“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.”
In the last few days there has been a flurry of messages on social media on the proposed restructuring of an Indian Army regiment. This by itself would have been of no major interest or curiosity, except for the fact that the regiment in question was 61 Cavalry.
Just over a hundred years back, as the First World War drew to a close, two Indian Cavalry Regiments were tightening their stirrups and watering their war horses in preparation for a battle which would be etched in the annals of military history for all times to come – a battle between fortified positions supported by artillery and machine guns versus man and his steed, armed with just lances and swords.
The task of capturing the Turkish strategic port of Haifa (now in Israel) and to rescue Abdul Baha, the spiritual head of the Bahais being held prisoner, was given to the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade comprising the Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers. Not only was it a very formidable task both in terms of the enemy and the terrain, but the odds of overwhelming such a difficult objective by horsed cavalry were extremely slim.
This unique cavalry attack was launched on the afternoon of 23 September 1918 by the Jodhpur Lancers, led by their Commanding Officer Maj Dalpat Singh Shekhawat, closely supported by the Mysore Lancers from the flank. Reminiscent of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”, the Jodhpur cavalry galloped into the Valley of Death, overwhelming the Turkish defences by their sheer audacity and bravery. Haifa was won, but at a great cost. The gallant Maj Dalpat was killed during the charge while over 40 men and 150 horses lay dead or wounded.
The Haifa attack was one of the greatest ever cavalry actions in the annals of warfare and was in fact, the last great cavalry charge, probably never to be repeated again. In recognition of their exceptional bravery and leadership, several gallantry medals were awarded to the soldiers, including a posthumous Military Cross to Major Dalpat.
The next day, the Mysore Lancers rescued Abdul Baha. As a direct outcome, today Haifa is home to the Baháʼí World Centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a revered place for the faith.
The magnificent blood and guts cavalry charge at Haifa has been recognized time and again. In 1922, the Teen Murti Memorial was created in Delhi by the British sculptor, Leonard Jennings, in honour of the Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad Lancers. In 2018, Prime Minister Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, formally renamed the iconic memorial as Teen Murti Haifa Chowk. A year earlier, our Prime Minister had especially visited the Indian cemetery at Haifa and paid homage to those gallant cavalrymen who had laid down their lives in the attack. During the Centenary celebrations of the First World War, 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”.
After Independence, as the Indian Army reorganized itself, the Gwalior and Mysore Lancers along with others, got amalgamated into a single cavalry regiment. Thus, in 1953, was born the present 61 Cavalry.
The regiment, located at Jaipur, is today primarily ceremonial in nature, though it does have a limited combat role. It has a strong polo team and boasts of some of India’s best international players. The unit has won laurels in polo and equestrian events including 11 Arjuna Awards. It also forms the backbone of equestrian training to cadets of our Military Academies, an activity which is critical to the development of young boys into soldiers.
Over the years, the issue of retaining 61 Cavalry or converting it into a tank regiment has been thrown up time and again at the very highest levels of the Army’s hierarchy. Heated and emotionally charged arguments have yoyo-ed between the traditionalists and the pragmatists but at the end status quo was always maintained.
However, today, the Haifa Horsed Cavalry stands at the threshold of finally shedding its beloved horses and saddles and converting into another armoured regiment.
The arguments of the pragmatists are logical and need little debate – that a professional Army needs combat power and not ceremony, support to elitist equestrian sports and polo cannot be justified, providing equestrian infrastructure to the Academies can be provided by the Remount & Veterinary Corps and finally, the historical aspect will continue to be maintained just as is being done by other equally famous armoured regiments.
On the other hand, great institutions do not necessarily always run on cut and dry logic or hardnosed pragmatism. The very foundation of the Indian Army is based on intangible but strong core values of regimentation, tradition and history, apart from a host of other institutional pillars that support this great organization. All these values are deeply ingrained into our DNA. And it is this DNA, it is this ethos and spirit, it is these traditions and sense of history, it is these sacrifices of our forefathers, it is all these intangible but critical facets of military life that we have nurtured over many years which enable our soldiers to go into combat and die like they did in Haifa or in Handwara.
It is because of these core values and traditions that we could reconsider the decision to convert 61 Cavalry. The major arguments of retaining the regiment in its present form are simple and straightforward. One, we as a nation, are not so starved for funds or resources that we have to disband a historical unit just to create another regiment. Two, the regiment can be easily trained and equipped for meaningful operational roles like reconnaissance, defence of critical rear area establishments, manning & defending logistical chains, anti heliborne operations and so on. Three, if ceremonies are considered redundant, the same logic could apply to the President’s Bodyguard and other ceremonial symbols like our military bands which play during Republic Day and Beating of the Retreat.
While the Cavalry fraternity and other traditionalists await the final decision on the future of this elite regiment, it appears that the Last Post has already been played for the Haifa Warriors.
“When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
The noble six hundred”