Friday, September 23, marks the 104th anniversary of the Battle of Haifa, a World War I battle in the Sinai campaign that saw British Indian soldiers liberate Haifa from the Ottomans.
Together with the Battle of Nablus, it formed the set piece Battle of Megiddo fought between September 19 and 25, during the last months of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of the First World War.
During the Battle of Haifa, the Indian 15th (Imperial Service) Cavalry Brigade, part of the 5th Cavalry Division of the British Indian Army which was part of the Desert Mounted Corps, attacked rearguard forces of the Ottoman Empire that resulted in the capture of the towns of Haifa and Acre, in what is present-day Israel.
The 15th (Imperial Service) Cavalry Brigade, comprising three cavalry regiments from the Indian Princely States of Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad, played the decisive role in the victory that followed.
How the battle unfolded
The Mysore Lancers were to attack Haifa from the north, while the Jodhpur Lancers had to take the area between Mount Carmel and the Kishon River. This latter task was especially challenging, however. Ottoman machine-gun encampments and artillery lined the area, and quicksand by the riverbanks posed further difficulties.
The Jodhpur Lancers were led by Maj. Thakur Dalpat Singh Shekhawat, a soldier born to a Rajput noble family who had already been distinguished with the Military Cross for his actions in battle at Abu Tulul in the Jordan Valley for attacking a machine-gun encampment, scattering its crew and capturing an Ottoman commander in July, as noted by the London Gazette.
He was able to lead the cavalry through difficult terrain and under the fire of Ottoman machine guns and artillery. While Dalpat Singh Shekhawat fell in battle, his charge was successful, capturing prisoners, taking down machine gun encampments and eventually storming into the city itself. The Mysore Lancers soon followed, and ultimately they took the city.
The ‘Hero of Haifa’
Major Dalpat Singh, who was killed in the battle, was posthumously awarded the Military Cross — an exceedingly rare honour, not lightly bestowed by the British to native troops; even officers.
He was laid to rest in the shade of an olive grove at Mount Carmel, in the city.
Speaking at the centenary celebrations of the Battle of Haifa, the city’s Mayor, Yona Yahav remarked, “Major Dalpat Singh not only changed the history of my city but the history of the Middle East.”
Besides, other officers of the Indian troops were also honoured. Captain Anop Singh and 2nd Lt. Sagat Singh were also awarded the Military Cross and Captain Aman Singh Bahadur and Captain Dafadar Jor Singh were awarded the Indian Order of Merit.
The exact casualties vary on accounts, but some place the amount of German and Ottoman prisoners taken at 1,350 German and Ottoman prisoners, 17 artillery and 11 machine guns. The British Indian soldiers suffered just eight dead and 34 wounded.
The battle was fast — by at least one account it lasted just an hour. However, it was an undisputed success, with the port falling into British hands.
A symbol of Indo-Israeli friendship
Today, India celebrates the anniversary of the battle as Haifa Liberation Day, or Haifa Day for short. It is often characterized by ceremonies at the Teen Murti and Haifa cemetery and gestures by Israeli and Indian diplomats as a shared memory that bonds the two nations together.
In 2017, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Haifa Indian Cemetery during an official visit to Israel, unveiling a plaque in honor of the “Hero of Haifa.”
In January 2018, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Teen Murti as the first stop of his visit to India, bringing high-end diplomatic prestige to what were previously more low-key ceremonies.
Modi then renamed the memorial, “Teen Murti Haifa Chowk”, a fitting tribute to the sacrifices made and the laurels won in the campaign by India’s brave hearts.