How the World War made Bahai' and India friends

World War 1 has many stories but one story that has captivated many is the story the Bahai' community representation Minou Cortazzi shared at the Zoroastrian Centre about A Indian Cavalrymen rescued Adbu’I Baha, the Bahai spiritual leader during World War 1.

"It is a pleasure to be here at the Zoroastrian Centre today.

Whilst Zoroastrianism is recognised as perhaps the oldest expression of monotheism, my own religion, the Baha'i faith is sometimes explained as the most recent. Whilst our respective traditions and writings are separated by several millennia, we both share roots in the land of Iran or Persia, the birthplace of the Prophet Zoroaster and of the twin figures revered by Baha'is as the Manifestations of God for this age, known as the Bab and Baha'u'Ilah. In His own lifetime, Baha'u'Ilah addressed a number of Tablets to the Zoroastrian and Parsee communities in Iran and in India, and the Baha'i Faith affirms and recognises Zoroaster as a Prophet of God.

Our theme for today addresses the enormous contribution of Indian soldiers in the defence of Britain throughout the two world wars of the twentieth century. This is a matter that is only belatedly receiving proper historical recognition. The British Indian army has been referred to by some historians as part of the "invisible army", together with African and Caribbean troops who fought and in some cases died in defence of Britain. It is my understanding that close to 2 million troops from India fought in the First World War alone and that the British Indian army is recognised as the largest volunteer army in human history.

Today as we gather to remember our debt to these brave and sacrificial men; it is my honour to share a brief story of one of the many engagements that Indian troops served in during the First World War and one that had enormous impact and meaning for the worldwide Baha'i community.

After the death of the Baha’u’llah, the Founder-Prophet of the Baha’i faith in 1892, it fell to his son, Abdul Baha' to steward the nascent Baha'i community at a time of great challenges. Despite being founded in Iran, the administrative and spiritual centre of the Baha'i Faith is located on the slopes of Mount Carmel in the city of Haifa in Israel. Abdul Baha had followed his father into exile from Iran, arriving in Haifa in 1868 and had spent most of his life as what we today understand as a prisoner of conscience.

Immediate prior to the outbreak of the war Abdul Baha' was nearly seventy but due to some liberalisations in his conditions after the Young Turk Revolution he was able to travel to England, Scotland, France, America and Canada, but always returning to Haifa, which remained under an Ottoman rule. During the conflict between Turkish and British forces, Abdul Baha' faced threats from the Ottoman governor of Haifa and as the situation deteriorated the authorities made plans to execute Abdul Baha' by means of crucifixion, and also to destroy the Baha'i shrines on Mount Carmel, the most sacred sites in the Baha'i Faith.

British forces under General Allenby had been tasked with defeating Turkish and German forces in Palestine, and this included two Indian cavalry-brigades. One officer serving with Allenby was Major Wellesley Tudor-Pole. Major Tudor-Pole was serving in the Directorate of Military Intelligence during the conflict but he had a longstanding interest in the Middle East. On a trip to Turkey in 1908, he had heard of the Baha'i Faith and he travelled to interview Abdul Baha in Cairo and Alexandria in 1910.

Tudor-Pole was one of the early members of a small British Baha'i community who became deeply concerned at reports of the dire threats that had been made against Abdul Baha. Together with correspondence to the War Office from a number of British Baha'is, a case was made to General Allenby to alter his plans in the prosecution of the wider theatre of war in Palestine. Thus, it was in September of 1918 that the men of the Jodhpur Lancers and the Mysore Lancers supported by the Sherwood Forester  Yeomanry, rode to the relief of Haifa and to secure the life of the figure known to Baha'is as "the Centre of the Covenant".

In an address on this subject given at the Baha'i temple in Delhi some years ago, Major Chandrakant Singh, Secretary General of the Indian War Veterans Association, provides details of the action itself. On 23 September 1918 troops of the Jodhpur Lancers took Turkish forces by surprise, launching an audacious charge up the slopes of Mount Carmel. In a pincer movement, a squadron of Mysore Lancers attacked from the south.

Early in the battle disaster seemed to strike when one of the commanding officers, Colonel Thakur Dalpat Singh was killed. Yet the Lancers rallied as his deputy Bahadur Aman Singh Jodha took over command. The Indian cavalry charged in the face of artillery and heavy machine-gun, capturing two machine gun positions, 1350 prisoners and opening the route to Haifa. A detachment of Mysore Lancers rode immediately to secure the house of Abdul Baha and the Baha'i shrines were protected from destruction and today they remain the primary site of pilgrimage for the Baha'i community across the world. General Allenby sent a cable to London: "Have today taken Palestine. Notify the world that Abdul Baha is safe."

In Allenby's choice of words, we see a recognition that action taken that day was of global significance. The Baha'i Faith believes in and works towards peace throughout the world is, however, a sad reality that military force may sometimes be a necessity. In the words of Abdul Baha, himself force may sometimes be "the servant of justice."

The Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers are today amalgamated into the 61st cavalry regiment of the Indian army and 23rd of September is commemorated as the Haifa Day, recalling the courage and steadfastness under fire of the Indian troopers who fought one of the most notable and outstanding cavalry actions of the entire war. Humanity today recalls a debt of gratitude to these honourable and brave Indian soldiers. The legacy of their courage and sacrifice has been the flowering of a worldwide Baha'i community, including perhaps close to 2 million Baha'is in India today. "

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