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