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Books on Gurkhas

Valor: A History of the Gurkhas
E.D. Smith

The Gurkhas
Byron Farwell

With the Gurkhas in the Faulklands
Mike Seear

Britain's Gurkhas
Christopher Bullock

Gurkhas at War: Eyewitness Accounts from WWII to Iraq
J.P. Cross; Buddhiman Gurung

The Gurkhas
John Parker

Comes the Thunder: The Gurkhas

In Nepal, a country where a citizen’s average annual income currently hovers around 500 dollars, it may seem little wonder that tens of thousands of men vie every year for the chance to become soldiers in a special unit of the British army, where the salary for new recruits is about $22,000.  Yet money is not the sole motive for these young men; the opportunity to share in their ancestors’ legendary legacy of courage and honor is arguably a stronger incentive.  These elite Nepalese fighters are known as Gurkhas (also spelled Gorkhas, Ghoorkhas or Ghurkas), after the town of Gorkha from which the Kingdom of Nepal originated.  This town in turn was named for Gorakshanath, a Hindu warrior-saint whose disciples’ descendents are said to have founded the town upon leaving India.  Ever since they were first encountered as foes by the same British army that they would later serve, Gurkhas have earned a world-famous reputation for fierce fighting, honorable conduct, and near superhuman bravery.

The Gurkha battle cry is "Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali" ("Glory to the Goddess of War, here come the Gorkhas!”), and their motto is “better to die than live a coward”.  Several theories have been advanced regarding what makes the Gurkhas such superb soldiers.  Their descent from martial tribes, natural infantry skills developed in their homeland’s rugged terrain, and the communal cooperation integral to their culture are likely all major factors in the Gurkhas’ success.  Hailing from relatively primitive conditions also gives them unique insight to their enemies in poor or remote locations.  Other frequently cited Gurkha traits include good natured humor, patience, politeness and respect for others.  Besides these intangible trademarks, Gurkhas can also be recognized by their hats or berets which always tilt down over the right ear, and by their traditional kukri knives usually carried in a scabbard at the hip or behind the back.  The heavy curve-bladed kukri has been used for centuries in Nepal as a weapon, utility knife, and ceremonial object.  Two crossed kukris are still the symbol of the Gurkha soldier. 

Gurkhas first came into contact with British troops after England colonized India and conflicts arose along its border with Nepal.  Even as they fought the Gurkhas, England’s East India Company soldiers were awed by their courageous conduct and military skills; so much so that they later asked the Gurkhas to voluntarily join their own ranks.  Ever since then, Gurkhas have served Britain’s interests in every major conflict with which the country has been involved, and also as a special police force in Singapore.  In the early days, Gurkhas were assigned to regiments of the Indian army, and then became low-paid mercenaries for England.  Gradually their standing in the British army improved, though it is only lately and after much struggle that they have finally been granted the full rights and benefits afforded all UK soldiers.  Another relatively recent development was the approval for Nepalese women to join the Gurkhas’ ranks, which is perhaps a greater achievement even than for the men, considering that many girls in Nepal have historically lacked the opportunity for formal education and often were required to enter arranged marriages at young ages.

However, much remains traditional within Gurkha culture.  Soldiers are still recruited from Nepal by retired Gurkhas called Gallawallahs, who search the remote villages for suitable youngsters to try out for the prestigious force.  Potential recruits have to endure a series of grueling trials, beginning with simple health inspections, followed by physical and mental fitness tests, and culminating in the famous Doko race.  This is a 3-mile run up a steep mountain, hauling a 75-pound basket of rocks that is held on the competitor’s back by a strap around the forehead.  The race must be completed within 48 minutes.  At each stage of the yearly trials, anywhere from 11,000 to 25,000 hopeful soldiers are gradually eliminated until only about 250 finally succeed and are accepted as official trainees.  This stiff competition is part of the reason it’s considered such an honor to be a Gurkha, and some aspirants take their goal so seriously that there have been reports of attempted suicide upon rejection.  Gurkha service is often carried on by generations of the same families, who proudly display photos of their Gurkha members outside their homes.

Family farewell ceremonies to see new recruits off to Britain involve hanging flower lei-like marlas and silk scarves around their necks and dabbing rice on their foreheads, as respectful blessings and for good luck.Other traditional practices among Gurkha soldiers include almost ritualistic care and sharpening of their kukri knives, observance of Nepalese and Hindu holidays and festivals, and speaking their own language amongst themselves.  In fact, commanders of Gurkha units, who are often Caucasian officers, are required to learn Nepalese and receive training in that country’s cultural customs.  Conversely, army training improves the Gurkhas’ existing basic English skills and introduces them to British culture.  Although honoring traditions is important to the Gurkhas, they are trained to use the same cutting-edge military equipment and techniques as any modern soldier, and have proven themselves expert marksmen and stealth fighters. 

With nearly 200 years of faithful service to the British crown, Gurkhas have earned multiple military awards and decorations, including the highest honors of the Victoria Cross and Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.  Following are just a few of their stories, as detailed on the official British Army website (Honours and Awards):

            Rifleman Kulbir Thapa, 3rd Gurkha Rifles, France - 25/26th September 1915 

"For most conspicuous bravery during operations against the German trenches, south of Mauquissart.  When himself wounded, on the 25th September 1915, he found a badly wounded soldier of the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment behind the first line German trench, and, though urged by the British soldier to save himself, he remained with him all day and night.  In the early morning of 26th September, in misty weather, he brought him out through the German wire, and, leaving him in a place of comparative safety, returned and brought in two wounded Gurkhas one after the other.  He then went back in broad daylight for the British soldier and brought him in also, carrying him most of the way and being at most points under enemy's fire".


          Rifleman Ganju Lama MM, 7th Gurkha Rifles, Burma - 23rd June 1944 

"...the enemy put down an intense artillery barrage lasting an hour on our positions north of the village of Ningthoukhong.  This heavy artillery fire knocked out several bunkers and caused heavy casualties, and was immediately followed by a very strong enemy attack supported by five medium tanks.  After fierce hand to hand fighting, the perimeter was driven in in one place and the enemy infantry, supported by three medium tanks, broke through, pinning our troops to the ground with intense fire.

"B" Company, 7th Gurkha Rifles, was ordered to counter-attack and restore the situation.  Shortly after passing the starting line it came under heavy enemy medium machine-gun and tank machine-gun fire at point blank range, which covered all lines of approach.  Rifleman Ganju Lama, the No. 1 of the P.I.A.T. gun, on his own initiative, with great coolness and complete disregard for his own safety, crawled forward and engaged the tanks single handed.  In spite of a broken left wrist and two other wounds, one in his right hand and one in his leg, ...Rifleman Ganju Lama succeeded in bringing his gun into action within thirty yards of the enemy tanks and knocked out first one and then another, the third tank being destroyed by an anti-tank gun, ...he then moved forward and engaged with grenades the tank crews... Not until he had killed or wounded them all, thus enabling his company to push forward, did he allow himself to be taken back to the Regimental Aid Post...

Throughout this action Rifleman Ganju Lama, although very seriously wounded, showed a complete disregard for his own personal safety, outstanding devotion to duty and a determination to destroy the enemy which was an example and an inspiration to all ranks..."


          Lance Corporal Rambahadur Limbu, 10th Gurkha Rifles, Borneo - 21st November 1965 

"...Leading his support group in the van of the attack he could see the nearest trench and in it a sentry manning a machine gun.  Determined to gain first blood he inched himself forward until... he was seen and the sentry opened fire, immediately wounding a man to his right.  Rushing forward he reached the enemy trench... and killed the sentry, thereby gaining for the attacking force a foothold on the objective ...with a complete disregard for the hail of fire he got together and led his fire group to a better fire position...

...he saw both men of his own group seriously wounded... and... immediately commenced... to rescue his comrades ...he crawled forward, in full view of at least two enemy machine gun posts who concentrated their fire on him... but... was driven back by the accurate and intense...fire...After a pause he started again...

Rushing forward he hurled himself on the ground beside one of the wounded and calling for support from two light machine guns...he picked up the man and carried him to safety... Without hesitation he immediately returned... (for the other) wounded man (and) carried him back... through the hail of enemy bullets.  It had taken twenty minutes to complete this gallant action and the events leading up to it.  For all but a few seconds this Non-Commissioned Officer had been moving alone in full view of the enemy and under the continuous aimed fire of their automatic weapons. ...His outstanding personal bravery, selfless conduct, complete contempt of the enemy and determination to save the lives of the men of his fire group set an incomparable example and inspired all who saw him

Finally... Lance Corporal Rambahadur was... responsible for killing four more enemy as they attempted to escape...".

The latest Gurkha to receive high military honors is Acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun, whose father and grandfather were also Gurkhas.  He was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross in March 2011 for his courageous solo defense of a checkpoint in Afghanistan which was attacked by at least a dozen Taliban militants.  Pun is credited with saving the lives of three colleagues who were inside the building where he fought off the onslaught from the roof.  Assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were fired at him from every direction, while he returned fire using his rifle, grenades, and even throwing a machine-gun tripod to stave off an attacker when his weapon failed.  Pun eventually exhausted all of his ammunition and then detonated a mine to defeat the last two insurgents.  Incredibly, he accomplished all of this while remaining unscathed himself.

Reading these accounts of almost unfathomable heroism, it’s easy to understand the famous quote by Sir Ralph Turner, who served with the Queen's Own Gurkha Rifles in World War I:  “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”.  This last sentence is now inscribed on the base of a Gurkha soldier statue which stands outside the Ministry of Defense in Westminster, London.

The Brigade of Gurkhas


2 Infantry Battalions:

1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles (1RGR)
2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles (2RGR)

Queen's Gurkha Signals:

250 Gurkha Signal Squadron
246 Gurkha Signal Squadron
248 Gurkha Signal Squadron

Queen's own Gurkha Logistic Regiment

Queen's Gurkha Engineers:

69th Gurkha Field Squadron
70th Gurkha Field Squadron

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