers against the Ottoman Empire, in what has come to be termed as the historic Battle of Haifa. During World War I the Ottoman Sultans of Turkey had sided with the Central Powers comprising the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and initially Italy which later switched sides. The battle can be said to have marked the nemesis for Turkey, as within a month the Ottomans signed the Armistice of Murdos whereby their remaining garrisons in the region surrendered to the Allied Forces, signifying the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The dismemberment was formalized at the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920.
Little credit has come the way of approximately 1.3 million Indian soldiers, transported to different theatres of the war, which formed a substantial chunk of the British Indian Army and excelled on the war front to win laurels for the Allies. More than 74,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives. This historic victory at Haifa, claimed to be one of the greatest victories by the Allies in the Middle Eastern theatre, and the role of the Indian troops, despite being acknowledged at commemorative functions by the Governments of both India and Israel, does not seem to be part of the awareness levels of most Indians of the present generation.
In 2018, to mark the centenary of the battle, Israel issued postage stamps to honour the role played by the British Indian Army in the liberation of Haifa. Every year, the Indian Army observes September 23 as “Haifa Day” to commemorate the sacrifices made by their countrymen albeit far away from Indian soil.
The battle of Haifa was part of a series of battles fought in the Sinai and Palestine campaign between the Allied Powers and the Ottoman Empire. The latter consisted of the Turkish 7th and 8th armies and their German and Austro-Hungarian allies. Unlike most British battles in the region, the one at Haifa was fought not by the British army but by the cavalry regiments provided by the some of the erstwhile Indian Princely States. The role of these regiments in liberating the Middle East from Ottoman rule is no doubt phenomenal, but unfortunately downplayed by historians and media alike.
Soldiers from three Indian Cavalry Regiments from the erstwhile princely states were the Mysore, Hyderabad and Jodhpur Lancers, their titles giving credit to their respective Princedoms. These three regiments were combined under the 15th Indian Cavalry Brigade. On September 23, 1918, the brigade was ordered to advance onto Haifa. The Jodhpur Lancers launched a mounted attack from the east, while the Mysore Lancers seized the guns on the heights overlooking Haifa thereby facilitating the charge by the Jodhpur Lancers. A squadron of Mysore Lancers was despatched four and a half miles east of Haifa while another squadron with two machine guns was ordered to climb up Mount Carmel to deal with the enemy guns located along its crest. The approach into the town had to be made through the narrow defile between Mount Carmel and the river Kishon, a defile well covered by Turkish artillery.
Armed with spears and swords the 15th Indian Cavalry Brigade inflicted a crushing defeat upon their enemy who were armed with machine guns and advanced artillery. Against all odds, Haifa town was captured following a daring charge by 400 Indian cavalrymen against 1,500 enemy troops armed with heavy artillery and machine guns. Twenty-five Turkish officers and 664 soldiers were captured. Forty-four Indian soldiers were killed and 34 wounded. The loss in horses was fairly heavy with 60 killed and 83 wounded. The capture of the well-fortified town of Haifa no doubt a most extraordinary feat on part of the Cavalry, cleared a route for the entry of the Allied Forces into the city
The battle has been referred to as “the last great cavalry campaign in history”. The British General Sir Edmund Allenby, who was in command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in charge of operations in the West Asian Theatre, remarked that “No more remarkable cavalry action of its scale was fought in the whole course of the campaign.” Incidentally about 900 Indian soldiers killed in different sectors of the Middle Eastern Theatre were interred in cemeteries across Israel in Jerusalem, Ramle and Haifa.
The War memorial at Teen Murti Chowk in New Delhi features three statues, one each honouring the Mysore, Hyderabad and Jodhpur Cavalry Regiments. The former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to India in 2018 laid a wreath at Teen Murti Chowk. The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi then renamed the memorial, “Teen Murti Haifa Chowk”, a fitting tribute to the sacrifices made and the laurels won in the campaign by India’s brave hearts.
The leader of the Indian forces in Haifa, Major Dalpat Singh also known as the “Hero of Haifa”, unfortunately never made it back to India. He died a martyr’s death and was laid to rest in the shade of an olive grove at Mount Carmel. Speaking at the centenary celebrations of the Battle of Haifa, the city’s Mayor, Yona Yahav remarked, “Major Dalpat Singh not only changed the history of my city but the history of the Middle East.” He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross by the Imperial Government, a rare honour to be conferred to military personnel from the colonies.
Besides, other officers of the Indian troops were also honoured. Captain Anop Singh and 2nd Lt. Sagat Singh were also awarded the Military Cross and Captain Aman Singh Bahadur and Captain Dafadar Jor Singh were awarded the Indian Order of Merit.
The liberation of Haifa after around 400 years under Ottoman rule was a major landmark in the course of events that marked the latter stages of World War I. As a sea port Haifa was a centre of trade and commerce for the Ottoman Empire. For the troops of the Central Powers it formed an extremely important supply line to sustain their war effort in the East. Its capture by the Indian forces led to blocking of the supply chains and precipitated the defeat of the Ottomans.
The landmark event was also significant from the point of view of the Christian and Jewish minorities as in it signified the end of their suppression and persecution at the hands of the Sultans of Turkey. Later under the British Mandate of Palestine, both communities grew both in terms of stature and prosperity as well as in contributing to the overall development of the region. Another crucial development was the rescue and release of Abdu’l Baha, the spiritual leader of the Bahai faith, who was held prisoner by the Ottomans. Incidentally, India is now home to the largest Bahai community in the world numbering over two million.
A major outcome often downplayed, is that the sterling performance of the Indian troops in World War I in general and the Battle of Haifa in particular was largely instrumental in the Imperial Government’s decision to permit the grant of the Kings Commission namely the rank of an officer, to Indians. Hitherto the contention of the Imperial authorities had been that Indians lacked the leadership qualities necessary to be commissioned as officers. Entry to the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy was permitted soon after the War, while the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College, now the Rashtriya Indian Military College at Dehradun was founded in 1922 to train applicants for entry into Sandhurst.
The gallantry of the Indian troops in the Liberation of Haifa has been now included as part of the syllabus in history text books in Israel. As Yona Yahav pointed out while commemorating the centenary of the liberation, “This is an important part of our history and legacy. It is important that the students know who liberated their city,” Sadly, this is lacking in the history textbooks in India and the gallantry of and sacrifices by the Indian soldiers in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I appears to be fast fading from public memory.