“Ven I vaunt to send a damned fool, I send myself.”
One of the Marine Corps’ “colorful” characters of the past was Major Louis Cukela. Cukela was born in the kingdom of Dalmatia on 1 May 1888 (modern-day Croatia). A “mustang,” Cukela rose in ranks from Private to Major over a career spanning 29 years. Three things made this officer a colorful character: his broken accent, short temper, and unquestioned courage and valor in combat.
Louis Cukela received his primary education in Dalmatia with further schooling at the Merchant Academy and Royal Gymnasium. In 1913, he migrated to the United States with his brother, both young men deciding to settle in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There may not have been many job opportunities in Minneapolis in the early part of the 20th century, which could explain why Cukela decided to join the U.S. Army in 1914. Corporal Cukela accepted his discharge from the army in 1916.
Seven months later, before the United States officially entered Europe’s Great War, Louis Cukela enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Officially, the United States entered the war on 6 April 1917. In late May, President Wilson directed the Secretary of the Navy to issue orders detaching a Marine regiment for service with the U.S. Army in France. The regiment would be known as the 5th Regiment of U.S. Marines. And, as a demonstration of the combat readiness of these Marines, the regiment sailed for France sixteen days later.
Cukela served in the 66th rifle company in the Norfolk, Virginia area. As the Marines reformed for service with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), Marine rifle companies formed as part of infantry battalions within regiments. The 15th rifle company (Pensacola) joined the 49th, 66th, and 67th companies to create the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. The 1stBn embarked aboard the U.S.S. DeKalb, arriving at St. Nazaire on 26 June.
Initially, the Army assigned these Marines to the U.S. First Infantry Division. Many of these Marines had combat experience, but not as part of a land army. This necessitated that the marines undergo training to familiarize them with land operations. This training involved instruction by French infantry officers and N.C.O.s in offensive and defensive operations, trench warfare, grenade throwing, bayonet fighting, and infantry-artillery coordination. Until this training could be accomplished, the Marines performed communications duties (as messengers) and certain other logistical duties.
In September 1917, the 5th Marines was assigned to serve under the U.S. Second Infantry Division. In October, the regiment became part of the 4th Brigade of Marines (one of two infantry brigades in the 2nd Division). Despite the regiment’s pre-combat training, General Pershing had no confidence that the 5th Marines were ready for service in the line. In March 1918, the Marine Brigade relocated to the relatively quiet area of Toulon. To acquaint Marines with combat service opposing German troops, the regiments rotated battalions into the trenches for a set period of time. When the Marines were not standing watch, they were kept busy improving or repairing their trenches.
On 19 – 20 March, during a battalion relief operation, the enemy launched a raid in force. The extraordinary effort of the 49th Company, 3rd Battalion, sent the enemy reeling back to their own trenches. At this time, the German high command began paying closer attention to those American Marines. On 30 May, the A.E.F. assigned the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division to the French Sixth Army, after which the Marine Brigade received the mission of stemming a German thrust toward Paris. Retreating units and civilian refugees clogged up the lines of communication, requiring the Marines to disembark from their motorized vehicles and proceed toward Meaux.
Gunnery Sergeant (later Second Lieutenant) Cukela fought in every engagement in which his regiment participated. That’s what Marines do — but it was just as well they were focusing their attention on the Germans because, according to Major General James G. Harbord, commanding the U.S. Second Infantry Division, the French high command was a disaster. No one knew anything — and didn’t seem to care.
On 2 June, the battalions of the 5th Marines occupied reserve and line duty north of the Marne River and west of Chateau-Thierry. Harbord struggled to organize the lines of the French XXI Corps and cover the withdrawal of French infantry/artillery units. Harbord finally accomplished this by mid-day on 4 June 1918. That afternoon, 2/5 repulsed two German assaults against the withdrawing French and convinced the Germans to withdraw into defensive positions.
The French Sixth Army ordered the XXI Corps to straighten its lines; XXI Corps assigned the mission to the 2nd Infantry Division, and Harbord handed it off to the Marine Brigade. Second Battalion, 5th Marines successfully mounted the first attack and straightened out the allied lines. For the second attack, General Harbord sent the Marines into Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood). The fight set a single American infantry division against five German divisions. By the end of the battle on 23 June 1918, the 5th Marines had suffered 2,000 killed and wounded — but the struggle also set into motion a massive German withdrawal that continued until the Armistice.
On 18 July 1918 at Soissons, the 66th Company operated in the Forêt de Retz some 50 miles northeast of Paris, near Villiers-Cotterets, when a German strong point held up the company’s advance. Alone, of his own volition, Cukela crawled beyond the company’s lines toward the German defenses. Despite the enemy’s bullets zipping just above his head, he captured an enemy machine gun by bayoneting its three-man crew. Then, using German grenades, Cukela demolished the remaining part of the enemy’s strong point. He silenced the Germans, captured four prisoners, and captured two undamaged machine guns. For this action, the United States awarded Gunnery Sergeant Cukela two medals of honor — one from the U.S. Army and another from the U.S. Navy. 
In addition to his two medals of honor, Cukela also received three Silver Star medals and several French National/Military awards: Legion of Honor (Chevalier), Military Medal, and three Croix de Guerre.
Cukela may have been entitled to two purple heart medals, as well, for wounds received while engaged with the enemy. He did not receive these awards because, believing his wounds minor, he never reported to sick bay for treatment.
On 1 November 1919, First Lieutenant Cukela joined the 1st Marine Brigade in Haiti. Soon after arriving and being made aware of the mission of garrisoning Marines in Haitian towns, Cukela took aside one promising young second lieutenant and observed it was a waste of time. Instead, the Marines should pursue the Cacos into the mountains and be done with them. It was a logical proposal, and the young lieutenant — Lewis B. Puller — never forgot Cukela’s advice.
While serving in the Caribbean, Cukela’s brigade commander charged him with executing three Haitian detainees. A medical officer examined Cukela and reported him as highly agitated and smelling of alcohol. Reputation-wise, Cukela was thought to have a propensity for executing Cacos. Cukela was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the “word,” having gotten out, prompted the Commandant to reassign him to the Dominican Republic.
His battlefield appointment to Second Lieutenant took place on 26 September 1918, and a regular commission was conferred on 31 March 1919. He advanced to First Lieutenant on 17 July 1919 and Captain on 15 September 1921.
In 1955, Warner Brothers cartoonist and story writer Warren Foster (1904 – 1971) developed a tale he titled Sahara Hare. It was a continuation of the epic contest between Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam (who appears in the tale as Riff Raff Sam). Bugs pops up in the desert, thinking he’s arrived at Miami Beach. Meanwhile, while riding on a camel, Sam suddenly comes upon Bugs’ tracks and exclaims, “Great horney toads! A trespasser is getting footy prints all over my desert.” Sam orders the camel to slow down and loudly says, “Whoa camel, whoa! Whoa!” Ignored by the camel, Sam whacks him on the head and tells the half conscience camel, “When I say Whoa, I means WHOA!”
Funny stuff, if you enjoy Warner Brothers Cartoons — but it makes you wonder if Warren Foster ever served in the Marines and knew or ran across one of the great Cukela stories. Captain Cukela was no Cossack; he had little interest in equestrian pursuits and rode like a sack of rice. Assigned to attend the Army Infantry Officers School at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army emphasized infantry tactics but also demanded that its officer students demonstrate mastery of the horse. One day, his mount took off at a gallop toward Alabama, and nothing Captain Cukela did could persuade the horse from the gallop. He ordered “Stop Horse” on several occasions — to no avail. Finally, Captain Cukela balled up his fist and whacked the horse as hard as he could on its forehead, and the animal sank to its knees. Dismounting, Captain Cukela admonished the horse, “I am Cukela — you are the horse. I tell you, stop — you stop. You not stop, damn you, I break your head.”
On 30 June 1940, the date of his retirement, Cukela was promoted to Major — but he was recalled to active duty a month later in anticipation of war with Japan.
During World War II, Major Cukela served as a supply officer at Norfolk, Virginia, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was returned to the retired list on 17 May 1946 — achieving 32 years of active military service.
After Major Cukela suffered a stroke in 1955, he lay dying at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. One afternoon, a prominent Lieutenant General visited his bedside. Cukela, even in his weakened state, had no trouble recognizing Chesty Puller — but kept referring to him as “Lieutenant.” Cukela observed to Puller that he was dying. General Puller answer, “That’s all right, old man. You’re going to Valhalla — where all Marines go.
Louis Cukela, aged 67 years, passed away on 19 March 1956.
Cukela made the famous quote, shown at the beginning of this post, after receiving a garbled and incomprehensible field message. According to author and biographer Colonel Merrill Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Cukela’s strange comments caught on quickly in the A.E.F. — even to General Pershing, himself.
Who’s Who in Marine Corps History. History Division, HQMC
Yingling, J. M. A Brief History of the 5th Marines. Washington, D.C., 1963, 1968.
 The rapid organization, equipping, and embarkation of the regiment was the product of considerable forethought by senior Marine Corps planners.
 The weather was hot, the roads dusty, and the Marines were over-burdened by carrying their supplies and equipment on their backs. Morale was not improved with the dejected and terrorized looks appearing on the faces of French soldiers moving away from the battle site. It was at this time when Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion told a French colonel that the Marines would not retreat — “We just got here.”
 Following World War I, the U.S. Navy decided to recognize two kinds of heroism. One involving extraordinary courage in the face of the enemy, and the other recognition for non-combat service. The ribbon pattern on the medal awarded for non-combat reflected an up-side-down star. The new pattern medal was designed by the Tiffany Company (1919), reflecting actual combat. It was known as the Tiffany Cross Medal of Honor but due to its similarity with the German Cross, the medal was unpopular, and several awardees requested a newer design once issued in 1942.
JOURNAL OF THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS (Philadelphia) Friday, November 10, 1775
Resolved, That two Battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office, or enlisted into said Battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required; that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress: that they be distinguished by the names of the first and second battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered as part of the number which the continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.
Ordered: That a copy of the above be transmitted to the General.
George Washington was an army man — with considerable experience gained in militia service beginning in 1752. Through his older brother Lawrence, serving as Virginia’s Adjutant General, George received an appointment as major and commander of one of the colony’s four military districts. It was a time when the British and French competed for control of the Ohio Valley. In those days, the Virginia colony extended all the way to present-day southern Ohio.
In 1753, Virginia governor Dinwiddie appointed Washington as his special envoy and sent him into the French territories to demand that French forces withdraw from British territory, and to forge an alliance with the Iroquois nation. Major Washington completed his mission in record time: 77 days.
In 1754, Gov. Dinwiddie promoted Washington to lieutenant colonel and assigned him to serve as the executive officer (deputy commander) of the Virginia Regiment. Dinwiddie ordered the regiment to confront the French at the fork of the Ohio River. Washington set off in compliance with those orders, leading around 150 men. Washington’s information was that the French had around 1,000 troops involved in the construction of Fort Duquesne. Typically, Washington’s information was wrong. The French had around 50 men. We remember this engagement as the Battle of Jumonville. It was the event that started the French and Indian War (1754-1763).
A year later, Lieutenant Colonel Washington served as a volunteer militia aide to Major General Edward Braddock, commander of a British expedition sent to deal with the French and their Indian allies. The confrontation became known as the Battle of the Monongahela, the Battle of Braddock’s Field, and the Battle of the Wilderness. It was a disaster for the British; but General Braddock wasn’t too pleased, either.
Samuel Nicholas was born in Philadelphia in 1744. He was the youngest of three children of Anthony and Mary Nicholas. Mary died in 1750; Anthony was a blacksmith with a drinking problem. He died the next year when Samuel was seven years old. The children were turned over to their uncle, Attwood Shute, who was then serving as the mayor of Philadelphia. In 1752, Shute enrolled Samuel in the Academy and College of Philadelphia.
There is not much known about Captain Nicholas between his graduation from school in 1759 and his appointment in 1775. We suspect that he was an educated gentleman of good reputation — otherwise, he would not have received a commission for service as an officer of Marines.
The Marine Battalions
The Congress formed a naval committee in mid-October 1775. The naval committee would have the responsibility for managing naval assets, including purchasing ships, appointing officers, directing recruitment, purchasing stores, and issuing orders for naval operations.
A marine committee replaced the naval committee in December 1775. This committee consisted of one member from each of the thirteen colonies. It took over responsibility for directing the naval affairs of the Continental Congress.
The naval committee intended that General Washington form two battalions of marines from his existing army. The marines became necessary when the naval committee developed a plan for an assault on Halifax, Nova Scotia. Halifax was the primary supply point for Britain’s North American forces. Only one battalion formed from the Congressional resolution, rather than two. The battalion allowed for five companies of 300 men.
Congress suspended its plan for the American assault when the Americans learned that the British had landed several infantry regiments and 3,000 Hessian mercenaries. Canceling the operation gave General Washington some breathing room. He was struggling to recruit and train men for his land army; he had no interest in drawing forces away from his land regiments to build a force of marines for the navy. The general preferred that if recruitment must be done for marines, he suggested that this activity take place in New York or in Philadelphia.
That duty, of course, fell upon Captain Samuel Nicholas.
One will note that during the colonial period, America’s soldiers were farmers with some affiliation with a local militia. They knew about fighting Indians and farming, but they knew far less about fighting in a land army. And less about fighting from ships. General Washington’s first priority was recruitment, and his second was training.
Captain Nicholas faced the same challenges, except that his task was to train young men as soldiers of the sea. His recruits had to be able seamen who were deadly riflemen, who could deliver deadly fire from the riggings from the mainsails. Sure footing 30 to 50 feet in the air, on a pitching ship, armed with a muzzle-loading musket demanded a certain kind of man. But what soldiers of the sea knew about fighting on land was next to nil.
As Nicholas’ recruits began to form, he and his deputy, Lieutenant Matthew Parke, stood off to the side resplendent in their green coats, off-white waistcoats, breeches, and facings. The sergeant brought the men to order, no doubt snarling at them and using colorful words. Neither the sergeant nor his recruits were in uniform. They were dressed as they might have first appeared at the recruitment office. The sergeant, no doubt a veteran of previous wars with the British Army, may have dressed in native attire, a sword hanging from his waist, a powder horn, and a musket. Behind these privates was the ship Alfred, Commodore Esek Hopkins, commanding. There was a mission for the Marines — it would involve the Marine’s First Amphibious Raid.
The fight at Sea
On 6 April 1776, the ship’s voyage northward following the raid on New Providence was in every way routine — which meant that the crew was kept busy with their shipboard duties. An hour into midnight, the ship’s watch observed two unidentified sails southeast of Alfred’s position. The officer of the deck ordered beat to quarters, and all hands mustered for action. One of those ships was a monster, HMS Glasgow, rigged with twenty guns accompanied by her tender. Captain Nichols deployed his Marines with his able executive officer, 1stLt Matthew Parke, at his side. Also standing to was 2ndLt John Fitzpatrick, whose station was the quarterdeck.
HMS Cabot veered off under the weight of Glasgow’s cannon — Hopkins brought Alfred to action. In one of the first exchanges, Lieutenant Fitzpatrick fell by the weight of a musket ball, killing him instantly. Of this officer, Nicholas later wrote, “In him I have lost a worthy officer, sincere friend, and companion, that was beloved by all the ship’s company.”
In this engagement, a lucky shot from Glasgow carried off Alfred’s wheel block, making the ship unmanageable. Hopkins’s other ships joined the fight, sending Glasgow off to Newport, her stern guns firing until out of range.
At the end of December 1776, General Washington was greatly encouraged by his successful assault against the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. On 30 December, Washington crossed the Delaware and re-occupied the city. At the time, British General Charles Cornwallis commanded a large infantry force at Princeton. He at once responded by marching toward Trenton. After an indecisive skirmish at Assanpink Creek, Washington withdrew a short distance eastward to establish his bivouac.
Full of confidence, General Cornwallis made camp believing he had caught the elusive American. His plan was to assault Washington at dawn the next day. General Washington, however, had other ideas. Once night had fallen, Washington assembled his force and, leaving guards to keep the fires burning throughout the night, set out through rough country to Princeton Road.
At sunrise, the British 17th and 35th Regiments just outside Princeton, setting out to reinforce Cornwallis, spotted an American army rapidly moving toward the city. Quickly ordering up the 40th Regiment, British Colonel Charles Mawhood opened fire with his field cannon and ordered the 17th forward with fixed bayonets. Mawhood’s charge hurled the Americans under General Hugh Mercer back in disorder. Pennsylvania troops under General John Cadwalader, and Marines under Captain Samuel Nicholas, quickly took over the fight. As the Marines weighed into the line, the Pennsylvanians were repulsed. Washington, seeing the disorder, rushed to the line, personally reformed the Virginians and Pennsylvanians, and then appealing to the soldier’s patriotic fervor, led these men to extend their line within 30 yards of the 40th and ordered, “Fire!”
The American volley and a British response shrouded the field in thick gun smoke. As the pall slowly lifted, the Red Coats saw that they had suffered the worst of it and broke their ranks in retreat. Washington ordered his men to pursue them. Nichols Marines needed no such encouragement.
One of the greatest gifts bestowed on the American people during their formative period was the wisdom of the nation’s founding members to create, establish, and maintain a small but elite corps of individuals so imbued with patriotism and devotion that they willingly gave up their lives in the service to their country — and to one another. They called themselves Marines. In 1775, they were called Continental Marines. They have never relinquished their sense of duty, or their honor since their creation on that blustery early November day 247 years ago.
The Marine Corps Hymn is both a chronicle of the story of American Marines and an ongoing pledge to the purpose of the U.S. Marine Corps — to which all Marines subscribe.
Although we do not know the name of the individual who penned the words to the Hymn, the words are much easier to trace (historically) than the music, which many scholars seem willing to attribute to the French composer, Jacques Offenbach. Offenbach’s opera was called Geneviève de Brabant. Geneviève’s story is believed to rest on the events surrounding Marine de Brabant, the wife of Louis II, Duke of Bavaria and Count Palatine de Rhine. Marie was suspected of infidelity and subsequently tried by her husband, found guilty, and beheaded (18 January 1256). When the verdict was shown in error, religious officials required Louis to atone, which did very little for Marie, by then long dead. The change in the name from Marie to Geneviève may relate to the so-called cult of Geneviève, patroness of Paris, France.
The opera was first performed in 1859 (or thereabouts). But there are those who claim that Offenbach’s tune originated from a Spanish folk song long before 1859. This too is interesting because Spanish classical music was already in decline by the beginning of the 18th century, replaced in many instances by post-renaissance Italian classical constructs in the 19th and 20th centuries. If we address this question-mark, then we must also understand that symphonic music was never important to Spaniards, who preferred solo instrumental (guitar and piano) and vocal operas by local (regional) composers and then to this, we must add the fact that musically, there are twelve distinctive Spanish cultural regions. Questions of music aside, the words to this song are exclusive “American Marine” — we simply do not know who.
Continental Marines ceased to exist when the U.S. Congress decided that a standing naval and military force was no longer needed in the newly created United States of America — following the war with Great Britain in 1783, of course. But within ten years, it became apparent to President Washington that the United States could not defend its sovereignty at home or abroad without a naval presence on the high seas, or a land army at home to address Indian unrest. See also: At Tripoli.
It was in response to intolerable insults to the United States by various leaders of the Turkish Empire and the barbary states that America’s first three presidents instituted somewhat hesitant and mostly inadequate policies directed at the Barbary States. At Tripoli (Part I) describes the background and naval campaign implemented to address Islamist blackguards and wastrels. In recognition of the extraordinary courage and patriotism of Captain William Eaton and First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, the Marine Corps Hymn recalls … “to the shores of Tripoli.”
During the Mexican-American War (1846-48), American Marines served alongside the U.S. Army under General Winfield Scott. Following the battle of Mexico City, known as the Battle of Chapultepec, American forces captured the Chapultepec Castile, also known as the Halls of Montezuma. It was this victory, in 1847, that effectively ended the war with Mexico.
In 1942, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, serving as 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, authorized a change to the fourth line of the first stanza of the Marine Corps Hymn to include a reference to Marine Corps aviation. The line, originally written “On the land as on the sea,” was changed to “In the air, on land, and sea.”
The Battle Colors of the United States Marine Corps
The official Battle Colors of the U.S. Marine Corps are maintained at Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., the oldest organization in the Marine Corps. A duplicate battle color is retained in the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps. What distinguishes the Battle Colors of the United States Marine Corps from all other Marine Corps battle colors is that they contain the battle streamers of every battle fought by Marines since 1775. The flags found in regular Marine Corps units, maintained in the office of battalion commanders and above (air squadrons, regiments, aviation groups, infantry divisions, air wings, and fleet Marine Force headquarters organizations, is that they contain battle streamers only of the battles those units participated in. For example, a battalion that did not participate in World War I would not have any battle streamers associated with World War I.
The Battle Colors of the U.S. Marine Corps contain fifty-five battle streamers; they represent U.S. and foreign decorations and awards for combat service, expeditions, and campaigns since the American Revolution. During the Marine Corps’ first 150 years, Marines in the field carried a variety of flags. It was not until 18 April 1925 that Marine Corps Order Number 4 designated gold and scarlet as the official colors of the U.S. Marine Corps. These colors, however, were not reflected in the official Marine Corps flag until 18 January 1939 when a new design incorporating the new colors was approved. This design was essentially that of today’s Marine Corps standard and was the result of a two-year study concerning the design of a standard Marine Corps flag, and the units to which such a flag should be issued.
The 55 colored streamers which adorn the Battle Color represent the history and accomplishments of the Marine Corps. The newest streamers to be added to the Battle Color are the Afghanistan, Iraq, and Inherent Resolve Campaign Streamers.
The Importance of Symbols
The Marine Corps is one of the nation’s smallest services, its size dependent upon missions assigned to it. So, when we look back into its history, we won’t see vast numbers of Marines killed or wounded in battle. But to provide some context, I want to offer some overall numbers reflecting the size of the Corps at various times along with the numbers of casualties (killed and wounded) in several conflicts.
Battle casualties KIA/WIA
Quasi-war with France
War of 1812
Creek & Seminole War
Civil War (Union)
Boxer Rebellion (China)
Mexican Intervention (1914)
Dominican Rep (1916-1920)
World War I (1917-1918)
World War II (1941-1945)
Korean War (1950-1953)
Dominican Rep (1965)
Lebanon Intervention (1984)
Persian Gulf (1988)
Persian Gulf War (1991)
Afghan War (2001-2015)
Iraq War (2003-2016)
As with all the other military services, every Marine killed, wounded, and maimed in the service to their country signifies yet another mother/father, brother/sister, or wife/child with a broken heart. War always affects more than those wearing a military uniform. Those who elect to remain home where it is safe and comfortable during times of crisis never seem to understand this reality. There are some Americans who do not even care. It wasn’t always that way in America — but welcome to 2022. But these symbols, our hymn, and the battle colors of the U.S. Marine Corps serve as important reminders of who we are and what we represent — and our commitment to God, Country, and each other. So … Here’s health to you and to our Corps — which we are proud to serve.
Happy Birthday, Marines!
 Note that the opening line of the Marine Corps Hymn is, “From the Halls of Montezuma, To the Shores of Tripoli…” Whoever wrote the hymn has these events out of sequence, but I’ve tried it the other way around and it simply doesn’t work — so we will have to acknowledge some poetic license and I vote we keep the hymn the way it is now.
 The United States did not declare war during World War II until the Japanese first attacked the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941. In 1940, however, the U.S. sent a regiment of 1,000 Marines to Iceland to help prevent an invasion by Nazi Germany. This event inspired another unofficial stanza to the Marine Corps Hymn. It was: “Again in nineteen forty-one, we sailed a north’ard course, and found beneath the sun the Viking and the Norse. The Iceland girls were slim and fair, and fair the Icelandic scenes, and the Army found in landing there, the United States Marines.”
 Source of data: United States Marine Corps University.
The Gurkha (also Gorkhas) are soldiers native to the Indian sub-continent residing in Nepal and some areas of Northeast India. As a combatant, they are a tremendous force. They are small in stature, but the reader will not discover a body of men possessing more tenacity and esprit de corps or less regard for their safety. It is such that these small men appear as giants on the battlefield — or, if not that, their ferocity is enough to cause the blood of their enemies to run cold, drop their weapons, and run like hell. The Gurkha signal to attack has caused heart attacks in twenty-year-old men.
Most military historians rate Gurkhas among the finest combat soldiers in the world. They believe that the only way to defeat a Gurkha combat is by killing every man in his unit and then shooting them again just to make sure.
John Watts and George White were two very enterprising Englishmen who, sometime between 1598-1600, came up with the idea of forming a joint-stock company that would focus on trade with India. The company came into being on 31st December 1600 as the East India Company (EIC) — but over many years had several names. Eventually, people began calling it the John Company. In 1712, Dr. John Arbuthnot created a satirical character named John Bull, which became a national personification of the United Kingdom, generally, and England in particular.
But in 1600, no one imagined that EIC would acquire vast tracts of the Indian subcontinent. By 1740, the English competed with the French and Spanish for supremacy inside the Indian Ocean area. The competition was keen — there was no prize for second place. To gain (and retain) trade advantages, EIC relied heavily on the British Army to pacify the Indian population and the Royal Navy to protect trade routes and valuable cargoes.
Since it was economically impractical to permanently assign English regiments to India, EIC created its own army — one composed of native riflemen led by British officers and NCOs. EIC used this army to subdue uncooperative Indian states and principalities and to protect its economic interests. By 1800, the East India Company employed over 200,000 native soldiers, making it twice as large as the British Army.
In the early years, company management was both efficient and economical — but over time, incompetence, mismanagement, and other circumstances far beyond the company’s control (such as widespread famine in India) led the nearly bankrupt company to request financial aid from the British Parliament. After much debate, the government reasoned that such a commitment would benefit the nation’s long-term interests and approved EIC’s request — but not without having something to say about the company’s management. Parliamentary regulation and oversight of EIC began in 1773. In 1784, Parliament seized control of all Indian political policies through The India Act.
The John Company ceased to exist in 1858 when the Parliament forced it to cede all of its territories and holdings in India to the British Crown, which included massive parts of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and mid-Eastern Gulf colonies. Before incorporation, however, the EIC managed to recruit Nepalese to serve the company as part of its private army. They became known as Gurkhas. It was a relationship that began after the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816).
The Gurkha War
The Malla Dynasty was the ruling dynasty of the Kathmandu Valley (1201 – 1779) and one of the most sophisticated urban civilizations in the Himalayan foothills and a key destination in the India-Tibet trade route.
In 1766, when the Gurkha King invaded Kathmandu (which at the time belonged to the Malla Confederacy), the Malla appealed to the EIC for help and armaments. The company responded by sending an ill-equipped, poorly trained force of 2,500 men under a very young Captain, George Kinloch. By any measure, the expedition was an unmitigated disaster. Out of his depth as a military commander, Captain Kinloch had the additional misfortune of a malaria pandemic in the ranks. The Gurkhas quickly overpowered Kinloch’s demoralized troops, and since dead men did not need British-manufactured firearms, the Gurkhas collected the weapons and put them to good use against their other enemies.
Gurkha aggression toward Tibet over long-standing trade eventually involved Imperial Chinese troops between 1789-1792. It was then that the Gurkha (by then calling themselves Nepalese), in recognizing a common interest in territorial expansion, appealed to the British Governor-General for his assistance against the Chinese. Governor-General Lord Warren Hastings had no desire to engage Imperial China, but he was never averse to exploiting regional commercial opportunities. Moreover, the company was at the center of a cash-flow problem — an issue that Hastings could resolve by selling rare wools to English markets. Tibet was the only place on earth where Kashmir existed, and the only way to obtain it was through the mountain passes in Nepal — and this was only possible through the strategy of “political safety,” or territorial control and military pacification.
The Anglo-Gurkha War (1812-1816) involved two separate British military campaigns with seven major engagements and an extraordinary expenditure of money. Despite Nepal’s initial interest in involving the British in their dispute with China, which was not forthcoming, certain elements of the Gurkha hierarchy distrusted the British (with good reason), particularly after the British gained control of a neighboring principality. This event prompted the Nepalese to annex buffer territories of their own, which they were fully prepared to defend. In preparing for war with the British, the Nepalese suffered no illusions about the stakes of such a confrontation. One tribal chieftain advised his Nepalese lord, “They will not rest without establishing their own power and will unite with the hill rajas, whom we have dispossessed. We have hitherto hunted deer; if we engage in this war, we must prepare to fight tigers.”
The Anglo-Gurkha war ended with the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816. It required Nepal to relinquish all buffer territories west and east of its formal border and accept a permanent British representative in Kathmandu. Initially, the Nepalese objected to the treaty until General David Ochterlony offered the Nepalese a deal they could not refuse, which was that they could either agree to the treaty or Ochterlony would destroy them. It was thus that Nepal became a British-protected state.
Incorporating the Gurkhas
General Ochterlony and political agent William Fraser (1784-1835) were the first to recognize the potential of Gurkha soldiers in British service. During the war, Ochterlony employed Gurkha defectors as irregular forces. He and Fraser were impressed with these fighters and had no qualms about their devotion to the British cause. Fraser proposed that Ochterlony form the Gurkhas into a battalion under a British officer and key noncommissioned officers. This battalion later became the 1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles. About 5,000 Nepalese men entered British service after 1815, most of whom were Himalayans from three ethnic groups: Kumaonis, Garhwalis, and Gorkhalis — all of which quickly assimilated into a unique Gurkha identity.
Over time, the Gurkhas became the backbone of the British Army, forming ten regiments of two battalions each. The British called them the Brigade of Gurkhas or, more simply, The Gurkha Rifles. Between 1857-1918, the British employed Gurkha units to address conflicts in Burma, Afghanistan, the Indian frontiers, Malta, Cyprus, Malaya, China, and Tibet — with the Gurkhas serving with great distinction in each of them.
Eventually, the British raised twenty Gurkha battalions and formed them into ten regiments. During the First World War, the number of Gurkha battalions increased to 33, totaling approximately 100,000 men. Of these, 20,000 were either killed or wounded. More than 2,000 Gurkhas received combat decorations for their exceptional courage and gallantry. So steady were these men that they were among the first to arrive during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign — and they were the last to withdraw.
The Gurkha fought in the Third Afghan War (1919) and numerous campaigns in the Northwest regions, notably in Waziristan. At the end of the world war, the British returned its Gurkha regiments to India, keeping them away from the internal strife of urban areas and placing them instead on the Indian frontier, where fiercely independent tribesmen were a constant source of unrest. The mission of the Gurkha along the frontier was more on the order of a constabulary: keeping the peace by confronting lawlessness among the Pathan tribes.
In 1939, there were ten Gurkha regiments (twenty pre-war battalions). After the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, the Nepalese government offered to increase the number of Gurkha battalions to 35. Eventually, that number rose to 43 battalions, adding two battalions to each regiment and a fifth battalion to the 1st, 2nd, and 9th Gurkha Rifles (also, 1 GR, 2 GR, and 9 GR). To accomplish this expansion, Gurkha training battalions increased to five. The Nepalese raised two additional battalions for peace-keeping duty in India. In total, a quarter-million Nepalese men served in 40 Gurkha battalions, 8 Nepalese Army battalions, as well as in parachute, training, garrison, and logistical units against German/Italian forces in Syria, North Africa, Italy, and Greece, and Japanese forces in Burma, northeast India, and Singapore. Of all Imperial combat forces, Gurkhas earned 2,734 medals for bravery at the cost of 32,000 casualties in all theaters.
The pattern of Gurkha military ranks followed those of the Indian Army. Three levels included privates, noncommissioned officers, and commissioned officers. Commissioned officers within the Gurkha regiments held Viceroy’s commissions (while British officers held King’s or Queen’s commissions). Thus, any Gurkha holding a Viceroy’s commission (VCO) was subordinate to any British officer, regardless of rank. After Indian Independence in 1947, Gurkha officers reassigned to the British Army received King’s or Queen’s Gurkha Commissions (also known as KGO or QGO). The Crown abolished KGO/QGO in 2007. One notable difference between Gurkha officers and British officers is that no Gurkha can achieve a direct commission; Gurkha officers may only receive commissions through the enlisted ranks — they are all “mustangs.”
Today, Gurkhas serve in two separate armies: British and Indian. There is one Gurkha Regiment in the British Army and 12 battalions (6 regiments) in the Indian Army.
Ferocity in Combat
The Indian Rebellion of 1857
The problem of rebellion began as early as 1772 when Lord Hastings started to recruit for the British East India Company. Because many Bengalis opposed the BEIC in combat, Hastings avoided them during his recruitment efforts. He instead recruited higher castes, such as the Rajput and Bhumihar, from outlying regions. Ostensibly, the Madras and Bombay armies’ recruits were caste-neutral, but high-cast men were avoided below the surface. These caste-centered recruiting limitations continued through 1855.
The domination of higher castes in the Bengal army was one of the problems that led to the rebellion. For example, to avoid being polluted by the unclean lower caste, high-caste soldiers in the Bengal army dined separately — a situation that works against the concept of military teamwork. Hindu culture consumed the Bengal army, and higher-caste men were accorded privileges not extended to those of the lower-caste Bengali or the other company armies. For example, the company exempted Bengal soldiers from any service that took them beyond marching distance from their homes. The exemption excused Bengali soldiers from overseas service.
The final spark of discontent within the armies involved the ammunition used in the Enfield 1853 rifle/musket. The weapons fired mini-balls, and because the bore was smaller in diameter (tighter) than earlier muskets, pre-greased paper cartridges were needed to facilitate ramming the ball down the bore. In loading the weapon, sepoys (Indian soldiers serving in the British Army) had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. Rumors began circulating that the grease on these cartridges came from beef. Biting into beef grease would be offensive to devout Hindus, and if the lubricant came from pork lard, another rumor, biting into the cartridge would offend Muslims. Added to these rumors was the claim that British/Company officers intended to convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. To quell the first rumor, Colonel Richard Birch ordered the manufacture of greaseless cartridges; the sepoys could grease the cartridges themselves using whatever substance they preferred. Colonel Birch’s common sense solution only caused many simple-minded soldiers to conclude that the rumors were true.
Unhappiness among civilians was more complicated. Three groups of rebels were feudal nobility, rural landlords, and peasants. The nobility was unhappy because they had lost titles and domains under company regulations that denied adopted children as legal heirs. Landlords had lost their lands to peasant farmers due to company land reforms. At the outset of the rebellion, landlords quickly re-occupied lost lands — without much complaint from the peasants, who oddly enough also joined the rebellion. There was also the issue of forced indebtedness. When peasant landowners could not pay their taxes, they borrowed money from loan sharks at high-interest rates. Peasants lost their land to these money lenders when they could not repay borrowed money.
In the spring and summer of 1857, Indian soldiers refused to obey the orders of company officers, and native officers declined to arrest or discipline them. Initially, it was more a matter of silent contempt than open mutiny. However, when all but five 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry soldiers refused to accept cartridges, their British commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael-Smyth, ordered courts-martial. Most of these men received sentences of ten years imprisonment with hard labor. Before marching the convicted men to jail, Smythe ordered them publicly stripped of their uniforms and shackled.
The opening of the rebellion occurred the next morning when rebels attacked and ransacked officers’ quarters. Several British officers were killed, along with four civilian men, eight women, and eight children. Crowds in the bazaar rebelled by attacking off-duty soldiers, beating to death fifty Indian civilians who served British officers, and attacked the post-jail, releasing the recently court-martialed soldiers. News of this uprising fostered other rebellions across India at Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, and Lucknow.
Not everyone opposed the British East India Company, and neither were the Gurkhas alone in suppressing the mutiny. Sikh princes supported the British, along with the princes of Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Kashmir, and Rajputana. But the mutiny was unexpected and spread rapidly. When the British began to deploy Gurkha forces, rebels panicked — as well as they should have.
The Gurkhas could not understand such disloyalty, and it angered them. The last thing any reasonable person wants is an angry Gurkha standing before him. The Gurkhas were unrelentingly ruthless toward the rebellious. In one instance, a single Gurkha soldier chased down a dozen or more Wahhabi extremists; when the Gurkha was done with them, the Muslims lay dismantled in the gutter.
But the Gurkhas did not escape the 18-month-long insurrection unscathed. They suffered terrible casualties. The difference was, and what set them apart, is that no Gurkha, no matter how badly wounded, would leave his post. Not even when offered safe conduct for medical attention would they leave the side of their battling comrades. All other “loyal” units paled in comparison to the Gurkhas. No one had the “jolly recklessness” of the Gurkha private.
The rebels of Lucknow paled when they learned that the Gurkhas would oppose them. The fighting lasted for several months, but even from the first day, the rebels knew they were dead men walking. Again — as always — the Gurkha was both relentless and unmerciful.
The Malayan Emergency
Gurkha battalions operated continuously throughout the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). During this time, the Gurkha soldier proved again, as he had done in Burma, that the Gurkhas are superb jungle fighters. The Gurkhas were among 40,000 regular British Commonwealth troops participating in the Malayan Emergency. 250,000 Malayan Home Guard troops augmented these men.
The Malayan Emergency was part of the post-World War II nationalist movements. These were conflicts initiated by communist insurgents against pre-war colonial powers. The initiating event in June 1948 was the murder of three Europeans during a communist assault on rubber plantations and the colonial government’s subsequent declaration of an emergency.
As in French Indochina, many of Malaya’s fighters were previously engaged as anti-Japanese nationalists, men trained and supplied by the British government during World War II. Most communist rebels were ethnic Malayan or Chinese poorly treated by British colonial administrators over several decades. The insurgents, when organized, began a series of assaults against British colonial police, military installations, tin mines, rubber plantations, and terrorist acts upon small, isolated villages. At such time as the British had had enough of the murder and mayhem created by communist rebels, they sent in commonwealth forces, including the Gurkhas, to end it.
Organized as the 48th Gurkha Brigade (later, the 17th Gurkha Division), the British sent fighters from all four (then) existing Gurkha regiments (2nd, 6th, 7th, and 10th) and expanded (modernized) Gurkha fighting units by creating such combat support forces as engineers, signals, and transportation regiments.
The Gurkha’s arrival in Malaya was a seminal event because it marked the beginning of the end of the communist insurgency there. Unlike the US military in their later engagement in Vietnam, Gurkhas did not waste valuable time or effort trying to win the hearts and minds of the Malayan people. They weren’t there for that … they were there to locate communists and kill them. It was a mission-centered enterprise. If there were going to be a contest for the hearts and minds of civilians, it would have to be won by the government’s civil administration. Throughout their involvement in Malaya, the Gurkhas had few interactions with the civilian population. At no time were Gurkhas deployed to protect villages. They were after the “killer gangs” who behaved less as nationalist patriots than the armed thugs of jungle warlords.
For the Gurkhas, jungle time was slow time. Long-range patrols typically lasted two or three weeks (a few exceeded 100 days). Soldiers carried a pack weighing around 90 pounds; it was all he needed for the duration of the patrol. The Gurkhas dumped these heavy packs in a cache, mounting patrols in light order to sneak and peek. The basic patrol unit often consisted of three men but sometimes involved as many as twelve. The largest reconnaissance in force involved company-sized teams.
There was never any micro-management from a higher authority. Unit commanders simply told their patrol leaders to “get on with it,” which gave these seasoned fighters maximum leeway in deciding how to proceed. One of the favored Gurkha tactics was the ambuscade; some of these lasted from ten days to two weeks. Such operations demand an unparalleled degree of self-discipline because an ambush is only successful when there are no unnecessary movements to reveal the ambusher’s position. In truth, most ambushes yielded nothing at all. Gurkhas killed most insurgents through chance encounters while patrolling.
Gurkhas relentlessly pursued their enemy for as long as it took until they rounded up or killed the communists. Psychologically, such tenacity and commitment destroyed the communist’s self-confidence. He could run, but he could not hide from the Gurkha combat patrol. This was part of the strategy adopted by the British forces … keep the communists on the run. Some of these forays lasted for twenty or more days, the limiting factor being the amount of ammunition carried by each soldier (sixty rounds).
What the Gurkhas accomplished in twelve years was extraordinary within the context of the overall strategy. There was only limited use of artillery, and although the British employed light observation aircraft to support ground movements, there were no overwhelming air bombardment campaigns. What fighting the Gurkha did, they did with their standard issue firearm, kukri knives, and their fighting spirit. At the end of the day, Gurkha units didn’t need B-52s, artillery, or tanks. They were in Malaya for one essential purpose: locate the enemy and kill him — and the way to do that most effectively was to terrorize the terrorists. This is how the Gurkha won the Malayan Emergency.
Presently, the Gurkha contingent of the British Army includes the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, the King’s Gurkha Signals (five squadrons), King’s Gurkha Engineers (two squadrons), the 10th King’s Own Gurkha Logistics Regiment, the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas, the Gurkha Company, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, a company at the Infantry Battle School, and one company at the Land Warfare Center.
In 1945, Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung was stationed in a trench with only two other men when over 200 Japanese soldiers opened fire. Gurung’s comrades were severely wounded in the opening fusillade. As hand grenades fell on the Gurkhas, Gurung tried to throw each one back one after another. He was successful with the first two, but the third exploded in his right hand. His fingers were blown off, and his face, body, and right arm and leg were severely wounded. As the Japanese stormed the trench, Gurung used his left hand to wield his rifle, defeating 31 enemies and preventing the Japanese from advancing. Gurung survived his wounds and was awarded the Victoria Cross.
In 1949, the British selected former Gurkha soldiers for service in the Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force, which replaced the Sikh unit that existed before Japan’s occupation of Singapore. These police are well-trained and highly disciplined. They mainly perform as riot police and as an emergency reaction force. In Brunei, a Gurkha Reserve Unit serves as a special guard and elite shock force of around 500 men.
In 2008, Taliban insurgents ambushed a squad of Gurkhas, hitting Private Yubraj Rai. Captain Gajendera Angdembe and Riflemen Dhan Gurung and Manju Gurung carried Rai across 325 yards of open ground under heavy fire. The Gurkha leave no soldier behind – ever. In 2010, Acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun single-handedly fought off thirty Taliban soldiers. It took him an hour, but all the enemy lay dead in the end. Pun received the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.
The highest and most prestigious decoration in the British honors system is the Victoria Cross. The qualification for this decoration is exceptionally valorous conduct “in the presence of the enemy,” with posthumous awards authorized when appropriate. At one time, all member states of the British Empire participated in the British honors system, but since the beginning of the British Commonwealth of Nations, many such countries have devised their own honors system. The Australians, for example, created The Victoria Cross for Australia —which looks similar to the British Victoria Cross.
So far, British authorities have awarded 1,358 Victoria Crosses to 1,355 men. The greatest number of Victoria Crosses awarded for valorous conduct on a single day was 24 for individual actions on 16 November 1857 at Lucknow and Narnoul. The most medals awarded in a single conflict was 658 during World War I. There are five living holders of the VC: one RAF (World War II), three British Army (Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, Iraq War, and Afghanistan War), and one Australian Army (Vietnam War). Of the total awarded, 26 went to men serving with Gurkha regiments, 13 of whom were native Nepalese enlisted men. Britain’s second highest award “for acts of the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger, not in the presence of the enemy” is the George Cross. Gurkha enlisted men have earned two such medals.
Barber, N. War of the Running Dogs. London: Collins Press, 1971.
Barthorp, M. Afghan Wars, and the North-West Frontier, 1839-1947. Cassell Publishing, 2002.
Chauhan, S. V. The Way of Sacrifice: The Rajput. University of Toronto, 1996.
Cross, J. P. and Buddhiman Gurung. Gurkhas at War: Eyewitness Accounts from World War II to Iraq. Greenhill Books, 2002.
Masters, J. Bugles and a Tiger: Autobiography of the life and times of a British officer serving with the Gurkha Regiment in India in the run-up to World War II. Handley, 1956.
Parker, J. The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers. Headline Books, 2005.
Thompson, R. Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam. London, Praeger Publishing, 1966.
 Warren Hastings (1732-1818) served as governor of Bengal, head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, and along with Robert Clive, was responsible for the foundation of the British Empire in India. Hastings achieved this by siding with one ethnic group against another and then conquering both — which eventually expanded British influence over the entire subcontinent.
 Major General Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) was a Massachusetts-born EIC officer who eventually served as Ambassador in Residence in Delhi, India.
 The number of combat decorations issued to Gurkhas is significant because traditionally, the British military is niggardly in awarding them.
 A VCO lieutenant colonel was subordinate to a KCO second lieutenant.
 The company recruited on behalf of three separate “presidential armies”: Bombay, Madras, and Bengal.
 A social stratification characterized by heredity, occupation, ritual status, and customary social interactions and exclusions based on such cultural notions as purity and pollution. Although not confined to India, most people think of India when they think of caste systems. Dating back 3,000 years, the caste system divides Hindus into four main categories, and this is determined by what they were in their past life. These beliefs persist to the present day because they are deeply rooted in the Hindu religion.
 More recently, it was claimed that American PsyOps programs floated rumors among Muslims that American soldiers dipped their small-arms ammunition in pork fat before loading their magazines — thus guaranteeing that the shot Muslim would go to hell.
 Sikhism is a hybrid between Hindu and Islamic belief systems.
 Malayan communists based their strategy on the fanciful assumption that communist victory in China would in some way presage Mao Zedong’s liberation of the much-maligned Chinese ethnics in Southeast Asia. When the communists understood that a communist China gobbling up huge chunks of Southeast Asia was little more than madcap fantasy, the morale of Malayan killer gangs and jungle fighters collapsed. This stands in stark contrast to the Vietnam War, where the communists were ethnic Vietnamese whose singular purpose was the reunification of the nation under a communist flag.