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An Immortal Page From World War I: The Last Cavalry Charge of the Hyderabad Lancers

Updated on January 22, 2020
emge profile image

MG is an air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff College and a voracious writer on military history

History of the Hyderabad Lancers

The Hyderabad Lancers trace their history to 1790. The force was raised by Asif Sah under the colors of the Nizam of Hyderabad in Berar. In 1801 it became the Nizams contingent and in 1816 became the 1st Reformed Horse regiment of Nawab-ul-Daula. The Nizam was earlier a Satrap of the Mogul Empire but he broke away and set up his kingdom.

The Hyderabad cavalry was renamed in 1854 as the 1st Cavalry of the Hyderabad contingent. After the mutiny of 1857, the British crown took over the governance of India from the East India Company which was disbanded. It was decided to incorporate some of the armies and cavalry of the states under the tutelage of the British with the Indian Army.

The 1st Lancer's of the Hyderabad army was incorporated into the British Indian Army and became the 20th Deccan Horse. It was the Deccan Horse that was transported to England to fight the German army in France during World War I.

Most of the troops of the Indian states were not up to any standard and were mostly a motley force whose only use was to overawe the local population. However, some of the states like Hyderabad and Jodhpur had extremely professional forces and the British incorporated them into their military. The Hyderabad Lancers were all officered under the Nizam by the British and was an extremely professional force. It easily integrated with the British Indian Army and when war broke out in 1914, the British decided to transport the Hyderabad Lancers to England. From there they were moved to North-East France to face the German offensive.

Deccan Horse regrouping for attack Bazentin Ridge1916
Deccan Horse regrouping for attack Bazentin Ridge1916

Battle at High Gate World War I

The cavalry regiments of the British Indian Army were now ordered to proceed to Mesopotamia to fight the Turks. By 1915, the situation in France had become precarious and the British wished to steel their defence against the German offensive. Accordingly, the Deccan horse was ordered to be moved to England. The troops from the hot and humid climate of Mesopotamia when transferred to England, which for them was an extremely cold country, were a little out of their depth. There was very little time for acclimatization and the cavalry was shipped across the English Channel to north-eastern France.

The doctrine of the British Cavalary had been highly influenced by their experience in the Second Boer War 15 years earlier, during which one commander had preferred using the irregular units in preference to the cavalry regiments. Thus the concept remained a little outmoded as the machine gun now held sway on the battlefield. Failure to recognize this was to be a grievous mistake in the battle at Highgate.

The battle at Highgate is part of the battle of the Somme in 1916. This was to be the last cavalry charge of World War I. This was an experience that was not forgotten and the Allies after this charge did not use the cavalry for any action again.

The attack took place on July 14, on Highwood a German strongpoint that was holding up the British advance. To break the German lines the Deccan horse was ordered to attack the German positions. It is a tribute to the Indian cavalrymen that the order was accepted without a murmur. The cavalry at that time was armed with lances and they proceeded to storm the German lines, the moment the order was given. The Deccan horse armed with lances and despite going uphill which slowed down the charging horses soon reached the woods. The Germans had opened up with machine-gun fire and many of the Deccan horse cavalrymen were killed.

Reaching the woods in the face of machine-gun fire was a tremendous achievement. The Deccan horse using their lances cut down the Germans. Some Germans surrendered when confronted by cavalry, something they did not expect. The attack while brief was very costly and 102 men were killed including 130 horses. This was the last cavalry charge of the war and the general staff decided that the cavalry would no longer be used to assault enemy lines. It is worth pointing out that just two months later the tank was used in battle, effectively signaling the end of any cavalry attack.

An inquiry was held at the end of the battle to pinpoint who gave the command to attack the German lines but nothing came of it.

First Indian cavalry in England
First Indian cavalry in England

Other Cavalry Regiments

There is another cavalry Regiment in the Indian Army which also has a glorious past and this is the famous Jodhpur Lancers. This was also a professional force and it was extensively used in the battle. In Mesopotamia, the Maharaja of Jodhpur 73-year-old Sir Pratap Singh himself led the cavalry in the Mesopotamia campaign. During the British advance in September 1918, the Jodhpur Lancers were continuously in action and at one point Pratap Singh spent over 30 hours in the saddle and the regiment covered more than 500 miles in 30 days.

Last Word

Both these regiments speak volumes about the valor and glory of the Indian Army and the Indian soldier. It is a matter of regret that the Congress government led by Pandit Nehru took a decision not to recognize the valor of the Indian soldiers in France and Mesopotamia. This has now been rectified with the arrival of Mr. Narendra Modi as the prime minister of India. He has ushered in a glorious acknowledgment of the role of the Indian Army in battles in France and Mesopotamia. While visiting France he paid homage at the graves of the Indian soldiers who gave their lives fighting in distant lands.


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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh 

      4 weeks ago from Singapore

      Thank you Liz for commenting

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      4 weeks ago from UK

      You rightly highlight the contribution of the Indian cavalry in World War 1.

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh 

      4 weeks ago from Singapore

      I saw the film "Lawrence of Arabia" with PeterO'Toole. It was a great film but the fact is the battle by Lawrence was a sideshow blown over in the film.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      4 weeks ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      'El Orens' (Lawrence) was just a side-show then, to take the Turks' attention away from the real action? He was 'blown up' by the media (according to the film, 'Lawrence of Arabia') in the person of one US journalist to be something he wasn't and he began to believe the hype himself. We've got a lot to thank the Indian regiments for, getting us out of tight spots time and again.

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh 

      4 weeks ago from Singapore

      Thank you Alan for your comment. The Hyderabad lancers also suffered heavy casualties but they did reach the German lines. The British did form the camel corps against the Turks but the main assault was by the cavalry. In fact, the major component of general Allenby's force in Mesopotamia was the British Indian army. They effectively broke the back of the Ottoman Empire.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      4 weeks ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      It is interesting, as Raymond says, although from a slightly different viewpoint. Earl Haig, a cavalry officer himself, who succeeded Lord French as OIC British Army on the Western Front, WWI ordered a British cavalry regiment to take one of the German strongpoints. Can't remember which regiment it was, nor caon I remember which point on which salient it was. The short version is that of the regiment none reached the German line, most men and horses having been cut down in swathes by machine gun fire - as the Hyderabad lads were, who did reach their lines to intimidate the enemy.

      Maybe you can fill in the blanks. Needless to say Haig never tried it again, with any unit, and used the cavalry as scouts instead, as was the tradition with the British Army in post-Crimean War days (with the odd exception in the campaign against the Mahdi).

      A corps was formed using camels instead of horses in WWI against the Turks (I think), although the real masters of that 'art' were the Bedouin.


    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh 

      4 weeks ago from Singapore

      Thank you Raymond, for sparing time and commenting.

    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 

      4 weeks ago from The Netherlands

      This is an interesting peace of history I frankly knew nothing about. I’m glad they finally got recognized for their valor.


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