We trace the tradition of cavalry in Karnataka across the medieval and the modern era

From Hyder Ali to the Mysore Lancers looking back at Karnatakas valiant forgotten horsebacksA steel engraving of Hyder Ali from the 1790's (Source: Unknown)
news History Saturday, October 31, 2015 - 13:05

Soldiers who fight on horseback are masters of both attacking and navigating. Speed, agility and precision – these individuals are both skilful and fearful. Karnataka was the seat of the Mysore Empire and their army had a healthy mix of both the cavalry and foot soldiers. It is the horseback riders, however, who were the most iconic.

A quick read as we trace the tradition of cavalry in Karnataka across the medieval and the modern era.

As far as the Kingdom of Mysore was concerned the cavalry had always been an integral part of the composition of the army. Hyder Ali Khan became Sultan of Mysore in 1761. He was quite successful when it came to resisting British East India Company advances. Under his rule, the Kingdom won the first Anglo-Mysore War between 1767 and 1769. Then by 1780, he had managed to earn the patronage of Marathas and Nizams and had befriended the French, who were in India for colonial trade and were directly competing with the British. Around the same time, he commanded an army of over 80,000, with a majority of it being the cavalry, in a siege that lay to dust many British forts. This started the Second Anglo-Mysore War, again which the Mysore forces fought particularly well. His entire success can be attributed to his French-trained cavalry, a symbol of a strong alliance between the French and the Mysore Kingdom.

(French Admiral Suffren meeting with Hyder Ali in 1782 (Wikimedia commons/J.B. Morret engraving, 1789)

Tipu Sultan, the iconic ruler and son of Hyder Ali, commanded a cavalry corps at an age of 16. His army also consisted of numerous elements, included a well-trained cavalry. Other Sultans of Mysore too tactically employed their horseback riders when it came to battles and resistances.

In the Modern era, the role of the Mysore Kingdom cavalry became far more important. By now, the Kingdom was a princely state of the British Empire. However, it had taken four Anglo-Mysore Wars and the death of Tipu Sultan to finally annex the territory. Under British suzerainty, Mysore was allowed to retain autonomy in exchange of providing military support.

The cavalry unit under the king, Maharaja Rajashi Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, was by now known as the Mysore Lancers. It is this particular unit that has shone through the pages of history.

(A Mysore Lancers memorial. CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia Commons/WestCoastMusketeer)

The Lancers, along with troops from other states such as Hyderabad, Patiala and Jodhpur, were a part of Britain’s 15th Imperial Cavalry Brigade, which fought with great honor during the First World War.

In the second year of the War (1915), the British were fighting the Turks, and therefore, Turkish incursions had to be tackled. However, this effort only bore fruit when a squadron of the Mysore Lancers killed seven enemy soldiers, captured twelve and wounded many more. A Bedouin leader was one of the dead.

For the next three years, the Lancers patrolled across regions and fought whatever came their way. It was at the battle of Haifa where they truly made a mark. It was September 23, 1918, when the Lancers charged on Turkish positions along the city of Haifa, only armed with lances, and won even though the Turks were armed with artillery and machine guns. They, along with the Jodhpur Cavalry, assumed a very tactical and strategic position. While Jodhpur entered the area from the south, Mysore entered and barraged the town from the east and the west. The Turks were united with the Austrian battery and were equipped with heavy artillery, but the Lancers still dominated them. Finally German machine gunners were eliminated due to a combined Jodhpur-Mysore effort. In the end, the town was stormed and more than 1,350 German and Ottoman soldiers were captured.

After the war, although the brigade still remained in the Turkish territory, it was disbanded by 1920. Many losses were faced as it retreated; the Mysore Lancers lost close to 23 soldiers. Several of the men were decorated or given distinctions. After this, the cavalry units of Mysore did not gain much prominence.

Their legacy is enshrined in various memorials where their shadows still lurk. The Teen Murti (three soldiers) memorial in Delhi has three statues, one each representing Mysore, Jodhpur, and Hyderabad. Names of those killed have been inscribed on stone. At Suez Canal a memorial entitled ‘The Port Tewfik Memorial’ has been erected. The British government has venerated and recognised the Mysore Lancers for their contribution in the capture of Haifa. Specifically for the Mysore forces, a memorial has been erected in Bengaluru.

(Image: CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia Commons - WestCoastMusketeer)

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