Gurkha

Introduction

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.

Some Background

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.[1]  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.[2]  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.[3]  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.[4]  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.[5]  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.[6]  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.[7]  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.[8]  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.[9]

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.

Conclusion

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.

Sources:

  1. Barber, N.  War of the Running Dogs.  London: Collins Press, 1971.
  2. Barthorp, M.  Afghan Wars, and the North-West Frontier, 1839-1947.  Cassell Publishing, 2002.
  3. Chauhan, S. V.  The Way of Sacrifice: The Rajput.  University of Toronto, 1996.
  4. Cross, J. P. and Buddhiman Gurung.  Gurkhas at War: Eyewitness Accounts from World War II to Iraq.  Greenhill Books, 2002.
  5. 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.
  6. Parker, J.  The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers.  Headline Books, 2005.
  7. Thompson, R.  Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam.  London, Praeger Publishing, 1966.

Endnotes:

[1] 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.

[2] Major General Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) was a Massachusetts-born EIC officer who eventually served as Ambassador in Residence in Delhi, India.

[3] The number of combat decorations issued to Gurkhas is significant because traditionally, the British military is niggardly in awarding them. 

[4] A VCO lieutenant colonel was subordinate to a KCO second lieutenant. 

[5] The company recruited on behalf of three separate “presidential armies”: Bombay, Madras, and Bengal.

[6] 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. 

[7] 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.

[8] Sikhism is a hybrid between Hindu and Islamic belief systems.

[9] 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.


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Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

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