Battle of Haifa: Lest we forget Mysore Lancers

Revisit the Indian annals in which the Mysore Lancers — among other Indian cavalrymen — paved the way for the formation of Israel.

At eight on a muggy Monday morning on September 23, bemused and confused motorists gaped at the sight of a 200-strong crowd of people clustering around the Haifa War Memorial at Mundrepaliya in Bengaluru, ringed by an echelon of police, mounted horsemen and a martial band.

For motorists vexed by a police cordon which had blocked off one entire lane of traffic to allow the group to gather at the memorial, the priority was getting by as quickly as possible.

Few, however, had any inkling that within the crowd were luminaries such as the Maharani of Mysore, the Consul General of Israel for South India, the Police Commissioner, and the descendants of Imperial-era Indian army officers and troops, gathered to commemorate the 101st anniversary of a victory by Indian forces over the Ottoman Turkish army during the First World War, at Haifa, in modern-day Israel.

Back to battlefield

That victory and the reason for the memorial have now been largely forgotten on the subcontinent. But toiling for over three years, B L Manohar Vathur (80), a former railway engineer, has collected details about the battle which he has shared with families of the men who fought in Ottoman-controlled Palestine.

Varthur, slight, with a soft voice, his eyes gleaming with information, tells the tale of what really happened on that distant desert landscape over a century ago.

A shock brigade of Indian cavalry, among them 473 officers and men of the Mysore Lancers Regiment under the command of Regimentdar Chamraj Urs, joined by others from Jodhpur, Kashmir and Bhavanagar, were enroute to capture the seaside city of Haifa on September 23, 1918. As they closed towards the towering massif of Mount Carmel — a 500-metre-high coastal mountain range barring the way to the city, they began to encounter heavy artillery and small-arms fire.

Moving to attack, the Mysore Lancers, backed by a British cavalry squadron, cleared the Turkish guns atop the mountain, while the Jodhpur Lancers struck the rearguard of the enemy position held by German machine-gunners. By when the Jodhpurs crossed a railway line at the town of Acre to charge the main Turkish position, the Mysore troops were dismounting from their horses to offer fire support with rifles and horse-drawn artillery. 

As the Jodhpurs breached the Turkish frontline, the Mysores remounted their horses and joined in the charge. Racing into the enemy lines to the cacophony of guns, horses and screaming men, the two regiments took 1,350 Turks and Germans prisoner, while capturing four 4.2-inch guns, eight 77mm guns, a six-inch naval gun and 11 machine guns.

For this feat, India had paid with the lives of eight men, while 34 others were wounded. Sixty horses died and 83 injured.

In Bengaluru, for those at the ceremony whose family names are etched on the memorial in honour of having participated in the battle, the amnesiac nature of the Haifa column is as symbolic of a country that has chosen to forget the feats and sacrifices of a bygone generation of soldiers who gave all for Kings (Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV and George V) and country, as it is axiomatic of modern society’s apathy towards the old India.

“The events of September 23, 1918 were possibly the greatest feat of arms by Indian cavalrymen in the last century. We should be celebrating this history,” said Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao, a Bengalurean.

He added that not enough was being done to proliferate the history of the now bygone Mysore state to children and adults alike, to inspire the new generation.

“Everybody thinks that Mysureans are a laid-back lot and do not take part in strenuous activity, but the achievements of the lancers alone show that this is not true. The battle of Haifa was fought and won by men from nine districts, from places like Mandya, Hassan, Shivamogga, Chikkamagaluru, Maddur, Chamrajnagar — but somehow we don’t see this prominently put out in history books. A hundred years is a small period when viewed through the lens of history,” Rao clarified.

For the Maharani, Pramoda Devi Wadiyar, the loss of this history is intertwined with the loss of the princely state of Mysore itself. She pointed out that while other units of the brigade — from Jodhpur and Hyderabad, managed to retain their identities, Mysuru was unable to do the same.

“After Independence, Mysore became Karnataka, and the legacy of the Mysore state took a backseat. The other princely states are still known elsewhere while Mysuru’s history has been sidelined,” the Maharani said.

Situation now

Even the Mysore Lancers Regiment has ceased to exist within the modern Indian Army, its legacy having been folded into the 61st Cavalry Regiment, a ceremonial horse-mounted unit headquartered in Jaipur.

According to Varthur, all of the Mysore’s Lancers’ regimental records, regalia and holdings were removed from Mysore State in 1951 and moved to Rajasthan, where they remain to this day.

It is this depredation of a cultural heritage that is especially painful to the descendants of the Lancers. Among them is the Maharani, whose aunt’s father-in-law had fought at Haifa. “The onus is now on us to propagate our own history,” she said.

But it may not be that simple. During the First World War, Indian troops fought across two continents for the Union Jack, fighting to save British democracy even though under colonial rule, they were denied those same freedoms themselves.

The pre-Independence Indian Army was the largest volunteer army in the world, and the fact that so many Indians volunteered to fight for the empire became an embarrassment after independence.

In 1999, speaking to the BBC, an Indian veteran of the Second World War lamented that the country was willfully ignoring legions of old soldiers who, despite serving the crown, had nevertheless fought in the name of India.

History has forgotten us, said Major-General Avtar Kishen Luthera, who had served as a lieutenant in the 1st Punjab Regiment during the Second World War. “It is sad that the men are not recognised, that their deeds are not recognised,” he said. However, since then, the sort of nostalgia that has grown among American and British families whose forebears had fought in the two great world wars, has now come to India.

The Haifa Memorial ceremony in September, which is only meant to commemorate the 1918 battle, also drew families whose ancestors had served in later Mysuru regiments which had fought decades later in the Second World War. 

Among them was Naveen Kumar S M, whose grandfather, Sepoy M Subaiah, a member of the Mysore Infantry Regiment, was captured in Malaya in 1942 by the Japanese and imprisoned at the notorious Changi prison in Singapore. Another was P Narasinghabai (65) of Hebbal, whose father, Sepoy Parasuram Singh, was a member of the 1st Battalion of the Mysore Infantry Regiment, which fought in Malaya and Singapore before they were overrun by the Japanese. 

When asked why he was attending a ceremony being held to honour men who had fought in an earlier conflict, Kumar looked perplexed, as if the question was a non sequitur: “We want society to know what our people did. They did something great,” he said.

In the meantime, the Haifa War Memorial stands tall, the names carved in marble on its side, mutely facing a manifestation of modern India: streams of motorists passing by uncaring, their actions emblematic of a state which has yet to come to terms with the complicated nature of its own history.

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