Meet the Gurkhas, fearsome fighters with a 200-year history
A former serviceman in Hong Kong explains what binds him and his fellow Nepalese to a proud military tradition
The Gurkhas are known around the world as soldiers of unparalleled bravery and unconditional loyalty, qualities they have shown many times during the course of history. Gurkhas form fighting forces that have served India and Britain for more than 200 years, and Gurkhas still serve those and other countries. Their name, alone, is enough to strike fear into armed factions around the world.
That the Gurkhas come from Nepal, in the Himalayan portion of the country, is well known. They were first recruited as regular soldiers in 1815 to serve British India and the remaining regiments now serve India and Britain separately. Beyond that, popular knowledge of the Gurkhas is vague. Here, then, is a brief history of these fighting hill men.
Nepal in the early years of the 17th century consisted of many princely states. Among these states was Gorkha, ruled by the ambitious King Prithvi Narayan Shah. He conquered the neighboring states and established a new kingdom that eventually became known as Nepal and which was ruled by his dynasty until recently.
In the war between the Gorkha kingdom and the British East India Company, fought between 1814 and 1816, Prithvi Narayan Shah’s soldiers were known as the Gorkhali force. The British referred to these soldiers as Gurkhas.
Despite being outnumbered and outgunned by the British, the Gorkhali force fought with bravery, tenacity and skill, keeping their foes at bay for a long time. The British were so impressed by the fighting spirit of the Gurkhas that when a treaty ended the war, they invited Gurkha soldiers to join them. The first recruits formed the Nasiri regiment, later to become the 1st Gurkha Rifles, in April 1815.
Since then, Gurkhas have served Britain in almost every conflict it has been embroiled in, including in Burma, Afghanistan, India and its northeastern and northwestern frontiers, and in Malta, Cyprus, Malaya, China and Tibet.
In World War I, Gurkhas served in France, Turkey, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, Salonika and North Africa, and in doing so lost almost 20,000 of their number. They earned nearly 2,000 awards for bravery, including the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valor in the former British empire.
In World War II, Gurkhas fought Germany and its allies in Syria, North Africa, Italy and Greece, and fought Japan in northeastern India, Singapore and Burma. The 250,280 Gurkhas that served suffered around 32,000 casualties and earned 2,734 awards for bravery.
When India gained independence from Britain in 1947, four of the 10 Gurkha regiments became part of the British army, based in Malaya – today’s Singapore and Malaysia – and the remaining six regiments became part of the Indian army. The Gurkhas made an important contribution to Britain prevailing in the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s and the Borneo confrontation in the 1960s, and one soldier won the Victoria Cross. More recently, Gurkhas served in the Falklands War, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan and the second Gulf War.
A way of life
To become a Gurkha soldier, you must be healthy, fit and strong. The competition to join a Gurkha unit is extreme and just a few hundred recruits are selected from the tens of thousands that seek to join.
At first, preference was given to candidates that were hill men from one of four tribes. Candidates came from the western part of Nepal and had the family name Gurung, Thapa, Pun or Magar. Candidates from the eastern part had to be surnamed Rai or surnamed Limbu. Even today, most Gurkha soldiers belong to one of the four preferred tribes.
Soldiers whose roles require more education than is usually to be had in the mountains were once recruited mainly from Darjeeling or Sikkim. But these days such soldiers are recruited from almost anywhere in Nepal or from among people elsewhere that are of Nepali origin.
Gurkhas that serve in the British army now have the right to settle there, and many former servicemen, their wives and children have done so. Some Gurkha ex-servicemen that served in Hong Kong, including your correspondent, have settled in Hong Kong.
I can speak only for myself, but I suspect many of my former comrades would agree when I say that serving as a Gurkha soldier is more than just a job: it is a way of life. There is something special about a tradition of service that has lasted more than 200 years. Perhaps only by becoming a Gurkha soldier oneself can one gain a proper understanding of what binds us to that tradition.
The Gurkhas in Hong Kong
The first Gurkha regiment to be stationed in Hong Kong arrived in 1948. After Malaysia gained independence in August 1957, the entire British brigade of Gurkhas began to make Hong Kong their main base. In its heyday, the brigade had six Gurkha infantry battalions; four were in Hong Kong, one in Britain and one in Brunei. It also had an engineer regiment, a signals regiment and a transport regiment in Hong Kong. The brigade training depot was in Shek Kong and the Gurkhas formed the bulk of the British force that defended Hong Kong. When Chinese rule resumed in 1997, many Gurkhas were discharged and returned to Nepal.
Today, Gurkhas continue the tradition of service beyond the borders of Nepal begun by their forebears, across four different armies or police forces.
- Indian army (about 42,000)
- British army (about 3,600)
- Singapore Gurkha Contingent (about 2,000)
- Brunei Gurkha Reserve Unit (about 500)