There are some battles that are so decisive that they change the course of history and human destiny. The Battle of Haifa fought on the slopes of the sacred Mount Carmel on 23 September 1918 is one such battle. It was here that a small band of four hundred Indian horsemen armed with swords and lances routed over fifteen hundred Turkish soldiers armed with modern rifles, machine guns and artillery guns
Perhaps it is the geographical setting of the region that makes it the most hotly contested piece of real estate on Earth. Here the three great continents of Asia, Africa and Europe meet and so do the two forked tongues of the Indian Ocean in the form of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf reach towards the Mediterranean which links it to the Atlantic and across it to the Americas.
Where lands and seas meet, civilisations also meet and contest for supremacy. The Battle of Haifa was fought in a land that was contested by Jews, Christians and Muslims, as it had been for over 1500 years. In earlier times too the land was contested. Greeks fought with Romans, Persians fought the Greeks, Egypt fought Mittani, Mittani fought Hittite and so in went on in History. The Assyrians, Sumerians, Hyksos, Turk, Mongol, French, English and the Phoenicians have all contributed to make this the most blood soaked soil in the World. That blood letting continues even in the present times.
The Battle of Haifa was a great victory of Indian troops, led by Indian Officers, who once again displayed unmatched valour, courage and devotion to duty. What distinguishes this battle from many others is in its outcome. The troops that took part in the battle from both the opposing camps were not large in number and the battlefield too was restricted in size. Bit victory here sealed the fate of the Ottoman Empire and led to its final demise. It saved the life of Abdul Baha, the spiritual head of the Bahai’s, thereby enabling his message of universal brotherhood, equality and oneness of all human beings to reach all corners of the world. And an unintended though important consequence was that it led to the induction of Indians, as officers in the British Indian Army, around whom the Army of Independent India stands strong and firm today. Haifa was also a landmark battle, for it was the last true cavalry charge in the annals of history, as aircraft, tanks and armoured cars had made their appearance in the battle field, leaving no role for horsed cavalry, whose use was relegated to ceremonial functions as a romantic reminder of their once dominant role.
On one side was arraigned the Ottoman Empire and their German and Austrian Allies. On the other was the British Empire of which India was the jewel in the crown and other Allied powers. India was at that time a British colony and was involved in the war not by choice but by compulsion. The Indian Army was the largest component of the Allied Forces in the Middle East, but as expected, the Commander in Chief was a Britisher, Gen. Edmund Allenby and so were the other senior officers, some though being from Australia and New Zealand. Amongst the Australian commanders was General Chauvel the supremely competent commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, under whose leadership the Indian Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade fought this battle. The Indian Army was represented by two components, one was the British Indian Army officered exclusively by British officers under direct control of the Viceroy and the other was the Indian State Forces who generally had Indian officers with a few Britishers as advisors. These forces belonged to the Princely States. At the Battle of Haifa they were the Hyderabad Lancers, Mysore Lancers and the Jodhpur Lancers of the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade.
Prelude to Battle
By the beginning of September 1918, Russia was out of the war but Germany held on to large tracts of Russian territory. The Allies were however resuming their offensive and the German forces were hard pressed to hold on to the gains they had made earlier in the War. In Mesopotamia and Palestine, the Turkish Army was gradually being pushed out, but was far from defeated. However, to obviate the difficulties of the Allied Forces in maintaining their army over a single railway track, it was therefore imperative for them to capture a port on the Mediterranean Coast. Haifa was the obvious choice both because of its location and its fine harbour. Another factor that influenced British policy was that it was in Haifa that Abdul Baha, the spiritual head of the Bahai’s was held prisoner by the Turks. Abdul Baha had been tried for sedition and was condemned to death by crucifixion. The British government wanted him rescued and accordingly, Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary sent a signal to General Allenby asking him to rescue Abdul Baha and ensure his safety. This task was given to the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade under which served the Lancer Regiments from Hyderabad, Mysore and Jodhpur. The task was formidable as the Turks had well prepared defences on the heights of Mount Carmel, to include artillery and machine guns. The heights of Mount Carmel also were not conducive to a cavalry charge. To add to the difficulties, the opposing Commander of the 8th Turkish Army was the formidable General, Kamal Pasha later more popularly known as Kamal Ataturk. He had a few years earlier given a bloody nose to the Allied Forces at Gallipoli and forced their withdrawal with very heavy loses — an event commemorated by the Australians and New Zealanders as ANZAC Day — a day of remembrance and prayer.
Haifa lay deep behind enemy lines, which extended from the Jordan Valley, the Sea of Galilee and Judean Hills in the East across the Plain of Sharon to the Mediterranean Coast. On 19 Sep 1918, the Allied Forces consisting of mainly cavalry units attacked the Turkish positions at Nablus, Nazareth, Bethlehem and Megiddo and by the 21st had broken through the Turkish positions capturing a large number of prisoners. To guard the prisoners, the Hyderabad Lancers were detached from the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade and thus missed the action at Haifa. The rest of the Brigade reached Haifa on 22 September and commenced their reconnaissance of the enemy’s positions at Haifa and Acre. It was determined that the 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 provide covering fire to the Jodhpur Lancers during their charge from the North to capture Mount Carmel and the town of Haifa.
BATTLE OF HAIFA
The simultaneous attacks commenced at 1400 hours on 23 September. The Mysore Lancers dismounted and climbed up a steep track which took them to the Austrian Artillery battery position which they managed to capture and also captured and killed several Turkish machine gunners. The Jodhpur Lancers who were to attack from the North found that the steep banks of the Keshon River which ran parallel to Mount Carmel and the soft marshy ground posed an insurmountable obstacle for their horses two of whom were swallowed by quicksand. Fortunately, the troopers on the left flank of the Jodhpurs had found a ford which took them across the Keshon and into the flat ground between the lower slopes of Mount Carmel and the Keshon River. The upper slopes had already been captured by the Mysores. In this gap the Jodhpurs formed up and launched their charge with their Commanding Officer, Major Dalpat Singh leading from the front. Unfortunately, he was hit by enemy fire and died, but Capt Aman Singh immediately took charge of the Regiment, and brought order to the confusion that prevailed soon after the Commanding Officer’s death. Capt Aman Singh leading ‘B’ Squadron and Capt Anoop Singh at the head of ‘D’ Squadron braved a hail of bullets and shells, and galloped onto the enemy positions both on the hill and in the town taking them at the point of the their lances and swords. So surprised was the enemy at the bold and courageous action of the Jodhpur Lancers that most left their positions and fled, to be captured later.
In this battle, the Jodhpur’s suffered the loss of their Commanding Officer and seven other ranks killed and six officers and twenty-eight other ranks wounded. Amongst the wounded was Capt Bahadur Singh who lost an eye. He was to rise later as the Commander in Chief of the Jodhpur State Forces and was known as the Kana General (one eyed). The Jodhpurs also suffered sixty horses killed and eighty-three horses injured. Great credit is also due to the Mysore Lancers for the fire support they provided to the Jodhpurs and for the capture of Turkish gun positions. The Turkish losses were about fifteen hundred killed, wounded or captured including some German and Austrian officers. 17 Artillery guns, two naval guns and about thirty machine guns were captured. More than the physical losses suffered by the Turks, the Battle of Haifa 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 by Germany.
On the morning of 24 September, that is a day after the capture of Haifa Indian troops (Mysore Lancers) proceeded to the house were Abdul Baha was confined and released him and his family from captivity. The family had been denied sufficient food for days and all of them were suffering from malnourishment. Seeing their plight the Indian soldiers immediately made sure that adequate food was obtained and supplied to them till such time as they could make their own arrangements.
The official history of the war states “no more remarkable cavalry action of its scale was fought in the whole course of the campaign.” In Palestine the Jodhpur Lancers demonstrated that a regiment officered entirely by Indians was equal to if not better than any regiment of any army in the world.
Impact of the Battle
The outcome of the battle influenced history in four ways. Firstly, it hastened the end of the War by forcing the capitulation of Turkey. This saw power being transferred from the hands of the Sultan to the representatives of the Young Turks led by Kemal Pasha. Secondly, by release from captivity and sentence of death of Abdul Baha, it ensured the survival of the Bahai Faith. Thirdly, the display of exceptional heroism and professional competence by Indian troops led solely by Indian officers forced the British Government to break racial barriers and opened the way for grant of Kings Commission as officers to Indians. This had earlier been resisted 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 in1922 to prepare suitable applicants for entry into Sandhurst. Consequently, at the end of the Second World War, there was a million strong Indian Army officered by Indians, fully supportive of the Independence movement. That ensured that Britain could no longer hold on to India — a fact acknowledged in a letter from the Viceroy, Field Marshal Lord Wavell to the British Prime Minister in 1946. Lastly, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the abolishment of the institution of the Caliphate and the freedom and creation of the states of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Commissioned in 4 Guards, Major Chandrakant Singh, VrCis a veteran of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, where he was wounded and awarded the VrC for conspicuous gallantry and courage displayed throughout the war. Popularly called ‘Paunchy’ by his friends, he took premature retirement in 1977 and is now involved in writing and speaking on environmental and defence related issues.