The Gurhkas

Inscription on Gurkha memorial

Professor Sir Ralph Turner, MC, who served with the 3rd Queen Alexandra's Own Gurkha Rifles in the First World War, wrote of the Gurkhas:

"As I write these last words, my thoughts return to you who were my comrades, the stubborn and indomitable peasants of Nepal.

Once more I hear the laughter with which you greeted every hardship. Once more I see you in your bivouacs or about your fires, on forced march or in the trenches, now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by a pitiless and burning sun.

Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds; and at the last your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle.

Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you."

The Beginning - Gurkhas, Nepal and the East India Company

Traditional Gurkha Kukri knife

Gurkhas served as troops under contract to the East India Company in the Pindaree War of 1817, in Bharatpur in 1826 and the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars in 1846 and 1848.

During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Gurkhas fought on the British side, and became part of the British Indian Army on its formation. The 8th (Sirmoor) Local Battalion made a particularly notable contribution during the conflict, and indeed twenty-five Indian Order of Merit awards were made to men from that regiment during the Siege of Delhi. Three days after the mutiny began, the Sirmoor Battalion were ordered to move to Meerut, where the British garrison was barely holding on, and in doing so they had to march up to 48 kilometres a day. Later, during the four month Siege of Delhi they defended Hindu Rao's house, losing 327 out of 490 men. During this action they fought side by side with the 60th Rifles and a strong bond developed. Twelve regiments from the Nepalese Army also took part in the relief of Lucknow.

After the rebellion the 60th Rifles pressed for the Sirmoor Battalion to become a rifle regiment. This honour was granted then next year (1858) when the Battalion was renamed the Sirmoor Rifle Regiment.

From the end of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 until the start of the First World War the Gurkha Regiments saw active service in Burma, Afghanistan, the North-East Frontier and the North-West Frontiers of India, Malta (the Russo-Turkish War, 1877–78), Cyprus, Malaya, China (the Boxer Rebellion of 1900) and Tibet (Younghusband's Expedition of 1905).

The First World War

Gurkha soldiers drilling in the British Army circa 1920/1930

During World War I (1914-18), more than 200,000 Gurkhas served in the British Army. They suffered approximately 20,000 casualties, and received almost 2,000 gallantry awards.

They served on the battlefields of France, in Mesopotamia, Persia, at the Suez Canal and Palestine against Turkish advance, Gallipoli and Salonika.

 

The Second World War

Over 40 Gurkha Batallions were in British Service during the 2nd World war: 250,000 Gurkhas, in almost all theatres. In addition to keeping peace in India, Gurkhas fought in Syria, North Africa, Italy, Greece and against the Japanese in the jungles of Burma, northeast India and also Singapore. They did so with considerable distinction, earning 2,734 bravery awards in the process and suffering around 32,000 casualties.

Second World War to Date

Following the independence of India, four Gurkha regiments joined the British Army on January 1, 1948:

  • 2nd King Edward VII's Own Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles)
  • 6th Queen Elizabeth's Own Gurkha Rifles
  • 7th Duke of Edinburgh's Own Gurkha Rifles
  • 10th Princess Mary's Own Gurkha Rifles

 

They formed the Brigade of Gurkhas and were initially stationed in Malaya. There were also a number of additional Gurkha regiments including the 69th Gurkha Field Squadron and the 70th Gurkha Field Support Squadron, both of which were included in the 36th Engineer Regiment. Since then, British Gurkhas have served in Borneo during the confrontation with Indonesia, in the Falklands conflict, and on various peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone, East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as seeing service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gurkha soldiers drilling

Prior to 1997 the Brigade's focus was in the Far East but following the handover of Hong Kong it moved to the UK which is now its base. The Brigade still maintains a battalion in Brunei and plays a full part in the British Army's operational deployments worldwide - currently, in particular, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans.

The major units of the Brigade today are The Royal Gurkha Rifles (two battalions, based in Folkestone, Kent, and Brunei), The Queen's Gurkha Engineers, Queen's Gurkha Signals, and The Queen's Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment. In addition there are two independent companies - Gurkha Company (Sittang) at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and Gurkha Company (Mandalay) at the Infantry Battle School, Brecon.

The Gurkha Company at the Infantry Training Centre Catterick, meanwhile, trains the recruits who pass the demanding selection procedure - as an example, in a recent year, of 28,000 applicants applying to join the Royal Gurkha Rifles, only 230 soldiers were enlisted.

Settling in the UK

Historically, Gurkhas who had served their time in the Army - a maximum of 30 years, and a minimum of 15 to secure a pension - were discharged back to Nepal.

Joanna Lumley campaigned for the Gurkha Justice Campaign

Having had a permanent base in the UK since 1997 following the handover of Hong Kong, in 2004 the Government announced following a campaign led by fomer Gurkhas and activists that Gurkhas that retired after 1997 would have the right to settle in the UK. Those that retired before 1997 were denied that right, which led to the formation of the Gurkha Justice Campaign to work for the settlement rights of all ex-Gurkhas, regardless of retirement date.

That high-profile campaign was led by actress Joanna Lumley, whose father served with the 6th Gurkha Rifles, and organised by campaigners including Peter Carroll and Dhan Gurung gained the support of the Liberal Democrats, Conservative Party and others. In 2009 the Government announced that all Gurkha veterans who retired before 1997 with at least four years' service are now allowed to settle in the UK.

Sources:

MOD Brigade of Gurkhas website

Wikipedia

Gurkha Justice Campaign