Towards the end of the First World War (1914-1918), a crucial battle took place in Haifa (now in Israel) on September 23, 1918, which has a connection with the erstwhile princely State of Mysore. On that day, soldiers belonging to the Mysore Lancers, a cavalry regiment raised by the Mysore State who were armed only with lances (a long spear-like javelin) and swords, won one of the most important encounters of the ‘Great War’ for the Allied forces when they defeated the better-equipped Ottoman soldiers at Haifa. The day’s events are also significant for military historians as this was one of the last cavalry charges that resulted in a victory in a modern war as cavalries would become redundant in subsequent mechanised wars.
The event is commemorated in both Israel and India as ‘Haifa Day’, but remains largely forgotten by the residents of the former princely state. Like they do every year, descendants of the Lancers had organised events in Bengaluru on September 23, 2022, to mark the 104th anniversary of this battle: A wreath-laying ceremony took place at the Mysore Lancers Memorial in J.C. Nagar followed by a public function in the evening. A plaque at the memorial reads: “Sacred to the memory of those officers and Non-Commissioned officers and men of the Mysore Imperial Service troops who gave their lives during the ‘Great War’ 1914-1918.”
Testimony to courage
Speaking at the wreath-laying ceremony, Lt. Gen. B.K. Repswal, Commandant, ASC Centre and College, provided a succinct report of the events of that day: “On September 23, 1918, the Mysore Lancers had their finest hour, when in a daring, daylight, uphill, full-blown charge, they captured the fortified town of Haifa while facing the enemy’s machine guns and artillery fire…. The memorial... is testimony to the guts and glory of the Indian horsemen who defeated the machine guns of the Germans and Turks only on strength of raw courage and determination.”
During the colonial period, while the British had the Indian army that was recruited by the colonial government, the princely States also raised their own armies. Thus, States such as Hyderabad, Mysore, Kashmir, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Patiala had their own armies. Mysore had regiments of infantry and cavalry by the end of the 19th century and the Mysore Lancers itself had been raised from remnants of Tipu Sultan’s defeated army in 1799. While the princely States had great autonomy within their realms, they were subordinate to the British colonial government that ruled India. Thus, when the British were sucked into the First World War in 1914, it followed that colonies such as India and the princely States also technically became part of the Great War and contributed their armies as part of the overall effort of the Allied powers.
On August 20, 1914, Mysore Maharaja Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar wrote to the Viceroy: “My people and myself will cheerfully respond to any sacrifices demanded of us in such a crisis and are prepared to bear our share in the cost of the War. My troops are ready, and should money be required, I hereby place at Your Excellency’s disposal a sum of Rs.50 lakhs as my contribution towards the cost of the Indian War Fund.”
Military historian Tony McClenaghan writes: “In total, the military contribution of the States numbered almost 22,000 including all ranks of which close to 18,500 eventually served overseas. Throughout the four years of the war, these troops were maintained in the field at the expense of their rulers and State durbars, with casualties replaced from within State resources.” According to information provided by the Mysore Lancers Heritage Foundation, the Mysore regiment that sailed to the Suez (in Egypt) consisted of “29 officers, 444 non-commissioned officers and men with 526 horses, 49 mules and 132 followers.” This contingent of soldiers left Bangalore on October 13, 1914, and subsequently set sail for Egypt to join the war effort in November the same year.
During the course of the War, members of the Mysore Lancers would distinguish themselves in important campaigns defending the Suez Canal as well as in the wider West Asian region. For instance, they would engage with the notorious Bedouin leader Rizkalla Salim in October 1915, during which Risaldar A. Lingaraj Urs killed him. Col. J. Desraj Urs, the commander of the Mysore troops after whom the road on which the memorial now stands in Bengaluru is named, went to Egypt along with the Lancers as the representative of Mysore. Several members of the Mysore Lancers were also awarded with military honours for their valour.
On September 23, 1918, the cavalry regiments of the Mysore, Jodhpur and Hyderabad Lancers liberated Haifa. The architectural historian Yashaswini Sharma, who had researched the event, said: “I have accessed a dispatch by General Sir Edmund Allenby who played a major role in the Allied war effort. According to Allenby, the road and river crossings leading to Mount Carmel in Haifa were defended by numerous machine guns. While the Mysore Lancers cleared the rocky slopes of Mount Carmel, the Jodhpur Lancers charged through the defile and riding over the enemy machine guns galloped into the town, where a number of Turks [Ottomans] were speared in the streets and a large number of prisoners taken.”
According to Anil Raje Urs, a freelance journalist whose great grandfather and his brothers were part of the Mysore Lancers, “the British 5th Cavalry Division was assigned the task of capturing Haifa. Since the defenders of the city were well entrenched, the initial attacks on the city were not successful and were repulsed, which is when the soldiers of the Mysore and Jodhpur Lancers were called in to finish the job.”
Memorials to the martyrs
In this ferocious sortie, the Mysore Lancers also rescued Abdul Baha, the eldest son and designated successor of Bahaullah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, for which the Baha’i community remembers the Lancers with gratitude to this day. There are three memorials that have been erected to honour these brave cavalrymen: the first one is in Haifa in Israel; the second one is the statue of the three soldiers (representing the Mysore, Jodhpur and Hyderabad Lancers) that lends its name to Teen Murti Haifa Chowk in New Delhi; and the third one is located in Bengaluru. The Bangalore memorial has an inscribed roll of honour that lists the names of 27 soldiers (including British and Indian officers) who were martyred during the War.
Speaking to Frontline, Pampa Urs, whose great grandfather, Col B. Chamaraj Urs led the Mysore Lancers regiment, said: “While I was growing up, I used to hear stories in our family of our ancestors who participated in both the World Wars which made me feel very proud.” However, for Urs, who is a researcher in history and has taught at colleges affiliated to Bangalore University, “there is a kind of feeling that these soldiers and martyrs have not received their due and have somewhere been pushed into the corner.”
Three of Praveen Manay’s ancestors–two great grandfathers and their relative, Venkata Rao Maney, who was martyred during the War–were part of the Mysore Lancers. Manay said: “When we remember the heroic roles of our ancestors, we [family members] feel very emotional. For six years, when my great grandfather was away fighting in the War, my great grandmother used to make akki rotis (rice flour roti) and distribute it to poor people every day while she prayed for the safe return of her husband.”
While these memories linger on, the Mysore Lancers was absorbed into the 61st Cavalry Regiment in the post-colonial Indian Army in March 1951. One aspect of the Lancers does survive though: its regimental insignia, the mythical bird ganda bherunda, in a modified version is now the insignia of the 61st Cavalry Regiment. Recently, a chapter on the role of the Lancers was incorporated in Class 10 textbooks in Karnataka.
- On September 23, 1918, soldiers belonging to the Mysore Lancers won one of the most important encounters of the ‘Great War’ in Haifa.
- In commemoration of that victory, September 23 is commemorated as Haifa Day.
- In this battle, the Mysore Lancers also rescued Abdul Baha, the eldest son and designated successor of Bahaullah, the founder of the Baha’i faith.
- To mark the 104th anniversary of this battle, a wreath-laying ceremony took place at the Mysore Lancers Memorial in J.C. Nagar in Bengaluru.