This year marks 200 years of Gurkha service to the British Crown. These remarkable soldiers, in their hundreds of thousands, have made a dignified and distinguished contribution to the British Army. In doing so, many have given their lives.
It was during the Anglo-Nepal War in 1814 that the Honourable East India Companyfirst encountered enemy soldiers from the Kingdom of Gorkha, in the Himalayan foothills. In the stalemate that ensued there was an abiding sense of mutual respect and admiration. The British sought a truce that enabled these “Gorkhas”, with their charm and indomitable fighting spirit, to be recruited into militias to serve the “John Company”.
The Second Regiment to be formed, the Sirmoor Rifles, has just celebrated its bicentennial at the British Camp in Pokhara, not very far from the town of Gorkha, the former capital. Three thousand members of the regimental family took part. The oldest man on parade, Cpl Lalbahadur Gurung, was 101 years old, having enlisted into 2nd Gurkha Rifles in 1940. The Gurkha soldier has come to define the close relationship between the Republic of Nepal and the United Kingdom.
Every autumn nowadays, the gullah wallahs – the local recruiters – tour the hillside villages of Nepal to seek young men for the British Gurkha regiments. Typically, 6,000 men will apply to be one of the 200-300 recruits to be taken each year to Catterick Camp in Yorkshire. After a year’s induction training, they will become soldiers in the Brigade of Gurkhas, which comprises about 3 per cent of our Army. Although larger numbers of Nepalis will join the Indian Army and the Nepal Army, the British Army offers the career of first choice for the Gurkha recruits.
The competition to become a British Gurkha recruit is fierce, and the academic and physical tests are extremely demanding. The few who succeed earn great honour for their families and their villages. They also enjoy life-changing opportunities: they are guaranteed a minimum of 12 years service in the British Army and some will become sergeants, then officers, and serve for up to 30 years. Like their British counterparts, they will learn the Army’s values and standards, gain invaluable trade skills, and progressively develop their command and leadership capabilities. They will acquire a new family within their chosen regiments and benefit from the opportunity, challenge, sense of achievement and camaraderie offered by the Army.
None of this is new. For two centuries our Gurkha regiments have given staunch service with exceptional loyalty and valour, and they have been well rewarded. Until 1947 they were based in India for the most part, where they played a decisive role in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and on the North West Frontier. They also fought in China, Tibet and Malta.
• Read our obituaries recounting the extraordinary heroism of five Gurkha Victoria Cross winners
Many more Gurkhas were recruited for the two world wars. The Great War called them to the Western Front in France, to Gallipoli and to Mesopotamia. The Second World War saw them in North Africa, in Sicily and in Italy with the Eighth Army, as well as in Singapore and Burma with Field Marshal Slim’s Fourteenth Army, which turned defeat by the Japanese in Singapore into victory in Burma and Malaya. Slim himself was a Gurkha officer.
After Partition in India in 1947, the Gurkha regiments were divided between the Indian and British Armies. The British regiments (2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles) were employed primarily in the Far East for the next half-century, serving in Malaya throughout the Emergency, in Singapore, in Hong Kong, in Borneo and in Brunei. Gurkha engineer, signals and logistic regiments were raised to complement and support the infantry. More recently, Gurkha regiments have served in the Falklands War, in the Balkans, and in both Gulf wars.
Operational gallantry has been a hallmark of their service. To date, honours for valour in Gurkha regiments are even between the soldiers and their British officers at 13 Victoria Crosses apiece. In addition Sergeant Dipprasad Pun, a third generation Gurkha, won the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, just short of a VC, in 2010. He single-handedly repelled a major Taliban attack against his checkpoint in Afghanistan. Having expended all his ammunition he despatched the final attacker with the butt of his machine gun.
Today the regiments of the Brigade of Gurkhas are spread between the British garrison in Brunei and UK. They continue to play a full part in the Army’s operational and peacetime commitments.
The survivors from those Gurkhas recruited to serve in both World Wars returned to home to Nepal after a few years’ service. Like their British and Commonwealth counterparts they did so without a pension. As well as experiencing the horrors of war, they had witnessed the opportunities of the modern world. Adjusting to subsistence farming back in their remote villages proved difficult. For some it was impossible. Many faltered and became destitute.
When Nepal opened its borders to foreigners in 1955 the plight of these men became apparent to their former British officers. This, coupled with the significant reduction in Gurkha strength following the Borneo campaign, triggered the establishment of The Gurkha Welfare Trust in 1969. From a network of centres across the country the Trust delivers welfare and medical support. Pensions are paid from a charitable fund, which relies heavily on the generosity of the British public. There are still 6,700 veterans or their widows, with an average age of 78, who depend on the welfare pension to live out their later years with dignity. Many of those are veterans of the Second World War who fought in battles from Monte Cassino to Mandalay. They gave their all in our times of need, and we owe them our fullest support.
Modern terms of service for Gurkhas are identical to British ones. On retirement, they now have the option of British citizenship. This is fitting recognition of the immense contribution these cheerful, determined, resilient men make to the British Army. We can be sure that they will continue to serve wherever we need them, and do whatever is asked of them.
General Sir Peter Wall is chairman of the Gurkha Welfare Trust.