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The Gurkhas

8 min read

An early depiction of Gurkhas by James Baillie Fraser, 1815

Background

In 1814-16, the British East India Company fought a war against the powerful city-state of Gorkha in what is now western Nepal. Although victorious, the British were greatly impressed by the fighting qualities of their Gurkha opponents.

Under the terms of the subsequent peace treaty, large numbers of Gurkhas were permitted to volunteer for service in the Company's army. In the years that followed, they proved to be among the finest soldiers in what became the British Indian Army.

Gurkha kukri, c1814

'Their soldiers are stout, thick, well built men, in general; very active and strong for their size. They understand the use of the tulwar or sabre, and prefer close fighting, giving an onset with a loud shout: each man wears, besides his sword, a crooked, long, heavy knife, called “cookree” [kukri], which may be used in war, but is also of the greatest use in all common operations, when a knife or a hatchet is needed.'

James Baillie Fraser - 1815

Attack on the Peiwar Kotal by the 5th Gurkha Rifles, 1878

Wars in India

The Gurkhas' reputation for bravery and steadfast loyalty was enhanced during the Sikh Wars (1845-46 and 1848-49) and the Indian Mutiny (1857-59).

By the time of the Second Afghan War (1878-80), such was the fighting prowess of Gurkha regiments that they were among the first selected by the British whenever there was a crisis on the North-West Frontier or elsewhere in their Indian Empire.

Gurkhas assaulting a Sikh position, 1845

The Nusseree Battalion, 1857

The Gurkhas consist of several different ethnic groups, clans and tribes including the Khas (or Chetri), a high-caste Hindu group. Others include the Gurung, Magars, Limbus, Tamang and Rais. Most Gurkhas are either Hindu or Buddhist.

Jemadar Jangia Thapa, 5th Gurkha Regiment, 1890

Jemadar Jangia Thapa aka ‘Bullets’

Jemadar Jangia Thapa was one of Major-General Frederick Roberts' orderlies during the Second Afghan War (1878-80). He was nicknamed 'Bullets' because he was once hit on the forehead by a spent bullet that completely flattened without causing him the least discomfort.

Thapa was admitted to the Second Class of the Order of British India in April 1897. He was selected as one of the representatives for India at the inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth in January 1901.

1st Battalion, 3rd Queen Alexandra's Own Gurkha Rifles, Waziristan, 1936

First World War

Around 100,000 Gurkhas fought in the First World War (1914-18). Gurkha battalions served at Neuve Chapelle, Loos, Givenchy and Ypres on the Western Front, as well as in Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine and Gallipoli against the Turks.

Gurkha regiments received hundreds of gallantry awards, including three Victoria Crosses. They also suffered over 20,000 casualties.

Between the World Wars, the regiment received battle honours for the Third Afghan War in 1919, and a further two for service on the North-West Frontier (1930 and 1936-39).

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

Captain Ralph Turner, 3rd Queen Alexandra's Own Gurkha Rifles - 1931

Gurkhas inspect captured Japanese ordnance during the Imphal-Kohima battle, 1944

Second World War

During the Second World War (1939-45), more than 110,000 men served in 40 Gurkha battalions in the Western Desert, Italy, Greece, Malaya, Singapore and Burma. Nearly 30,000 of them were killed or wounded.

In 1948, the year after Indian independence, four Gurkha rifle regiments were transferred to the British Army and six others were allocated to the new Indian Army.

The units that continued in British service were the 2nd King Edward VII's Own Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles), the 6th Gurkha Rifles, the 7th Gurkha Rifles and the 10th Gurkha Rifles. Together, they formed the Brigade of Gurkhas, along with newly raised engineering, signalling and transport units.

Gurkhas being briefed before a patrol at the British Sovereign Base of Dhekelia, Cyprus, 1974

Post-war operations

The Brigade of Gurkhas was stationed in Malaya during the Emergency there (1948-60) and then took part in the Indonesian Confrontation (1962-66). After that conflict, Gurkha headquarters transferred from Malaya to Hong Kong, where the Brigade performed security duties until the end of British rule in 1997.

Since then, a much-reduced Brigade has been based in Britain. Prior to leaving the Far East, Gurkhas served in Cyprus (1974), the Falklands War (1982) and the Gulf War (1990-91).

In 1994, the four rifle regiments were merged into one, the Royal Gurkha Rifles. In recent years, the regiment has seen service in Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Iraq. In Afghanistan, they helped to contain the opium trade and establish security after the overthrow of the Taleban government in 2001.

South Atlantic Medal 1982 awarded to Rifleman Ombhakta Gurung, 1st Battalion, 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles

Men of 1st Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles, digging defensive positions on the shore of San Carlos Bay, Falkland Islands, 1982

Members of 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, Helmand, Afghanistan, 2006

Settlement

Originally, the only Gurkhas veterans allowed to remain in the UK were those who had retired since the Brigade headquarters moved to England in 1997.

In May 2009, after a long campaign supported by Dame Joanna Lumley and other advocates, around 36,000 members of the regiment who had retired before 1997 won the right to settle in Britain with their spouses and children.

Joanna Lumley campaigning for Gurkha rights in 2008, via Liberal Democrats on Flickr

Joanna Lumley campaigning for Gurkha rights in 2008

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