Ayo Gorkhali! By Amar B Shrestha (featured in ECS Magazine, June 2009)
|Tul Bahadur Pun VC|
250,000 Gurkhas served in 42 Infantry battalions during World War II. Of these, 7,544were killed, 1,441 were presumed dead or missing and 23,655 were wounded. The Gurkhas received a total of 2,734 awards for bravery. Out of 100 VCs awarded during World War II, 31 of these were won during the Burma campaign and of these, nine went to the soldiers and officers of Gurkha regiments. Two Gurkhas also won the VC during the Italian campaign. If not for the fact that until 1911 only British officers of Gurkha regiments were eligible for the VC, one can assume that the Gurkhas would have won many more. As it was, Lieutenant John Adam Tytler, 33, of the 66th Goorkhas, on February 10, 1858, became the first officer of a Gurkha regiment to win the coveted honor for his actions in Haldwani (in what is now Uttarakhand State of India) at the height of the Indian Mutiny.
During World War I, 200,000 Gurkhas in 33 battalions fought under the British flag. They suffered 20,000 casualties and won 2,000 gallantry awards. Out of 26 VCs won so far by Gurkha regiments (1858 to 1965), 13 went to native Gurkhas and the rest were awarded to the British officers of those regiments. The Gurkhas have also been awarded two George Cross medals in addition to thousands of other lesser awards. The Indian Gurkha regiments have also won many gallantry awards including the Param Vir Chakra (the highest award for gallantry) and the Maha Vir Chakra. For his heroic actions during the 1962 Indo-China War, Major Dhan Singh Thapa of the 1/8th Gurkha Rifles won the Param Vir Chakra. Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria of the 1st Gurkha Rifles also won the Param Vir Chakra posthumously for gallantry in the Congo in 1961. Acting Captain Manoj Kumar Pandey of the 1st Battalion, 11th Gurkha Rifles, won the Param Vir Chakra posthumously during the Kargil War. There was a time when you could find children playing games on the dusty paths of Gurkha villages using those same war medals as playthings.
According to some accounts, the founder of the Gorkha family was a man named Kancha. He, along with his brother Mincha, were the great-grandsons of King Bhupati Rana Rava of Chittore in India. King Bhupati and one of his three sons, Fatte Singh Ranjit Rana, were killed during the Mohammedan invasion led by Emperor Alla-Uh-Din. Another son, Udayabam Rana Rava, founded Udaipur, while the third, Mamath Rana Rava, went to Ujjain. The latter had two sons, one of whom went to settle in the hills of what is now Nepal. Kancha and Mincha were his progeny.
The brothers were of Magar descent and their faith and customs were that of the Magars although, there was a substantial profusion of Rajput blood as well. While Mincha was chief of Nuwakot, Kaski, Tanahu and Lamjung, Kancha conquered the territories south of the Gandaki River, known as Magaraanth. These included Gulmi, Dhor and Bhirkut. Kancha was the first known ruler of central Nepal, an area in which Magars and Gurungs were the predominant tribes. At this time in history, the Gorkha kingdom extended from Trisul Ganga in the east to the Marsyangdi River in the west. In the mid 18th century, King Prithvi Narayan Shah undertook a 20-year odyssey that ultimately led to his rule over Nepal as a whole. His hill state of Gorkha gave its name to his followers, the Gorkhalis, while the name Gorkha itself was taken from its patron saint, Gorakh Nath.
In 1789, the Gurkhas pushed into, and annexed Sikkim, and then invaded Tibet. But in 1793, a massive Chinese and Tibetan army drove back the aggressive Gurkhas. Still, the Gurkhas’ lust for conquest was unquenchable. They invaded and occupied Kumaon and Garhwal in India, and dominated the Kangra Valley for a short period. With the conquest of Garhwal in 1794, the Gurkha Kingdom extended from Bhutan to Kashmir and from the mountains of Tibet to the border with the British provinces of Agra, Oudh and Bihar to the south.
The Anglo-Nepal War
In 1814, the Gurkhas entered into a war with the British forces of India. The mighty British pride was severely tested, as they lost battle after battle to an army that was ill armed and numerically inferior. As a matter of fact, in 1814, the entire Gurkha army numbered just 12,000. In 1814, the British laid siege to the Khalanga-Nalapani fort in Dehradun (now in Uttarakhand, India). The battle of Nalapani is one of the most important milestones in the history of warfare. The British force under General Gillespie consisted of 20 battalions of Infantry, Cavalry and Pioneer companies - an irregular force of about 6,668 - supported by 20 pieces of Artillery and two troops of Horsed Artillery. The battle lasted for over 30 days until finally they broke into the fort. They had paid a heavy price with the loss of 750 men and 31 officers had either been killed or wounded. They stood against a mere 600 Gurkhas.
The leader of the Gurkhas at Nalapani, Commander (General) Balbhadra Singh Thapa (Kunwar) escaped with 90 soldiers. Retreating further west to Jyathak, they were joined by 300 fresh Gurkhas. Here, they were attacked by a combined force of three detachments of British soldiers under General Martindell. But when the smoke had cleared, the British forces were found in disarray with 12 officers and almost 1,500 soldiers dead or wounded. On February 17, 1815, Lieutenant Fredrick Young, with 2,000 irregulars recruited from India’s Kumaon and Garhwal regions, were sent to intercept Nepalese Army reinforcements moving from Malaun to Jyathak. But, after coming face to face with 200 Gurkhas under Ranjore Singh Thapa, the soldiers panicked and ran away and Young was taken prisoner.
The fall of Malaun (later in Himachal Pradesh, India) in May 1815, brought the British campaign of 1814-1815 to an end. Another was fought in 1816 and General David Ochterlony finally managed to defeat Amar Singh Thapa’s army in Makwanpur, central Nepal. The war ended with the signing of the Sugauli Treaty on March 4, 1816, one of the conditions was that Britain should be allowed to recruit Gurkha soldiers into their army. So impressed were the awed British that they admitted, “…as compared to other orientals, Gurkhas are bold, enduring, faithful, frank, very independent and self reliant men….” Brian Hodgson, an authoritative figure of the times, recorded further “…. and they possess preeminently that masculine energy of character and love of enterprise which distinguish so advantageously all the military races of Nepal.” Thus began the international saga of the Gurkhas. However, another condition of the treaty was not as fortuitous; Nepal lost Sikkim, Garhwal, Kumaon and all the Terai west of the Gandaki River. However, the British ceded back the Terai in 1857 as a token of gratitude for the Nepalese army’s help in quelling the Indian Mutiny.
The British were initially confused as to the identity of the real martial races of the mountain kingdom. What they did know was that in Nalapani, the 600 Gurkhas under Balbhadra Thapa were predominantly Magars, who made up the awesome Purana Gorakh Army. Lieutenant Young was assigned to recruit Gurkhas into the British army. As a prisoner, he had had the opportunity of making a close study of the fearless fighters. He had come to the conclusion that those in the western parts of the country, particularly Gurungs, Magars, Thakuris, Puns and Tamangs, were best suited to soldiering. Sometime later the British realized that there was equally fierce fighters in eastern Nepal. Among them, Rais, Limbus, Sunwars and Tamangs were exceptionally brave. Another martially inclined clan, the Chettris, was to be found throughout the country.
The first three battalions raised by the British consisted of Gurkhas from Amar Singh Thapa’s defeated forces. Lieutenant Young made the first recruitment near Dehradun on April 24, 1816. He was the first commander of the Sirmoor Battalion, later becoming the Sirmoor Rifles and later still, the 2nd King Edward VII’s Own Gurkha Rifles. The Sirmoor Rifles remained in service for the next 165 years and Young remained its commander for 28 of those. Soon, other battalions were formed, among them, two Nasiri battalions, later amalgamated to form the 1st Gurkha Rifles. Later, becoming the 1st King Edwards V’s Own Gurkha Rifles. Another battalion was raised at Almora as the Kumaon Battalion, later becoming the 3rd Gurkha Rifles, then after, the 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles. In the late 1800s, Lieutenant Colonel Eden Vannistart was commissioned to thoroughly investigation the different races of Nepal and to come up with concrete recommendations for recruitment. Till 1887, most of the 6th, 7th and 8th Gurkha Rifles consisted of recruits from areas around Darjeeling’s hills. Later on, however, more and more men were recruited from western and eastern Nepal.
Nepalese, British and Indian Gurkhas
It was not as if the Gurkhas were not well known as the bravest of the brave before the two World Wars. All those who fought against the Gurkhas have, in the end, come out of the fight with a greater respect for their adversaries’ prowess. Even after losing to the Sikhs in Kangra (in Himachal Pradesh of India) in 1806, the Sikh Maharaja, Ranjit Singh, began to recruit Gurkhas into his army in Lahore (origin of the word ‘Lahure’ that was to define Nepalese soldiers in foreign armies from then on). After the Anglo-Nepal War (1814-1816) the British too started recruiting Gurkhas in good numbers. By the time World War I started, there were 11 Gurkha regiments serving in the British Indian Army.
Following India’s independence in 1947, India, Nepal and Great Britain signed the Tripartite Agreement. Six regiments of the Gurkha Rifles joined the Indian Army. The British held on to the 2nd King Edward VII’s Own Gurkha Rifles, the 6th Queen Elizabeth’s Own Gurkha Rifles, the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles and the 10th Princess Mary’s Own Gurkha Rifles (all of which existed till 1994, thereafter they became the Royal Gurkha Rifles). Known as the Brigade of Gurkhas, they were initially stationed in Malaya. During the Malayan Emergency, Gurkhas fought as jungle soldiers. On December 7, 1962, the 2nd Gurkha Rifles, stationed in Wiltshire, UK, was deployed to Brunei at the outbreak of the Brunei Revolt. Later, the battalion was transferred to Hong Kong for security duties during the turmoil of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The other battalions were stationed in the UK and Brunei. In 1971, the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles, stationed at Church Crookham, Hampshire, became the first Gurkhas to mount the Queen’s Guard. In 1974, the 10th Gurkha Rifles was sent to defend the British sovereign base area of Dhekelia, when Turkey invaded Cyprus. In 1994, the Royal Gurkha Rifles regiment consisted of three battalions. However, in 1996, the 3rd Battalion was amalgamated with the 2nd as part of a run down of British forces in Hong Kong. Of the two battalions, one is based at Shorncliffe in Kent while the other is based at the British garrison in Brunei. In December 1999, the Gurkha Training Wing in North Yorkshire became Gurkha Company, 3rd Battalion, Infantry Training Centre (ITC).
Recruitment is based on a certain stringent criteria. Firstly, hill selections are held at various locations in Nepal. Potential recruits must be between 17 and 22 years of age, height must be at least 5ft 2ins (1.57m), weight at least 50kgs (110pds), health must be in good stead and some educational background is required. The second stage is conducted at the Pokhara Selection Centre and lasts for three weeks. Candidates must pass the following tests: English grammar, mathematics, fitness, initiative and then the final interview. At this stage candidates for the Gurkha Contingent Singapore Police Force are also selected. The third stage is a nine-month course at GTW Infantry Training Centre in North Yorkshire. It consists of basic training, language training, military skills and learning about western culture and customs. The final stage is marked by the passing out parade of the successful recruits.
The 1st King George V’s Own Gurkha Rifles, the 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles, the 4th Prince of Wales Own Gurkha Rifles, along with the 5th, 8th and 9th Gurkha Rifles were transferred to India’s Army. During the transfer period, soldiers of the 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles, recruited from eastern Nepal, decided not to join the British Army. So as to retain a contingent from this area of Nepal, the Indian Army decided to re-raise the 11th Gurkha Rifles in 1948. The Gurkhas have fought in every major Indian campaign. The 8th Gurkha Rifles is one of the most celebrated regiments of the Indian Army, having received numerous citations for bravery, and even producing one of the two field marshals, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.
Till some time ago, the 11th Gurkha Rifles had only Rai and Limbu soldiers, whereas, the 9th Gurkha Rifles consisted of Chettris and Bahuns. The other regiments had only Magars and Gurungs. Now the Indian army has no caste bars as far as recruitment is concerned. The only requirements are: the person be aged between 17.5 and 21 years; that he have a height of at least 160cm; weight of 48kgs; chest should be 77cm which on inflation should be a further 0.05cm. Additionally, the potential recruit is to have passed at least SLC (for sons of ex-army men, a class eight pass is enough). According to Hon. Captain (Retd) Krishna Bahadur Kunwar, Supervisor of the Military Pension Branch at the Bharatiya Gorkha Sainik Niwas in Kathmandu, recruitment of Nepalese men into the Indian army has been on the wane since the last few years. India has only resumed recruitment this year after a two-year lull. According to Captain (Retd) Kunwar, figures for Nepali Gurkhas in the Indian Army is about 40,000 (27,000 according to the news website http://in.news.yahoo.com) while about 250,000 ex-Indian Gurkhas are on pension, which for retired captains could be up to IRs.15,000 per month.
In 1763, King Prithvi Narayan Shah raised the Sri Nath Battalion as the first battalion of the Gorkha army and the Shri Purano Gorakh Battalion was raised in the same year. Over the next 20 years his army grew to ten ‘gans’ (infantry battalions) and some independent companies called ‘gulmas’ (meant to defend and administer conquered territories). During the 1940’s the Nepalese army consisted of 15 infantry battalions and 25 independent companies. By 1952, it had 3 brigades, 30 battalions and 39 independent companies. Currently Nepal’s Army is said to be about 90,000 with six divisional headquarters in Dipayal, Surkhet, Pokhara, Suparitar of Makwanpur District, Kathmandu and Dhankuta.
The Shri Kali Bahadur Battalion, raised in 1831, consisted of only Gurungs while the Shri Purano Gorakh Batallion had only Magar soldiers. The Shri Bhairab Nath Gan (now called the Special Forces Battalion) had only Limbu soldiers. Till recently, the Kali Bahadur and the Gorakhnath Gans were assigned permanently as palace guards, with one always deployed at the palace. Another palace guard battalion was chosen by the king - usually the battalion winning the King’s Banner that year. Today, the Nepalese Army maintains a national character in terms of inclusion of all castes, ethnic communities, genders, regions and religions. As of July 2008, 18 of the top-level posts (Major General and above) included eight Chhetris, two Limbus, two Brahmins, two Gurungs, two Thakuris, one Rana, and one Newar.
The Nepalese Army’s combat operations to date have been the British–Nepal War in 1814-1816; the wars with Tibet in 1788, 1792 and 1855; the Khampa campaign in 1976, and the recently concluded campaign against Maoist insurgency. In the early 1970’s, some 9,000 “Khampas” (Tibetans who were resisting Chinese authority) established high altitude camps in Nepal as launch pads for operations into Tibet. By 1973, they were using Mustang in remote western Nepal as a firm base. Diplomacy failing, Nepal sent a brigade sized army taskforce from Pokhara on June 15, 1974. The Khampa’s surrendered on July 31, 1974. The Nepalese Army participated in World War I with nine battalions. Additionally, sending also almost 200,000 troops to fight as part of the British Indian Army. In 1917, the Mahindra Dal Battalion and the 1st Rifle Battalion were involved in the Waziristan War when the area was a New World Frontier of British India. Nepalese troops under Gen Baber Shumshere also went to the aid of British troops in 1919, during the Afghanistan War. Fifteen Nepalese battalions fought in World War II, led by the late Commander-in-Chief Kiran Shumshere Rana and ex-Commander-in-Chief and Field Marshall Nir Shumshere Rana. When Japan entered the war in December 1940, four Nepalese battalions were deployed against them. The Nepalese fought with great ferocity, particularly on the Burma front and they helped force the eventual Japanese retreat from the Indian subcontinent. After the British left India in 1947, religious violence between Hindus and Muslims erupted and India’s Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru requested Nepal’s assistance to quell the situation. Twenty battalions under Maj Gen Sharada SJB Rana were deployed in many parts of India where they contributed greatly in stabilizing the situation.
Singapore, Brunei, Malaya, Bahrain
On April 9, 1949, selected ex-British Army Gurkhas were recruited by Singapore’s government to form the Gurkha Contingent (GC) of the Singapore Police Force. In its role as a specialist police force, the Gurkha Contingent is deployed as a reaction force in times of crisis. In the Sultanate of Brunei, the 2,000 strong Gurkha Reserve Unit made up of British Army veterans make up a special police force of the small sultanate. After the independence of Malaya from the United Kingdom in August 1957, many Gurkhas joined the Malayan armed forces. In Bahrain, the United States navy employs Gurkha guards as sentries at its bases there as well as Gurkhas sometimes providing security for U.S. Consulates and ships abroad.
The Gurkhas have seen action in the jungles of Burma, Borneo and Malaysia, the deserts of North Africa and the mountains of Afghanistan, Baluchistan and the New Frontier. They have served around the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Besides fighting in the battlefields of Europe, the Gurkhas have seen action in Palestine, Jerusalem, Hong Kong, Singapore, Persia, Iraq, India, Tunis and the Falklands. As an integral part of the United Nations Peace Keeping Force (UNPKF) Gurkhas have been deployed to some of the deadliest, newer battlegrounds where civil, ethnic, political and religious strife has torn countries asunder and taken countless lives. Almost half of Nepal’s army have UNPKF experience and served as part of peacekeeping forces in places like Congo, Liberia, Haiti, Burundi and Sudan besides other equally dangerous places savaged by horrific conflict.
Gurkhas have also been in the limelight in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Afghan sources, “…in Shindand Airport (in western Afghanistan) they are under the direct command of US ‘Special Forces’. In Kandahar, they ‘work’ with Canadian forces…in Ghazni they are with Polish forces, in Kabul and other regions they are linked with American private security companies.” During Prince Harry’s 77 days in Afghanistan, he was attached to the 1st Royal Gurkha Rifles battle group as a Forward Air Controller. One also recalls seeing on the screen, the familiar sight of Gurkhas patrolling the war torn streets of Iraq. However, it was the Falklands war in 1985 that really brought to mind Gurkha legends of yore, and created a new one in the process. At the end of it, here is what Brigadier David Morgan had to say about it, “It must never be forgotten that the much feared fighters from Nepal played a critical and decisive part in the final downfall of the Argentineans. It was the Gurkha’s reputation that helped win the war in the Falklands.” Also stating, “Their reputation has always run before them – but the Gurkhas have always delivered. They have always shown that they have the mettle, the skills and all the courage to fight to the last.” Could one fault the Argentineans for surrendering so quickly, at the mere knowledge that the fearsome Gurkhas were coming? One of them later tried to justify the surrender by saying, “We didn’t want our heads to be chopped off.”
The KhukuriAnd when there is talk of chopping heads, can mention of the khukri be far behind? This weapon of the Gurkhas has earned its own place in the legends of warfare and yes, it has indeed done a lot of chopping. There is a story in which Gurkha soldiers were ordered to bring back severed heads of the enemy during the World War I. One stocky chap came back from the jungle and threw a dozen or so ears to the ground in front of the officer. “The heads were too heavy to carry,” was his explanation. Similarly, there is another story of a Gurkha with a khukri coming face to face with a Japanese officer carrying a samurai sword. The Japanese manages to wound the Gurkha, even slicing off his arm. Whereupon the Gurkha tells his foe, “You may have wounded me, but let’s see you nod your head.”
This does sound a bit far fetched but such are the legends built around Gurkhas and their khukris. Functioning as a cross between a knife and an axe, the khukri is designed for chopping and stabbing purposes in war. It can also be used in daily tasks like cutting meat, vegetables and even trees. The blade is deflected at an angle of 20° or more and although the size varies, the blade usually measures about 3 to 10 cm wide and 30 to 38 cm long. Its thick spine and sharp cutting edge greatly increases its effectiveness. Khukuris are balanced and rest in a vertical position when supported on a fulcrum. The handles are made from hardwood or water buffalo horn but, whatever the handles is made of, the khukri has terrified all enemies since ages past.
In the subsequent tide of a turbulent world history that has included two World Wars, and numerous others, the Gurkhas have become true legends in the annals of warfare. There was a time when an analogy was often made between the Switzerland of the middles ages and Nepal. Then, the Swiss were poor but made fine soldiers and so, were in great demand as mercenaries throughout Europe. Similar has been, and is, with the Gurkhas. The world, and especially Great Britain has reasons enough to be grateful to the Gurkhas for their sacrifices in ensuring a freer world. However, who can stop the relentless changes that come with time? The handover of Hong Kong to China resulted in drastic reductions of the number of Gurkhas in the British forces. For many Englishmen who had served so proudly with Gurkha regiments, it was a trying time to say the least. For the Gurkhas too, it was a distressing turn of events because while initially, economic reasons preceded everything else in the desire to be a British Gurkha, becoming one has now become more of a proud tradition among many families of the Nepal hills.
Saying that the Gurkhas have had their day as an integral part of Britain’s army would be a premature statement. Nevertheless, today, only a handful is recruited every year at the one recruiting camp in Pokhara (the Dharan camp was closed a long while ago) and the numbers continue to dwindle. In the meantime, a protracted but successful legal battle for equal pensions and rights as their British counterparts has been cause for some succor. However, with the recent policy changes permitting many ex-British Gurkhas to live in Britain, there are concerns here at the loss of remittance hitherto received in Nepal. The British Gurkhas have been the cause for many positive changes in the villages of Nepal. The rapid development of cities like Dharan and Pokhara, owe much to the Gurkhas serving on foreign shores.
There is reason now to believe that a similar situation could arise regarding recruitment into the Indian army. The irony is that the bravery and the prowess of the Gurkhas can only be demonstrated in times of war. However, as Hon. Captain (Retd) Kunwar says, “There have been no major wars since 1971.” He himself served in the 4/9th Gurkha Rifles in India and he is obviously referring to the three Indo-Pak wars of 1947, ‘65 and ‘71 as well as the Indo-China War of 1962. As far as things like career progressions are concerned, according to Captain Kunwar, “I believe that the highest ranking Indian Gurkha has been Brigadier Giri Prasad Pun. However, there are many senior Gurkha officers today in the Indian army.” In the British Gurkhas too, one will find quite a few senior ranking Gurkha officers. In December 1995, Lieutenant-Colonel Bijay Kumar Rawat became the Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion - the first Nepalese to do so in the Royal Gurkha Rifles. He oversaw the departure of the battalion from Hong Kong before its transfer to Chinese control in 1996.
Taking our cue from all that’s happening around the world, including the ways of modern warfare, it would be justifiable to believe that perhaps one might not come across many new legends of the fearless Gurkhas in the days to come. Perhaps, one will have to now take recourse to the stories recounted in the hundreds of laudatory books. Perhaps one will have to remain content knowing that the Gurkhas will forever be regarded as the ‘Bravest of the Brave’ and be proud that their motto ‘Better to Die than be a Coward’ has been proven true countless times, in many wars. Finally, the following high praise by one who served with the Gurkhas during World War I, really says it all:
“As I write these last words, my thoughts return to you who were my comrades, the stubborn and indomitable peasants of Nepal. Once more I hear the laughter with which you greeted every hardship. Once more I see you in your bivouacs or about your fires, on forced march or in the trenches, now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by a pitiless and burning sun. Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds; and at the last your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you." Professor Sir Ralph Turner, MC 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles
Sources: The Gurkhas (W.Brook Northey and C.J.Morris)The Gurkhas, The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers (John Parker)The Royal Nepal Army: Meeting the Maoist Challenge (Ashok K Mehta)