100 Years Of Battle Of Haifa: A Greater Cause For Celebration Than Surgical Strike

The battle of Haifa and its significance a hundred years later emphasizes that why great battles should be commemorated and celebrated for the right reasons.

Indian lancers in Haifa

A series of commemorative events to celebrate the gallantry and victory of the last recorded cavalry charge against well entrenched Austrian, German and Ottoman Armies in Haifa that took place on September 23, 1918, has been held worldwide. Starting from the function at the House of Lords in the British Parliament in July this year, it culminated on Sunday with memorial services and ceremonies that took place simultaneously in Jaipur, Mysore and New Delhi.   Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Israel last year visited Haifa and the Israeli PM on his visit to India renamed the Teen Murti Chowk which is a memorial to the sheer gallantry of the action that took place to Teen Murti Haifa Chowk.

Messages to mark the function were received from the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, PM Modi, the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May. The message from the President of India said: "We remember with pride those Indian troops who, one hundred years ago in Haifa, displayed valour, courage and heroism in the face of seemingly impossible odds". Theresa May's message hoped the function at the House of Lords would help raise awareness on the vital contribution of the Indian army not only in this campaign but throughout the entire war. The message from Prince Charles remarked that the event offered a chance to honour, in particular, the courage and sacrifice of Indian service personnel at the Battle of Haifa and throughout the conflict - which made such an indelible mark on the shared history of Britain and India. The gathering in London was attended by over 200 distinguished guests including the current Maharajah of Mysore,  YK Sinha, the Indian High Commissioner, members of the British Royal household , descendants of the veterans of the battle from India and UK including the grandsons of Field Marshal Allenby, Brig Holden and Capt Tudor Pole. The event held at Jaipur and Delhi were marked by tattoo parades and ceremonies presided by the Army Chief and attended by high ranking officials from Israel , UK and India.

The battle of Haifa was pre-empted by the threat of life by the Ottoman Governor in Palestine to the life of Abdul Baha, the son of the prophet of the Baha’i Faith – a pacifist religion that seeks universality of humanity and reconciliation amongst various faiths. Abdu’l-Bahá was released from prison just before the outbreak of the Great War where he was held for nearly 50 years with his father by the Ottomans. He spent the war years tending to the needs of the people in Haifa and Akka organising extensive agricultural operations, thereby actually averting a famine when the war broke out. Since he gained a significant following and preached a religion which went against the tenets of the Ottoman State religion he was again persecuted and held captive by Jamal Pasha, the local governor.

It was an input of Major Tudor Pole, who was a British Intelligence officer, about the impending crucifixion of Abdul Baha that required General Allenby to alter his plans for the war in the Palestinian theatre. Since he had no British troops freely available, he ordered the 15th Imperial Cavalry Brigade comprising of Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad Lancers to carry out the assault on Mount Carmel and Haifa. The daredevil cavalry charge led solely by Indian officers against well entrenched troops in broad daylight led to the combined opposing Troops abandoning their positions. The Mysore Lancers proceeded to rescue Abdul Baha. The cable sent by Allenby after the capture of Haifa was “notify the world that Abdul Baha is safe”.

After being liberated by Indians, Abdu’l-Bahá spoke of the courage and bravery of the Indian troops. He said “Seven sovereign powers of the world endeavored for two hundred years to release it (Haifa) from the hand of the Turk but failed while you through the Power and Help of God have taken the land so speedily and so easily”. He also said to the Indian soldiers, “The people of India have a wonderful capacity to become spiritual. They are naturally inclined toward God and religion. They are pure and God-fearing… Most of the people of the world have lost their faith, but the people of India retain it and are firm in their belief. They are both people of faith and intelligence.”

The victory is all the more remarkable because the opposing army commanders were Kemal Attaturk and Jamal Pasha who had earlier forced the Allies to retreat in ignominy from Gallipoli. It brought about an early end to the war by opening up another seaport in Haifa for the British Forces. The subsequent upshot of this astonishing victory was the end of the Ottoman Empire that led to the creation of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.  The most significant off shoot of the battle led solely by Indian officers was the debunking of the myth that Indian soldiers performed well only when led by British Officers.

The end of the war saw an active campaign led by Sir Pratap of Jodhpur which established the Prince Of Wales Royal Indian Military Indian College that trained future officers and also led to Indianization of the Officer corps. At the time of independence three decades later thus India had a large pool of battle hardened officers which has led to a creation of professional military force. 

The greater message and impact of this gallant cavalry charge fought a hundred years ago seems to be lost in the din and chauvinism that celebrates gallantry and military victories especially when seen in the context of the recent order to celebrate the anniversaries of surgical strike carried out against Pakistan.

The battle of Haifa and its significance a hundred years later emphasizes that why great battles should be commemorated and celebrated for the right reasons. The greater message and impact of this gallant cavalry charge fought a hundred years ago should be remembered for the impact on human history and progress. Other than the ones listed earlier , two million Baha'is call India home and remain indebted for saving Abdul Baha from certain death . They too have thrived in India just as Parsis another miniscule community while they continue to be persecuted in Iran and other Islamic countries .

Stories of valour and courage of Indian soldiers have throughout history been lauded based on actual performance and accounts even during the colonial days. Even post independence, in many a conflict they have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against all odds be it in the liberation of Kashmir in 1948, the stand against Chinese in the Western Sector in 1962 , in upholding the rights and political freedoms of  ordinary East Pakistanis facing a genocide, to the extreme restraint and discipline shown in face of barbarism and provocation in recent conflicts. Wars should be judged twice – first for the reasons that led to the fighting and second for the outcome of the war and the impact it had on human history. Indian Armed forces have repeatedly upheld the responsibility to protect and preserve humanity and freedom of mankind.There is more to India's  military victories that should be felicitated than short term gains.   In such circumstances the advisory to celebrate the surgical strikes a year later seem premature and an obvious lack of understanding of much greater victories that the Indian Armed forces have given the country to celebrate in the course of its many achievements in the service of the country and  mankind.


(The writer, a war decorated soldier, recently represented India at the centenary commemoration of the Battle of Haifa in the House of Lords, London. He is research fellow, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), New Delhi) 

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