Books | Their Finest Hour: Palestine 1918

How the Jodhpur Lancers proved their mettle once again

Jodhpur LancersIn November 1914 a large Turkish force moved down through Palestine, crossed the Sinai Desert and attacked the defended strong points along the Canal. By February they had been forced to retreat. The Allied troops moved forward into Sinai to put up a stronger defence but were unable to make much headway against the Turkish forces. In July 1917 General Allenby arrived in Palestine and adopted more aggressive tactics, capturing, Jerusalem by Christmas. Consequently in January 1918, the Turkish army in Palestine-some 36,000 strong-held two sectors extending from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea and separated by the River Jordan. In 1918 the Indian cavalry regiments were transferred to Egypt from France. They were brigaded with British yeomanry regiments and joined the Desert Mounted Corps, consisting of the 4th and 5th Cavalry Divisions, together with the Australian Mounted Division. The Jodhpur Lancers landed in Egypt on 28 March 1918. They joined the Mysore and the Hyderabad Lancers-replacing the Patiala Lancers, who had gone to Mesopotamia-in the 15th (Imperial Service) Cavalry Brigade of the 5th Divisions, The Brigade included an artillery battery from the British Honourable Artillery Company. By May 1918 two brigades from the 4th and 5th Divisions, now re-armed with lances, were amid the unpleasant summer conditions of the Jordan valley, where they were involved in a number of successful patrol action. Later they were joined by three other brigades. There was then some reorganization of the cavalry before the final offensive, which was planned for September and whose aim was to totally destroy the Turkish forces in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Following an infantry attack, the cavalry were to advance along the Palestine coast, break through the Turkish defences and then turn north-eastwards over the Carmel Range and down into the plain of Megiddo. An elaborate deception plan effectively confused the Turks as to the direction the main thrust. The Cavalry moved forward on the night of 18 September. The surprise was total and the Hodson’s Horse, acting as the advance guard, was through the main enemy defences by 6.00 a.m. the next morning. By the evening of 20 September, the 4th Cavalry Division was astride the main communication line between the Turkish 7th and 6th Armies and Damascus. Phase One of the operation had been completed in 36 hours and the Division had advanced 110 kilometers. Acre was captured on 23 September and Haifa on the same day by the Jodhpur Lancers. On 26 September the Desert Mounted Corps began their advance upon Damascus, which was captured on 1 October. In just over a month, the Corps, including thirteen Indian regiments out of a total of twenty-four, had destroyed three Turkish armies and taken 46,000 prisoners.

The Jodhpur Lancers arrived in Egypt under the command of Major Thakur Pratab Singh; Colonel Maharaj Sher Singh having returned to India to take command of the Depot-the regimental base in India-which had grown considerably in size. While in Egypt, and before the regiment went into action again, the opportunity to play some polo could not be missed. In order to clear the stones from a level piece of ground, the Lancers requisitioned 400 labourers’ baskets-normally used for entrenching work-from Royal Engineer stores. The sowars, each with a basket, lined up at one end of the polo ground. They moved slowly across the ground, picking up every stone, and some excellent polo followed. After this pleasant and well-deserved break, the regiment was moved by rail through Sinai to the Jordan Valley, where it joined the Brigade on 11 May, relieving a New Zealand regiment, the Wellington Mounted Rifles. On the 16th a Lancer patrol captured four prisoners right in front of the Turkish trenches and a day later the Brigade marched to a bivouac area, one mile north of Jericho. Mounted training commenced and reconnaissance patrols were undertaken by the British and Indian officers of all points where the Brigade might be called upon to counter-attack. The machine gun subsection of the Jodhpurs joined those from the Mysore and Hyderabad regiments to form a machine gun squadron for the Brigade. Conditions in the Jordan Valley were very bad. The atmosphere was oppressive, with temperatures up to 55 degrees centigrade; the dust worried both horses and men; and there were many flies and mosquitoes close to the river.

In June the Jodhpur Lancers were moved to a more healthy climate but in July returned to the valley to occupy part of the bridgehead over the Jordan, which secured the British right flank. Here there were two swing bridges across the Jordan: the southern one, at Henu, close to the junction between the river, and the Wadi El Rameh, which itself was passable at Sangster’s Ford. The Jodhpurs were responsible for the southern bridgehead white the northern bridge at El Hajila was covered by the Mysore Lancers. At last, after the frustration of the previous three years, the regiment was being given their first real opportunity to show just what they could do. At 3.30 a.m. on the morning of 14 July, the regiment’s standing patrol of nine men on the eastern bank of the river was attacked by the advance guard of the 2nd Turkish Caucasian Cavalry Brigade, The patrol opened fire on the enemy, wounding an officer and killing his horse. ‘A’ squadron (about eighty men) crossed the Wadi El Rameh at Sangster’s Ford in support of the patrol but themselves came under heavy fire. Fortunately there were no casualties and the men got themselves under cover. The Jodhpurs attempted to push southwards while the Turks moved northwards with a view to getting behind ‘A’ squadron and cutting them off. As the enemy came out of the hills to the east at 1,200 yards range they were brought under heavy fire by the Lancers using both rifles and Hotchkiss machine guns. A troop under Jemadar Chotu Singh was ordered to take up a firing position, which they did, killing many Turks through the day. The machine-gunner Dafadar Amer Singh earned himself the Indian Order of Merit (Second Class).

By 8.00 a.m. it was realized that ‘A’ Squadron had at least 300 of the enemy in front of them from the 9th and 11the Turkish Cavalry Regiments, with the 7th Cavalry Regiment in reserve. Pushing out patrols, the Lancers were able to locate the whole of the enemy’s position over a frontage of two miles and also to establish the number of machine guns facing them. Meanwhile, a squadron of the Mysore Lancers, accompanied by two Astralian Lewis guns, was trying to push forward through the northern bridgehead at Hajla. Two squadrons of the Jodhpur Lancers were ordered to assemble, cross the Jorden at Henu and to roll up the enemy position from south to north. At 12.10 p.m. the advance began with one troop under Jemadar Khang Singh in the lead. The squadrons (some 125 men) moved steadily south-eastwards, taking advantage of a dry valley as cover. Once in position, they turned north and galloped straight over the first objective. Seeing the advance of the unstoppable Jo Hokums, three troops of Turkish cavalry on the extreme right flank immediately made off to the east.

The leading troop thundered ahead towards their second objective, killing all the enemy there. Meanwhile the rest of the Lancers made for the next ridge further east, which was covered with Turkish troops. It was here that the stiffest fighting took place, with many individual acts of bravery. Major Dalpat Singh, leading the charge and accompanied only by his trumpet-major, went full-tilt for an enemy machine gun, killing the gunners and capturing the gun. He later captured the commandant of the 11th Turkish Regiment. He was awarded the Military Cross for his leadership and courage on that day-one of the first Indian officers to be thus honoured. The citation for his award reads: ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This officer, accompanied only by his trumpeter, charged an entrenched machine gun, killing and scattering the crew and capturing the gun. At the same time he captured the commandant of a regiment and another officer.’

Jodhpur Lancers
Michael Creese
Lustre Press-Roli Books, Pages 187, Rs 995


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