Netanyahu and Modi Praised Indian Soldiers Who Fought in Haifa. Here's What Really Happened in 1918

The Indian cavalry unit, carrying only swords and lances, faced off with the Turks, who were armed with machine guns and advanced artillery

Indian Mysore Lancers march through Haifa after it was captured, September 1918.
Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons

The prime ministers of both India and Israel referred, in their effusive remarks to the press on Monday, to the decisive role that Indian soldiers played in the Battle of Haifa in 1918. Although you could be excused if youve never heard of such a battle, it was in fact a critical turning point in the Allied campaign to conquer Palestine in World War I, and members of the Indian Army played a critical role in the fighting. The battle also happened to be one of the last fought by soldiers mounted on horseback, in this case members of two Indian cavalry regiments.

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The Battle of Haifa took place on September 23, 1918, toward the end of the war's Sinai and Palestine Campaign. Earlier in the war, the Indian contingent had served in Europe, but in 1915, it was transferred to the Middle East, where it participated in the conquest of Egypt before heading northeast to Palestine. By then, after reorganizing, the force had been renamed the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremonial reception at the Predential Palace in New Delhi, January 15, 2018.
PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Haifa, as both a seaport and a railhead, was key to the Allied plan to drive the Ottomans out of Palestine and Syria. On September 22, a false report reached the British command that Turkish forces had withdrawn from Haifa. When a British force sent in to secure the city came under heavy fire, it was decided to regroup and send in an elite Indian cavalry unit, consisting of the Mysore Lancers, who entered Haifa from the north and east, and the Jodhpur Lancers, who came in from the south.

The Turks, aided by both German and Austrian troops, were armed with sophisticated weaponry, including machine guns and advanced artillery, whereas the mounted Indian soldiers carried only swords and lances. Nonetheless, they succeeded in capturing some 1,300 Turkish and German soldiers while they themselves suffered only eight casualties in the battle, along with the loss of some 60 horses. One of the Indian dead was Major Thakur Dalpat Singh Shekhawat, who led the Jodhpur Lancers. He became known in India as the Hero of Haifa.

Indian casualties of the Great War in the Land of Israel were either cremated – if they were Hindus – or buried, if they were Muslim. In both cases, the remains are buried in the Haifa War Cemetery.

A week later, on September 30, 1918, Damascus fell to the Allies, and a short time after that Beirut was conquered as well.

To this day, the Indian Army marks the victory annually on September 23, in what is known as Haifa Day. A memorial to the fallen soldiers, consisting of three bronze statues, stands in New Delhi near what was the home of Indias first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. On Sunday, in a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the site was renamed from Teen Murti Chowk (literally, Three Statues Circle) to Teen Murti Haifa Chowk.

In its short clip about the 1918 Battle of Haifa, the website India Today notes the names of three Indian officers in the Allied forces who died fighting the Turks, and observes that while the names might not be familiar to every Indian schoolchild, in Haifa, they are household names. That is probably an exaggeration, but in 2012, Haifa schools did begin teaching pupils about the Indian role in the conquest of the city in 1918.