A Delhi traffic circle, a faraway port, and a tale of rare heroism, gallantry

In September 1918, the Hyderabad, Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers won one of the most celebrated battles of World War I, capturing the present-day Israeli city of Haifa from the Ottoman Army. A century on, neither the Indian Army nor the children of Haifa have forgotten the bravery of the ‘Teen Murti’.

Written by Sushant Singh | Updated: May 1, 2017 12:06 am
teen murti, israel, world war, world war one, haifa, israel, haifa israel, ottoman, ottoman empire, indian soldiers world war, indian express columns, indian express Army Chief General Shakar Roy Chaudhary and other senior officers layed wreath at Teen Murti on Occassion of Cavalary week in New Delhi on 11.11.95. Express archive photo by Sanjay K Sharma

The controversy around the renaming of Teen Murti Marg and Teen Murti circle in the heart of New Delhi — the New Delhi Municipal Council moved last week to include ‘Haifa’ in the names, but subsequently deferred the decision — has had an unintended consequence: it has reminded people of a slice of recent Indian history which has been all but forgotten now. It is the history of the armies of the princely states in British India, which contributed to the war effort of the British Empire.

The Teen Murti circle — originally called the Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade Memorial — is a memorial that was raised in the memory of cavalry troopers of the princely states who fell in the line of duty during the First World War. It was unveiled in March 1924 by the then Viceroy of India, Lord Reading.

The three stone and bronze statues — created by Leonard Jennings — on the memorial represent the Hyderabad, Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers who were part of the 15 Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade during the Great War. After Independence, these units were amalgamated into the 61st Cavalry, a unit of the Armoured Corps in the Indian Army. The Brigade also had detachments from the state forces of Bhavnagar, Kashmir and Kathiawar. The stone cenotaph at the memorial commemorates the Indian cavalry and armoured corps soldiers who died in the Great War, fighting for the Union Jack in Sinai, Palestine and Syria.

The renaming of the Memorial as Teen Murti was not unusual. To establish a clean break from the colonial past, independent India renamed many monuments constructed during the British Raj. Thus, Viceroy House became Rashtrapati Bhawan, Kingsway became Raj Path, King George’s Avenue became Rajaji Marg, and the All India War Memorial was renamed India Gate. The rechristening of the Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade Memorial as Teen Murti also happened during this period. The statues at the Memorial, probably because they were of Indian soldiers, escaped the fate that many other statues suffered. Else, like the statues of British kings, queens and aristocrats erected all over Delhi, they too might have been knocked off their pedestals and transferred to Coronation Park, where they might have lain forgotten in an obscure corner.

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With its renaming as Teen Murti, the Memorial’s military connection may have been forgotten by the public but the Indian Army still remembers it annually. On Cavalry Day every November, the Army conducts a solemn memorial ceremony at the circle, often leaving onlookers — who almost reflexively make a connection between Teen Murti and Jawaharlal Nehru — bewildered. Also, every year on September 23, the Indian Army celebrates ‘Haifa Day’ in remembrance of the Battle of Haifa, one the most celebrated battles of the First World War.

Although more than 1.4 million Indian troops are recorded to have fought in the Great War on behalf of the British Empire, the Battle of Haifa represents one of the highest points of the gallantry of the state forces. The Indian soldiers from the princely states were armed only with lances and swords while the Turks were armed with artillery and machine guns. The Battle of Haifa is one of the last cavalry charges that resulted in victory in a modern war, as horses were no longer used in combat by modern armies subsequently.

On September 23, 1918, the 15 Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade — comprising the Jodhpur Lancers, the Mysore Lancers and the Hyderabad Lancers — was ordered to capture Haifa. The Jodhpur Lancers moved in from the south while the Mysore Lancers moved around and attacked the town from the east and north. Their opponents were the formidable Turks, who were supported by German machine gun troops and Austrian soldiers manning artillery field guns. Major Dalpat Singh Shekhawat, the commander of Jodhpur Lancers, was killed at the start of the battle and his deputy, Bahadur Aman Singh Jodha, took charge of the attack. The British posthumously awarded the Military Cross to Major Shekhawat.

One set of Mysore Lancers attacked the Austrian battery at 2 pm after moving up one of the steep slopes of Mount Carmel, capturing their guns and taking them prisoners. The rest of the Mysore Lancers, along with the Jodhpur Lancers, launched the main attack on the German machine gunners from behind. This attack led to the capture of two machine guns, two camel guns and 30 prisoners. The road to Haifa had been opened. The Jodhpur Lancers then charged into the town, while the Mysore Lancers provided fire support and followed them into Haifa. Together, they managed to capture 1,350 German and Ottoman soldiers.

In one of the one of the cemeteries on Jaffa Street, there is a Haifa Memorial to honour the Indian soldiers whose ashes were taken back to Mysore, Jodhpur and Hyderabad. The story of the battle is taught to children in local schools, and the Indian embassy organises a memorial event there every year.

It is odd that a battle in which the modern states of Israel and India had no direct stake continues to form a connection between a traffic circle and a street in Delhi, and a major port city of Israel. That connection is provided by the Indian soldier — even though he may not have been of the British Indian Army but of the princely states that owed allegiance to the Empire.

sushant.singh@expressindia.com

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