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Valour: A History of the Gurkhas

Valour: A History of the Gurkhas

by E. D. Smith, E. D. Smith

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The first Gurkha regiments were formed during the short and bloody Anglo-Nepali War (1814-15), when Nepalese troops surrendering to the British Indian army at the Battle of Malaun were recruited to fight for their captors. The Gurkhas have been staunch friends in every war fought by Great Britain and they have proved to be an unusually effective fighting force: In


The first Gurkha regiments were formed during the short and bloody Anglo-Nepali War (1814-15), when Nepalese troops surrendering to the British Indian army at the Battle of Malaun were recruited to fight for their captors. The Gurkhas have been staunch friends in every war fought by Great Britain and they have proved to be an unusually effective fighting force: In the Second World War, nearly a quarter of a million came down from the hills of Nepal to fight against Germany and Japan -- each and every one being a volunteer -- and throughout the 19th century and onto the Falklands campaign in 1982, the Gurkha regiments were continually used to support British colonial interests. Their renown in battle earned the respect of friend and foe; their valor has won countless decorations for gallantry, including thirteen Victoria Crosses.

Drawing on a wide range of photographs, many never before seen in print, Valor showcases the remarkable history of the distinguished Gurkha regiments. Covering the Indian Mutiny, the Afghan Wars, and two World Wars to the post-war "emergency" in Malaya, the "Confrontation" with Indonesia in Borneo and their subsequent service in the U.K., Cyprus, on the Sino-Hong Kong border and the Falklands War, this first complete history of the legendary soldiers from Nepal willthrill and fascinate all students of military history.

Editorial Reviews

A military history of the Gurkha regiments which served in the British army from the Anglo-Nepali War (1814-1815) through the Falklands War (1982) up to the present time. Authored by a decorated former Gurkha officer, the volume draws on a wide range of black and white photographs to tell the story of how the Gurkhas won great renown fighting the enemies of the Empire Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

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A History of the Gurkhas

By E.D. Smith

The History Press

Copyright © 2007 E.D. Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-8167-5



Nepal lies between the great alluvial plains of India and the cold, wind-seared tablelands of Tibet. On a map of the world, the small country is sandwiched between giant neighbours, India and China, something that the Nepalese have learnt to live with over the years. It is a land of great beauty, of high mountains and mighty rivers, a land that is crisscrossed by mountain tracks where generations of hillmen have moved over centuries past as traders, farmers or to tend flocks on high pastures. Truly the borne of the Gurkha warriors is a mountain kingdom.

With thousands of tourists now pouring into Nepal by land and air each year, it is difficult to imagine what the country was like in years gone by. Ever since the East India Company came into contact with the mountain kingdom 200 years ago, and until the late 1940s, when India was given her independence, the Nepalese Government saw to it that except for the tiny handful who were invited, from time to time, by the Court, foreigners were excluded from the country. The movements of those favoured few were confined to the Valley of Nepal and only on very special occasions was permission given them to travel elsewhere in the country. Nepal was a forbidden country as far as foreigners were concerned, even more inaccessible than its neighbour, Tibet, was at the time. The exclusion of Europeans was not only insisted upon by the Gurkha state but also by the British Government of India, in deference to Nepalese feelings and in order that the country should not suffer prematurely from contact with 'modern civilisation'. Backward and primitive though the country was up to the end of the Second World War, most of the inhabitants living in the mountains were content with their simple circumstances and respected their rulers, the Maharajah and his Rana relatives, and knowing no other existence outside their country, there was no great desire for change.

There were no roads, no airports, while frontier posts existed to deter intruders rather than to welcome tourists into the country. But in 1947, with events moving with such speed in India as it gained its independence, inevitably there were bound to be repercussions in the little country of Nepal. The Indian-based Nepalese National Congress sponsored armed insurgents across the frontier from India and there were political strikes in the Terai, particularly at the mills of Biratnagar. Under pressure the Maharajah (who was also Prime Minister) in Kathmandu promised to introduce a measure of democracy but on all important matters decisions were still to be left in his hands. Moreover, the rights of the ruling Rana family to succession in the premiership were declared to be unalterable and inalienable for all time. In addition, although there was to be a National Chamber of sixty to seventy members, twenty-eight of these were to be nominated by the Maharajah who still retained power to veto any question or proposal made in the legislature which, in his opinion, was not in the public interest. Shortly afterwards, there were more riots and open unrest but it is fair to say that the hillmen in East Nepal, the Rais and Limbus, and the Magars and Gurungs in West Nepal, still continued their normal lives, untouched by the simmering political climate that was coming to the boil in Kathmandu and in the Terai Plain which runs along the border with India.

The main tribes of the hillmen tended to live in their own areas in the mountains of Nepal: there was little mixing and intermarrying between tribes was rare. To reach villages meant walking along winding tracks, up ridges and down to steep valleys, over frighteningly slender bridges swaying above ice-cold roaring rivers: these tracks were the hill folk's lifeline and many were the songs sung about them as porters toiled up the hillside or as relaxation when the day's walking was over. Without roads, everyone and everything had to go up and down these tracks.

The hill people have bodies that could endure the backbreaking loads that had to be carried by all, including women and children as well as young boys and old men. Nature made the Gurkha villagers short and stocky, with thigh and leg muscles exaggerated in size and shape. Added to their physique there was a simple and strong sense of humour, deep pride in race, village and family; a people that asked little but the right to cultivate their little plot of land, build their own house and, when the work was done, to enjoy the occasional village party. Such a hardy and independent people remained masters in their own villages and sent thousands of first-class soldiers to the many parts of the world visited by the British and Indian Armies. Advisedly the past tense has been used but much of that description of life in the hills remains true today, albeit with certain modifications.

Although Nepal remained in virtual isolation from world forces until the end of the 1940s, the country's rulers had seen portents of the future and began taking belated steps to liberalise their regime. In 1948 the Constitution Act was promulgated by the Maharajah which envisaged a form of government such as India had earlier in the century, with a Legislature and Council of Ministers, consisting of a mixture of nominated and elected members. The latter were to be returned by a system of indirect election, based primarily upon village and town 'panchayats' (councils of elders). The Maharajah, Padma Shamsher, in the eyes of his fellow Ranas was moving too fast; they pointed out that in the hills life went on as usual, as in some respects it does to this day. At that time the majority of the simple hillmen were not persuaded by the blessings of self-government and shared little enthusiasm for exercising their franchise, still less for standing for election. But Padma was not strong enough to cope with affairs and in April 1948 he retired voluntarily. Political agitation in Kathmandu contrived to keep the Valley in turmoil, with the police being used on several occasions to break up gatherings, while decrees were issued banning the pro-Congress Party as well as imposing a stringent censorship on the press. From years past there had always been a struggle between the King and his Maharajah, and now this was exploited by ambitious politicians. The Indian press played a big part and actively supported any movement opposed to the Rana regime. Towards the end of 1950 the Nepal border was crossed at nine points by the forces of the Indian-inspired Nepal Congress Party, and a few days later, India's Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, admitted that his government wanted progressive democracy in Nepal, adding that he officially recognised King Tribhuvana as the supreme authority in that land.

For a time there was no large or significant uprising in the Valley of Nepal, while the hillmen in West Nepal remained unruffled and quiet. However, in the east – where the quicker-tempered Limbus and Rais live – there were widespread outbreaks of violence and within a few weeks many of the main centres in East Nepal had been taken over by rebel forces. King Tribhuvana took matters into his own hands in February 1950 by proclaiming the termination of the hereditary premiership and transferring most of the Maharajah's powers to himself. In December 1951 the last Maharajah retired to live in south India: his departure marked the end of Gurkha political supremacy in Nepal and heralded the final twilight of the Ranas.

Tribhuvana's son, King Mahendra Bir Bikram Sah was crowned in May 1956 and until his death in 1972 he attempted to keep the panchayat system in being as he felt it was ideal for a backward country like Nepal. At least that method of government had the advantage of stopping the quarrelling among the politicians, but it allowed virtually no political expression as only people who actively supported the system were allowed to stand for election. In several places, it was corrupt, with local panchayats working the system to their own advantage. When Mahendra's son, Birendra Bir Sah Dev, took over in 1972, like his father the new King affirmed his belief in the panchayat system but beneath the surface there were strong undercurrents which could not be suppressed for ever. In 1979 these came to the fore when serious riots erupted in Kathmandu involving clashes between students and the police; eventually the police lost control of the situation and order had to be restored by the Nepalese Army.

That was enough to spark the King into action and he announced that there would be a nationwide referendum to determine whether the citizens of Nepal wished to continue the existing system of government – under which party politics were forbidden – or to replace it with a multiparty system. The referendum showed that the panchayat system had won, with most of the rural areas clearly in favour while the towns, in general, voted for a party-political system. However, this referendum gained a short respite only and eventually in 1982 elections were held on political lines, with the King losing much of his power, although he was still regarded by many as a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. This factor alone ensures a measure of support for him, particularly in the mountain villages. The present political set up is involved and is constantly changing; suffice it to say that multi-party democracy has made an understandably faltering start in a country that, inevitably, is still backward.

Nepal is now open to the world, and tourism in 1997 brought in some £30 million a year into the kingdom. However, it must be remembered that a large portion of that sum is spent on importing luxury goods, foods and other items required to support an international tourist industry. Commendable strides have been made in education and in communications, the two major factors which in the past had helped to keep the country in the dark ages under the Rana regime. Foreign aid has poured in from donor countries and international organisations and is by far the greatest source of foreign currency. Nepal is a staunch member of the non-aligned group in the United Nations and is at pains to be friendly with all states but, inevitably, her greatest preoccupation must be with her big neighbours, India and China. Her policy is to be on good terms with both, although on several occasions since the Second World War relations with India have not been smooth, chiefly because there has been a tendency on the Government of India's part to play the big brother and wield a heavy stick. Nepal's landlocked position means that the bulk of her imports and exports have to pass overland through India; her giant neighbour is always in the position to strangle her economically, a hard fact of life which does not help to establish a cordial relationship between the two countries.

Outside the world of politics there are other major problems to resolve. Nepal's population since 1958 has grown from just under 8.5 million to somewhere in the region of 19 million. With the improved communications, there has been a mass exodus from the hills down to the Kathmandu Valley, to the Plain of Pokhara in the west, and to the Terai in the south. In 1954, 71 per cent of the population were living in the hill regions, now it is only about 40 per cent. Many of the shanty towns in the Terai are dirty, dilapidated and unhygienic so that, at first, it is difficult to understand why so many people have abandoned the tidy hill villages and the cool, clean air of the mountains. However; life in the hills is burdensome with no modern facilities on the spot. Precious loads of water have to be carried in pitchers and buckets from springs up to the houses, just one of the many tiresome chores that women have to perform throughout the year. Cooking is done on firewood and the houses have to be heated in the same way during the winter months. This means a daily trek to the nearest copses and lone trees around the villages which inevitably has led to serious deforestation in many parts of the hills. In the monsoon the deluge causes landslides and turns rivers into raging torrents. Life in the hills is no fun for the old, the infirm, or the badly disabled, although these unfortunates are given as much help as possible by relatives and neighbours.

It is not altogether surprising that many hill people turn their backs on their old homes to seek easier conditions down in the Terai or in Kathmandu itself. Instead of backbreaking climbs for the women carrying heavy loads of water and firewood, piped water of a sort is usually available in the shanty towns along the Terai. The children can go to school by bus instead of meandering over mountain tracks, often walking for up to two hours each way. The surroundings may be more sordid but life is generally less stressful, especially for the women. Moreover, there are a handful of hospitals that can be reached by bus or taxi, instead of a sick person being carried by a porter in a huge basket on his back, over hill tracks during the rains, journeys that can be both dangerous and frightening. The exodus from the hills increases every year and the extensive roads which have been constructed by foreign countries – India, China, the USA and the UK – undoubtedly have sped up the process rather than inducing the hill tribes to stay put. The Nepal of today, with its thousands of tourists, its expanding roads and shanty towns and, most alarming of all, its ever-increasing population, has changed dramatically since the British and the Nepalese fought their war, way back in 1815.

When Nepal was a country forbidden to foreigners, British officers never saw the fields or mountains, the villages or their inhabitants, so that recruiting had to be carried out in a special way. Once permission had been given for Gurkhas to serve the East India Company and, eventually the Indian Army under British rule, up to the time of the Great Mutiny of 1857 no recruiting party was allowed to enter Nepal. As a consequence, recruiters had to haunt the border villages in the hope of enticing young men who, as porters, had carried loads down to India's plains, into enlisting. A favourite time and place was a country fair where drink and other unaccustomed luxuries persuaded the hill youths to seek fame and fortune with 'John Company'. Recruiters roamed far and wide in their search for likely lads, going to places where Gurkha families had resided after Nepal had spread beyond its borders in the eighteenth century. However, the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny led to much friendlier relations between those in authority in Kathmandu and the British Government of India, so that in the 1860s the military cantonment of Gorakahpore, conveniently near the Nepalese border, became the official centre for wouldbe recruits. From there, appointed recruiters, all of whom were ex-Gurkha soldiers, were allowed to return to their own villages and surrounding districts and shepherd volunteers down to Gorakahpore, journeys that could take several days, and on occasions, even weeks to accomplish. This system continued until the Rana regime collapsed after the Second World War, thus heralding the end of Nepal's isolation when the doors were opened to tourists. Thereafter in 1957 Great Britain was allowed to establish recruiting depots on Nepalese soil, 140 years after the first Gurkha soldiers began serving the British Crown.



The concept of Nepal as a nation is a comparatively recent one: the state which developed until today came into being under the vigorous leadership of Prithwi Narain of Gorkha, founder of the Gorkha nation. Before he died in 1774 Prithwi Narain had laid the foundations of the present nation. His successors continued his policy and a period of rapid expansion followed but, as has happened to other countries in modern times, the Nepalese overreached themselves. Using the highly efficient war machine created by Prithwi Narain, they conquered Sikkim, including Darjeeling, and parts of Tibet to the east as well as Garhwal and Kumaon in the west. Further incursions were made into the Dogra country around the fertile Kangra Valley. It was not long before the intruders began to come into conflict with the British Honourable East India Company; moreover, the boundary between the territories of Nepal and those of the Company was ill-defined, which tempted the Nepalese into exploiting the situation by seizing villages, as well as committing other crimes. Meanwhile, in Kathmandu, there was divided counsel about what to do with the East India Company, now on Nepal's borders. Prime Minister and Maharajah Bhim Sen Thapa was a fire-eating advocate of expansion who failed to understand the power of the British. Addressing his young Rajah (King) in Kathmandu, he declared:

How will the British be able to penetrate into our hills? The small fort of Bhurtpore was the work of man, yet the English, being worsted before it, desisted from the attempt to conquer it. Our hills and fastnesses are formed by the hand of God and are impregnable.


Excerpted from Valour by E.D. Smith. Copyright © 2007 E.D. Smith. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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