All You Who Remember Haifa: A look back at the battle that was

A hundred years ago, the Jodhpur Lancers created history with the last great cavalry charge. A look back at the battle that was.

Written by Dhananajaya Singh | Updated: September 30, 2018 6:00:43 am
Haifa, Jodhpur Lancers, World War I, Maharaja Gaj Singh II, Marwar-Jodhpur, Battle of Haifa, Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade, Hyderabad, Mysore Lancers, Mediterranean, indian express, indian express news The victorious Jodhpur Lancers marching into what is now called Paris Square on 23rd September 1918. (Dhananajaya Singh)

Long had I dreamt of riding into Haifa for the great battle’s Centenary, led by our Maharaja and Yuvraj — with my father and brother, and other clansmen. The direct descendants of men who had fought there, who died there; for the Jodhpur Lancers’ glorious World War I victory.

It was a dream that did come true in many parts, as I was, indeed, a member of Bapji, Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur’s entourage to Israel for the Centenary celebrations of the Battle of Haifa this month.

In their final drive, the Jodhpur Lancers — part of the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade (along with the Hyderabad & Mysore Lancers) — were in the saddle for 500 miles over 38 days; but it was at the Mediterranean town of Haifa on September 23, 1918, that they covered themselves with glory. Their action on the battlefield — on horses with swords and lance against machine guns — was described in the Official History of the War, 1919: “No more remarkable cavalry action of its scale was fought in the whole course of the campaign”; and, is rated variously by military historians as “one of the greatest ever cavalry charges on a regimental scale”, and, as “the last great cavalry charge”.

The ancient town of Haifa was liberated from Turkish and German forces after over 400 years of Ottoman occupation. German general Liman von Sanders, the military advisor to the Ottoman Empire, fled; Abdu’l-Bahá — the head of the Bahá’í faith — was saved; and the Rathores of Marwar-Jodhpur galloped into history.

Their commander Major Thakur Dalpat Singh, was shot as he led the charge. He was not yet 26. It is said that “maddened with rage”, the Lancers reined in only when they hit the cold, bracing waters of the Mediterranean. Three men were killed; 34 wounded, several of them to die later; 60 horses were shot dead, 83 wounded.

Now, a hundred years on, the Maharaja of Jodhpur — 39th chief of the Rathores — was here himself to pay tribute. The small party also included his ADC Pushpendra Singh, and Brigadier MS Jodha — grandson of the Hony. Capt. Aman Singh who took over when Dalpat fell that day. “My grandfather was commanding the leading squadron and it took out two machine guns, dispatching over 30 of the enemy in double-quick time,” the Brigadier tells us. The leading squad was the ‘B’ Squadron, made up entirely of Jodha Rathores — direct descendants of Rao Jodha, the 15th Rathore chief and founder of Jodhpur in 1459.

Our hair stood on end and history came alive as Haifa historians Igal Graiver and Eli Liran pointed out and described the charge: the assembly point far to the right, the extended line over 4,000 yards at a brisk trot, changing into columns at a steady canter oblivious to the gun fire, the “break-in point” through the famous defile, where the gallop began in earnest.

Silently, we drove down to where Eli thinks Dalpat Singh fell — on the side of the road up to the old Turkish Bridge, where four machine-guns (two up left, two on the right, also at a height) concentrated fire. The two up left were taken out by Brig. Jodha’s grandfather; the two on the right probably by ‘D’ Squadron. Finally, we reached what is now called Paris Square, where the victorious Regiment marched in together, weary but elated. Unbelievably, a house in the Square is exactly as it was — down to the angled drain-pipe — and we stood under it as Igal and Eli proudly presented the Maharaja with a photograph of the Jodhpur Lancers in the Square, the house with the angled drain-pipe, clearly visible.

The Mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav, was unabashed in his welcome: “All these years we thought the British had liberated us! Now we learn it was the Indians! We assure you that the story of the Indian Cavalry and the Jodhpur Lancers and Major Dalpat Singh will be taught in our schools.” It was a simple but beautiful ceremony. A guard of honour by the 61st Cavalry — spiritual descendants of both the Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers; a reversal of arms by the Indian contingent with the UN at the Golan Heights; the last post by buglers from the J&K Rifles; wreaths laid by ambassadors and defence attaches of almost 30 countries led by the Indian ambassador, Sh. Pavan Kapoor, the mayor, the Israeli and the Indian Army — represented by Maj. Gen. Dogra; the 61st Cavalry by Major Rathee. And of course, the Maharaja — the last Colonel-in-Chief of the Jodhpur Lancers, who, laid wreaths at both the Hindu and Muslim memorials. While leaving he wrote in the visitor’s book, describing the visit as a “Pilgrimage…”

Kanwar Dhananajaya Singh is the great-great-grandson of Sir Pratap Singh of Jodhpur & Author of The House of Marwar (Roli Books 1994).

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