Gurkha History: A Rifleman of the 10th Gurkhas smiles as he tests the edge of his kukri. The photograph was taken in Italy in 1945.
It all started in October 1814 on a lonely hill top in a place called Kalunga (now known as Nalapani). The Honourable East India Company had despatched an army of some 30,000 troops to bring the ‘aggressive little state of Nepal’ to heel for expanding its empire into parts of northern India that ‘John Company’ wanted for itself. Kalunga was the location of the first battle between one of the army’s four columns and the expansionist Nepalese. What was significant about the engagement was that a relatively small force of ‘native’ troops was able to hold out against the might of the East India Company for nearly a month. It sent shockwaves throughout British India. The ‘natives’ at Kalunga were Gurkhas, well trained soldiers belonging to the army of Nepal. They took their name from the ruling House of Gurkha which, under the leadership of Prithvi Narayan Shah, had, by about 1768, succeeded in unifying Nepal’s many petty principalities.
In 1947, India achieved its independence. This was a difficult period for the ten Gurkha regiments that had fought for the British Crown during the Second World War as only four of them (the 2nd Gurkhas, 6th Gurkhas, 7th Gurkhas and 10th Gurkhas) transferred to the British Army, moving to new ‘home’ locations in and around Malaya. The other six regiments (the 1st Gurkhas, 3rd Gurkhas, 4th Gurkhas, 5th Gurkhas, 8th Gurkhas and 9th Gurkhas) remained in the Indian Army. But there was little time for reflection as, in June 1948, a state of emergency was declared in Malaya. Britain’s Gurkha infantry, along with newly formed units of Gurkha Signals, Gurkha Engineers and Gurkha Military Police, played a key role in the twelve year campaign against the communist terrorists of Chin Peng and the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA). The Brunei Revolt and the Borneo Confrontation followed in quick succession. Although the Revolt was short-lived, the Borneo Confrontation lasted from April 1963 until August 1966 with the Gurkhas bearing the lion’s share of the operational burden. Conducting secret ‘Claret’ operations deep behind enemy lines, they took the fight to the Indonesian troops of President Sukarno, firmly establishing themselves as the masters of jungle warfare. It was during one such ‘Claret’ operation in November 1965 that Lance Corporal Rambahadur Limbu of the 10th Gurkhas became the last Gurkha to be awarded a Victoria Cross for his courageous actions in the face of the enemy.
Gurkha History: Potential recruits have to be able to complete at least 12 under-arm heaves/pull ups. This is not at all easy and the majority of young men will have practised this for a number of months prior to attending recruit selection.
NEPAL IN 1816
The Gurkhas achieved real prominence during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 by remaining loyal to the East India Company when many other ‘native’ regiments rebelled. Their courageous and spirited performance during the Siege of Delhi, where they fought alongside the British Army’s 60th Rifles in conditions of real privation, resulted in them being allowed to call their soldiers ‘Riflemen’ rather than ‘sepoys’ and adopt many of the 60th’s regimental accoutrements. The Gurkhas were also given a commemorative Truncheon designed personally by Queen Victoria. This has the status of a regimental ‘colour’ and, as the only one of its kind, is still carried with immense pride by today’s Royal Gurkha Rifles. The Gurkhas also earned the first of their twenty six Victoria Crosses during the Mutiny when Lieutenant John Tytler, an officer serving with the 66th or Goorkha Regiment (later to become the 1st Gurkha Rifles), succeeded in storming a rebel gun position despite being shot in the arm and having a spear through his chest!
Gurkha History: The Treaty of Segauli required Nepal to handover almost a third of its landmass (the grey shaded area on the map). Although the majority of this had been seized by Nepal and its Gurkhas over the preceding 25 years, it also included land in the terai, the fertile area in the south between Nepal and India, which was properly Nepalese territory. The Treaty also forbade the Nepalese from employing '...any British subject, nor the subject of any European or American State...' This was designed to stop the Nepalese from hiring foreign soldiers to train its army (something it had done in the past). Some of the land taken off Nepal was returned in December 1816, with more being returned in 1860 in recognition of Nepal's support in suppressing the Indian Mutiny and the loyalty of the East India Company's own Gurkhas..
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There are numerous instances of the Gurkhas turning the tide of particular battles in Italy and North Africa but they are probably best known for their role in the Burma Campaign as part of General Bill Slim’s ‘forgotten’ 14th Army. Large numbers of Gurkhas died defending Sittang Bridge in February 1942, many drowning when the bridge was blown and 6,000 men of the 17th Division found themselves unexpectedly trapped between the fast flowing river and the advancing Japanese. Gurkhas also made a significant contribution to Brigadier (later Major General) Orde Wingate’s two Chindit operations of 1943 and 1944 and they fought with distinction during the defence of Imphal in June 1944. In June of 2015, the Second Battalion of The Royal Gurkha Rifles joined the UK’s elite 16 Air Assault Brigade, a return to the airborne role that Gurkhas first embraced in Burma when 153 and 154 (Gurkha) Parachute Battalions were formed for operations against the Japanese. Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) F J Loftus-Tottenham, who raised the first Gurkha parachute battalion in 1941, described Gurkhas as ‘...probably the best natural parachutist in the world,’ something they would demonstrate when they parachuted in to capture key gun positions at the start of Operation Dracula, the air, sea and land operation to secure Rangoon in May 1945.
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Gurkha History: The history of the Gurkha soldier: Brigadier Mike Calvert (left) who commanded one of the columns during the second Chindit operation and Major James Lumley (right), the father of Joanna Lumley, in the ruins of Mogaung, Burma after its capture in June 1944.
Gurkha History: A selection of photographs from an informal parade which took place at Buckingham Palace on 14 March 2017 to celebrate Prince Charles' 40 years as Colonel in Chief of the Gurkha Infantry. Prince Harry assisted his father in awarding operational service medals to soldiers from The Royal Gurkha Rifles who had recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan. Prince Charles also unveiled a painting by Yolanda Aucott which was commissioned by the Regiment to celebrate 200 years of Gurkha service to the British Crown.
Most recently, Gurkhas have been in the thick of the action in Afghanistan, taking the fight to the Taliban in Helmand Province. The latter operations have come at a cost; so far the Brigade of Gurkhas has sustained a total of 16 killed in action and 51 wounded since they first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001. Although Britain has now ceased combat operations in Afghanistan, it continues to commit forces to NATO’s Resolute Support (RS) Mission. This seeks to support the Afghan National Security Forces as they take the lead for the country’s security. The Second Battalion of The Royal Gurkha Rifles completed its last tour in late 2016 providing security to the NATO mission's personnel in Kabul.
GURKHA QUICK LINKS:
You can use the following links to find out what soldiers from The Royal Gurkha Rifles are currently doing:
Gurkha History: Soldiers from 1/7th Gurkhas with a captured Argentinean anti-aircraft gun during the Falklands War of 1982. The Battalion deployed as part of 5 Infantry Brigade and took part in the final battle for Port Stanley.
This short and selective history of the Gurkhas is by no means exhaustive but it serves to illustrate the significant contribution that Gurkhas have made in Britain’s military campaigns over the last two hundred years. For more than two centuries, Gurkhas have been at the very heart of the UK’s military endeavours and they remain a much valued and highly effective part of today’s Army. Competition to join Britain’s Gurkhas remains extremely tough. In 2014, for example, there were 7,865 applicants for 230 places, an increase over the previous year. Although primarily employed in formed Gurkha units, officers and soldiers from the Gurkhas also serve in specialist units such as the Special Air Service (SAS).
Gurkha History: Major General Sir David Ochterlony, the talented field commander who eventually defeated the Gurkhas of Prime Minister Bhim Sen Thapa at the battle of Makwanpur in February 1816. On 4 March 1816, the Gurkhas signed the Treaty of Segauli, bringing Britain's wars with Nepal to and end. Ochterlony was a fascinating and extremely colourful character. Born in Boston Massachusetts on 12 February 1758, he arrived in India as an officer cadet in 1778 and remained there until his death on 15 July 1825. He reputedly had 13 Indian 'wives' and was awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath for his success against the Nepalese, the first of the Honourable East India Company's own Army officers to receive the award. This painting of Ochterlony was done by Arthur William Devis in about 1816 and now hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
Map courtesy of English Wikipedia
When they leave Britain’s service, retired Gurkhas and their families are supported in times of need by the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Based in Salisbury, the Trust ensures that those who have given so much during their service are able to live their lives with dignity. It pays welfare pensions, builds schools in remote mountain villages, runs care homes, provides safe drinking water, installs sanitation facilities and provides primary medical care to the most needy.
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Gurkhas circa 1815
Gurkha History: A Corporal from A Company 1RGR taking a well-deserved break in the cover of a cornfield during a patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
The British were so impressed by the martial qualities of their Gurkha enemy that, even before the end of the first war, they had started recruiting Gurkhas into the ranks of the East India Company. The first three battalions of Gurkhas were known as the 1st Nusseree Battalion (later to become the 1st Gurkha Rifles), the Sirmoor Battalion (later 2nd Gurkha Rifles) and the Kumaon Battalion (later 3rd Gurkha Rifles). Formally raised on 24 April 1815, they began the two centuries of Gurkha martial service to the British Crown that were celebrated in 2015. The locations of Sirmoor and Kumaon are shown on the above map. They were in the then western part of Nepal which was given up by the Nepalese as one of the conditions contained in the Treaty of Segauli.
Gurkha History: Members of the Band of The Brigade of Gurkhas in conversation with the Colonel-in-Chief of The Royal Gurkha Rifles, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, during a medal parade for 1RGR in 2011. His Royal Highness is also Patron of the Gurkha Welfare Trust.
The First World War saw the Gurkhas transition from operations against the wily tribesmen of the North West Frontier to the ‘modern’ warfare of the trenches. On the Western Front, in Mesopotamia and on the Gallipoli Peninsula, some 90,780 Gurkhas served the Crown during the Great War. Of these, over 20,000 became casualties. Their bravery earned accolades from all quarters and resulted in the award of three Victoria Crosses. The first of these was won by Rifleman Kulbir Thapa at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, the same battle in which Rudyard Kipling’s son was killed. It was particularly significant because it was the first ever Victoria Cross won by a Gurkha soldier, rather than a British Officer from a Gurkha regiment. Although officers serving with Gurkha regiments were eligible for the award from its introduction in 1856, ‘native’ soldiers only became eligible in 1911.
Gurkha History: A painting by the artist Terence Cuneo showing 1/6th Gurkhas assaulting well prepared Turkish positions on the highest feature of the Sari Bair Massif on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The painting shows Major Cecil Allanson leading his men from the front on 9 August 1915. A remarkable officer and superb athlete, Allanson held the Army record for the 2 miles for a number of years. He was written up for a Victoria Cross for his actions on Sari Bair but this was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Prior to the assault and having been briefed on the plan, Allanson wrote in his diary: "what would one have done to a subaltern at a promotion examination who made any such proposition?"
If you want to find out more about the history of Britain's Gurkhas, the following link will take you to the Gurkha Museum's web page:
Gurkha History: Bhim Sen Thapa the Prime Minister of Nepal at the time of the wars with Britain and the Honourable East India Company. Another remarkable man (born August 1775, died 5 August 1839), he was Prime Minister for over 30 years from 1806 to 1837.
Gurkhas circa 1915
The number of Gurkhas serving the Crown increased during the Second World War to some 138,000. Again, they distinguished themselves, earning 2,760 awards for bravery or distinguished service. These awards included 12 Victoria Crosses and a remarkable 333 Military Crosses. Both medals are awarded for acts of valour in the face of the enemy and it is therefore no surprise that the casualties amongst Gurkha officers and soldiers were high: 7,539 Gurkhas were either killed or died of wounds; 1,441 Gurkhas were posted as missing, presumed dead; and a further 14,082 Gurkhas were wounded.
Gurkhas circa 2015
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Gurkha History: Eight Gurkhas circa 1815. The first Gurkha Battalion was raised by the Honourable East India Company in 1815 during the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814 - 1816. Note the kukris, the famous Gurkha fighting knives, in their belts.
The Gurkhas hit the headlines in 1982 when the First Battalion of the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles deployed as part of the Task Force to retake the Falkland Islands. Although the majority of the fighting was done by the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines, the Gurkhas consolidated their position as highly capable light infantry. Numerous deployments followed with Gurkhas taking part in the First Gulf War and deploying on operations in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Bosnia and East Timor to name but a few.
Gurkha History: Soldiers of the Sirmoor Rifles (later the 2nd Gurkhas) in front of Hindu Rao’s House on Delhi Ridge. The ridge dominated the city of Delhi which, in 1857, became the focus of the India Mutiny. Despite suffering tremendous losses, the Sirmoor Battalion, along with the 60th Rifles and the Corps of Guides, succeeded in holding the ridge until reinforcements arrived.
Perhaps surprisingly, barely six months after the end of the Confrontation, Britain’s Gurkha strength was reduced from 15,000 to 7,000. This entailed many fine Gurkha soldiers leaving the Army with no pensions and very small gratuities. Realising that this would add to the number of ex-British Gurkhas living in conditions of privation in Nepal, the Gurkha Welfare Trust was formed from generous donations in the UK and Far East. This original aspect of the Trust’s work continues to this day with 5,800 ex-soldiers and their families receiving welfare pensions of 10,000 Rupees per month (about £71.50), enabling them to live their lives with dignity.
Gurkha History: Rifleman Kulbir Thapa of 2/3rd Gurkhas who earned a Victoria Cross for his actions at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, becoming the first Gurkha soldier to receive the award. Although the Victoria Cross was brought into being by Royal Warrant on 29 January 1856, it was not until 1911, on the occasion of the visit of King George V to India, that Gurkhas became eligible for the award. To date, officers and soldiers of the Brigade of Gurkhas have been awarded a total of 26 Victoria Crosses.
Gurkha History: A potential recruit taking part in the stamina assessment conducted during Central Selection in Pokhara, West Nepal. During the assessment, which is conducted as a race, potential recruits have to carry a weight of 25kg in a ‘doko’, the rattan basket that the people of Nepal traditionally use to carry heavy loads along the mountain paths of the Himalayas.
Gurkha History: “Ayo Gurkhali!” Gurkhas from The Royal Gurkha Rifles in Afghanistan with their famous fighting knife known as the kukri.
During the course of the Burma Campaign, officers and soldiers of Gurkha units were awarded no less than seven Victoria Crosses. An extract from the citation of one of these gives an idea of the sort of fighting they were involved in:
‘In the subsequent advance heavy machine-gun fire and showers of grenades from an isolated bunker position caused further casualties. Once more, with indomitable courage, Naik Agansing Rai, covered by his Bren gunner, advanced alone with a grenade in one hand and his Thompson Sub-Machinegun in the other. Through devastating fire he reached the enemy position and with his grenade and bursts from his Thompson Sub-Machinegun killed all four occupants of the bunker.’
Gurkha History: Brigadier (later Major General) General Orde Wingate who commanded the Chindits. He was killed when his aircraft crashed during a visit to one of the strongholds established behind enemy lines during the second Chindit operation. Large numbers of Gurkhas took part in both Chindit operations.
Gurkha History: A Gurkha patrol from B Company, 1RGR talking to local children in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The Gurkhas’ ability to converse with the Afghan population makes them invaluable at collecting information about local tribal dynamics.
Gurkha History: A Gurkha sniper dominates the ground to his front in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
On 14 March 2017, a detachment from The Royal Gurkha Rifles took part in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to celebrate Prince Charles' 40 years as the Colonel-in-Chief of the Gurkha Infantry. Prince Harry joined his father at the celebration, helping to award operational service medals to some 150 members of the Second Battalion of The Royal Gurkha Rifles following their return from a deployment to Afghanistan on Operation Toral. Commenting on their tour in Afghanistan, Prince Charles said that: "I know that your eight-month tour in Kabul was arduous and dangerous but that you performed to the very highest standards of professionalism in true Gurkha spirit.” Before presenting the medals, he went on to observe that: "Your forefathers would be most proud of you here today, continuing to demonstrate the traditions and achievements that together ensure the worldwide reputation of the Gurkhas as the best soldiers.”
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In May 1815 and after several months of fierce fighting, General Amar Singh Thapa, the Gurkhas’ senior commander, accepted defeat when, outmanoeuvred by the East India Company’s Major General David Ochterlony, his position in the mountain fortress of Malaun became untenable. A treaty, known as the Treaty of Segauli, was drafted which required the Nepalese to relinquish the land they had seized in the west and east. As a punishment, it also required Nepal to give up large tracts of its own most fertile territory on the border with India. However, much of this was owned by the Nepalese ruling elite and they had no intention of signing the treaty. In January 1816, the East India Company despatched a second Army of some 17,000 under the command of General Ochterlony to force compliance. Again, the Gurkhas fought with remarkable courage and skill but, outnumbered and outgunned, they were eventually defeated at the Battle of Makwanpur in February 1816. A few days later on 4 March, the Treaty of Segauli was eventually ratified, bringing the East India Company’s two wars with Nepal and its Gurkhas to a close.
Gurkha History: A girl drinking from a tap stand in Bharat Pokhari, a village near Pokhara, following a GWT project in 2013.
Gurkha History: Major General Sir Rollo Gillespie who was killed at the Battle of Kalunga on 31 October 1814 leading British and East India Company troops against the Gurkhas of Balbahadur Kunwar. Born in County Down in Ireland in 1766, Gillespie was another colourful character. He killed a man in a duel in 1788, was shipwrecked off Madeira in 1792, killed 6 men who tried to burgle his home in St Domingo and used a spear to kill an escaped tiger on Bangalore racecourse. He was knighted posthumously on 1 January 1815.
Gurkha History: Rifleman Asman Gurung of the 6th Gurkhas crossing the Irrawaddy River during the Burma Campaign.
Gurkha History: Gurkhas of the 4th Indian Division meet American GIs. The US forces arrived in North Africa as part of Operation Torch which saw some 650 ships put ashore four US and British Divisions on 8 November 1942. The Germans eventually surrendered in North Africa on 12 May 1943 after a three year campaign. The total German and Italian prisoners amounted to some 250,000.
Gurkha History: Gurkhas sharpening their kukris in France during the First World War. Although the picture was taken about a hundred years ago, the kukri that Gurkhas use on contemporary operations remains virtually unchanged from those shown in the photograph.
Gurkha History: The rivers in Borneo are used as arterial transport routes. During the Borneo Confrontation, both British and Indonesian forces used them to move troops and supplies. In August 1965, Support Company of 2/2nd Gurkhas carried out a highly successful boat ambush on the River Sentimo, killing 12 Indonesians who were travelling in an assault boat.
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Gurkha History: Naik Agansing Rai of 2/5 th Gurkhas was awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery on the 26 June 1944 during assaults to capture the key positions of Mortar Bluff and Water Piquet.
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1815 was a defining year in British military history. Not only did Wellington finally defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo but Britain’s Honourable East India Company also began recruiting Gurkha soldiers, a tradition that has now continued uninterrupted for over 200 years. This page provides a brief history of Britain's Brigade of Gurkhas. A more detailed Gurkha history is provided in my book 'The Gurkhas: 200 Years of Service to the Crown'. All royalties from the sale of this book go to the Gurkha Welfare Trust, a charity which works predominantly in Nepal to help Britain's Gurkhas and their families live their lives with dignity.
In summarizing Gurkha history, this article tries to answer a number of frequently asked questions including: who are the Gurkhas? where are the Gurkhas from? what is the history of the Gurkhas? why are the Gurkhas still in the British Army? what is the Gurkha kukri? I am extremely grateful to the Gurkha Museum for checking the facts in this short narrative and for providing the images (which remain their property). There is a link to the Gurkha Museum's webpage at the end of this article. Note that the vast majority of the sources that I used in researching this article and the book can be accessed
Gurkha History: The Gurkhas are known for their fighting knife, the kukri. The blade of a modern military kukri is usually about 30cm in length. The scabbard contains two pockets at the back to hold a pair of small knives. One of these, the chakmak, is for sharpening the kukri and can be used with a flint to create a spark. The other, the karda, is used as a penknife for skinning animals.