Most British people are aware of the highly publicised Gurkha Justice Campaign, fronted by Joanna Lumley, which on 9th May 2009 won the right for all ex-Gurkhas who had served in the British Army for four years to settle in the UK if they wished; however, many British citizens are only dimly aware of why such an accolade was considered right and proper. Quite simply, the Gurkhas have served with distinction in nearly every conflict the British Army has been involved in since 1815, so they will be celebrating 200 years in the service of the British Army throughout 2015. The Indian Rebellion of 1857? British rule only just managed to survive in the country, in large part thanks to the loyalty of the Gurkha and Sikh troops. The Third Anglo-Afghan War? Yes, the Gurkhas were there. World War One? The Brigade served on the Western Front at great cost, and played a major role in the Middle East. World War Two? They fought bravely in Africa and helped to defeat Japan in Burma. There’s no question that we owe the Gurkhas a rather sizable debt of gratitude.
The long history of friendship began with a battle, as the two sides grew to admire each other hugely during the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-16. Defectors from the Nepalese army were warmly welcomed on the British side, and by the end of 1815 5,000 could be found fighting alongside their former enemies. When the war ended in a stalemate, this cooperation continued as the Gurkhas were invited to join first the East India Company, then later the army. They served as part of the British Army throughout the 19th Century, gaining especial notice for their loyalty in the mutiny, and soon formed a reputation as one of the bravest and of all its units.
Thus, it was inevitable that Britain would turn to the Gurkhas, amongst other trusty units, to back up its dangerously over-matched Forces in World War One. An Indian Expeditionary Force was hurriedly dispatched to the Western Front in October 1914, and arrived just in time to participate in the notorious First Battle of Ypres. They later fought at Neuve Chapelle, the Aubers Ridge and the Battle of Loos. The German soldiers were outraged to find themselves facing brown faces, and complained that Britain had sent savages to fight its battles.
Certainly, the Gurkhas were and are formidable soldiers to face up against. As ‘The First World War in 100 Objects’ by Gary Sheffield explains, they carry the traditional weapon of their culture, a long, viciously curved blade known as a Kukri, designed to strike downwards with force when wielded in a slashing motion. Part of the tradition is that the blade is never to be unsheathed unless blood is to be spilt; for this reason, troops are careful to nick their thumb or hand if it must be used in training.
Although they fought with all their energy, Gurkha soldiers and the Western Front were not a great match. The men were not used to the cold, damp climate, and disease took a good many. It was also, of course, difficult to replace those who died of illness or in battle, with India so far away. The as yet un-enlightened British Commanders refused to replace white officers with native troops as they were picked off by Axis snipers (being easy to pin-point against the darker faces of their men), and since the replacement officers had no knowledge of either the culture or language of their troops, morale fell horribly. The IEF became so depleted that the decision was made to move it to the Middle East, where the climate would be more suitable and recruits and supplies easier to come by. The Gurkhas throve finely in their new environment, and their heroics in Gallipoli, Palestine and Mesopotamia, which played a major role in bringing the Ottoman Empire to its knees, soon restored their reputation as a force to be reckoned with. In all, 90,000 Gurkhas fought in the conflict, 20,000 were killed or injured, and just over 2,000 earned gallantry awards.
In the Second World War the Gurkhas again took up their Kukris for Britain, and played an especially crucial role in Italy and in Tunisia, where they helped to pierce the Mareth Line, capture the Wadi Akarit Position and occupy the port of Sfax in 1943. When the breakthrough was made to Tunis and Bizerte, there were the Gurkhas fuelling the thrust. They also demonstrated great bravery in the jungles of Burma, especially in defending Mortar Bluff, where two Gurkhas earned Victoria Crosses. Of 137,000 who served for Britain, this time 23,000 were killed or wounded, and 2,500 gallantry medals awarded.
The first Gurkha Victoria Cross given to a Nepalese soldier rather than a white officer was, according to the Gurkhas’ own website (http://www.gurkha200.co.uk/about-gurkhas/gurkha-history/), awarded to Rifleman Kulbir Thapa of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Queen Alexandra’s own Gurkha Rifles, on 25th September 1915 at Neuve Chapelle for extreme bravery in rescuing injured colleagues. The London Gazette (https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/29371/supplement/11450) details how, although wounded himself, when Rifleman Thapa discovered a wounded man from the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment behind the first line German trench he refused to leave him. He stayed with the soldier all day and night, then the next day brought him out through the German wire, left him in a place of safety, and returned to bring out two Gurkha soldiers. Rifleman Thapa then fetched the British soldier and carried him most of the way back to the British trenches, all the while under enemy fire.
Including those received by white officers, 26 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to men of the Brigade of Gurkhas since it began, a number any regiment would be proud of, and some of the deeds performed to earn them defy belief. For example, in ‘The Second Great War, Vol 7’ in our Historic Documents Archive, edited by Sir John Hammerton, Rifleman Tulbahadur Pun of the 6th Gurkha Rifles is commemorated for charging and capturing two machine gun posts alone at Mogaung, Burma on 23rd June 1944 after every other member of his platoon was killed or wounded during an attack on a railway bridge. Rifleman Ganju Lama of the 7th Gurkha Rifles, meanwhile, is honoured for knocking out two medium enemy tanks unaided and killing or wounding every member of their crews, though seriously injured himself, during a counter-attack against the Japanese at Ningthoukhong, also in Burma in June 1944.
The latest news is that Gurkhas are still campaigning for better pensions, medical care and the right to move their families to the UK after their service. A 14-day hunger strike by veteran Gyanraj Rai ended on 21st November 2013 after MPs promised to hold an enquiry into Gurkha rights, but in October 2014 the report was criticised for not holding the government to account for its injustices. The Brigade continues to be held in high esteem by the British public. Read more about the Gurkhas here: https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/units/1849/gurkha-rifles/, or take a look to see what's been planned to celebrate their 200 years of service here: http://www.gurkha200.co.uk/events/.