“Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you.” Sir Ralph Turner MC, 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles, 1931.
“Better to die than to live a coward”: That is the motto of the world-famous Nepalese Gurkha soldiers who are an integral part of the British Army. The Gurkhas have been part of the British Army since 1815, nearly 200 years. They still carry into battle their traditional weapon – an 18-inch long curved knife known as the ‘Khukuri’. In the past, it was said that once a Khukuri was drawn, it had to “taste blood” – if not, its owner had to cut himself before returning it to its sheath.
The potential of these warriors were first realised by the British at the height of their empire-building in the last century. The Victorians identified them as a “martial race”, perceiving in them particularly masculine qualities of toughness. After suffering heavy casualties in the invasion of Nepal, the British East India Company signed a hasty peace deal in 1815, which also allowed it to recruit from the ranks of the former enemy.
Following the partition of India in 1947, an agreement between Nepal, India and Britain meant four Gurkha regiments from the Indian army, 2nd Gurkha Rifles ( The Shirmoor Rifles), 6th Gurkha Rifles, 7th Gurkha Rifles and the 10th Gurkha Rifles were transferred to the British Army, eventually becoming the Brigade of Gurkhas ( The Royal Gurkha Rifles, 1st and 2nd Battalion.) Since then, the Brigade of Gurkhas have loyally fought for the British all over the world, receiving 13 Victoria Crosses between them.
More than 200,000 fought in the two world wars, and in the past 50 years they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. They serve in a variety of roles, mainly in the infantry but with significant numbers of engineers, logisticians and signals specialists.
The majority of the early Gurkhas were from the Thakuri / Rajput (which includes the Malla / Shah and Rana dynasty of Nepal), Chhetri and Brahmin ethnic groups, whereas the modern Gurkha soldiers are also from the Limbu, Rai, Gurung, Magar and other ethnic groups. They joined the Gurkhas during the 17th century expansion of the Modern Kingdom of Nepal under the leadership of Greater King Prithvi Narayan Shah. This combination of warriors from different ethnic groups made the Gurkhas a dominant military force in the history of the Indian subcontinent since the 18th century.
The name “Gurkha” comes from the hill town of Gorkha, a western part of Nepal from which the Nepalese Kingdom had expanded. The number of Gurkhas have been sharply reduced from a World War II peak of 112,000 men, and now stand at about 3,500. During the two world wars 43,000 men lost their lives.
The soldiers are still selected from young men living in the hills of Nepal – with more than 28,000 youths tackling the selection procedure for just over 200 places each year.
The selection process has been described as one of the toughest in the world and is fiercely contested. Young hopefuls have to run uphill for 40 minutes carrying a wicker basket on their back filled with rocks weighing 70lbs.