Since 1815, the Gurkhas have been an integral part of the British Army, where they have gained a reputation for their bravery, courage and discipline. The term refers to soldiers of Nepalese nationality who are recruited to serve Great Britain, in addition to other armed force regiments across the world such as India, Singapore and Brunei. Whilst this serves as a remarkable part of British history, it is often one of unfamiliarity to the British public; therefore, this article intends to provide a rich insight into the Gurkhas and their contribution to Great Britain.
The potential of Gurkhas was first noted by the British Empire at the height of their imperialism in the invasion of Nepal, where the East India Company suffered heavy causalities in the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816). Whilst Nepal never submitted to British rule, the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli (1816), which saw Nepal surrender part of their Western territories and more historically marked the integration of Nepali soldiers into the British Army, after a deep affinity of mutual respect and admiration was formed.
The term “Gurkha” was coined after the hill principality of Gorkha, in which the then Kingdom of Nepal took their name. Since then, the Gurkhas have bravely fought for the British all over the world, earning 13 Victoria Crosses between them. In addition, 200,000 Gurkha soldiers were involved in both World Wars, and in the past 50 years, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo, and now in UN peacekeeping forces, in addition to Afghanistan and Iraq. Aside from infantry roles, the Gurkhas have also expanded into other support divisions in the military, including engineers, logisticians and signals specialists. Additionally, a minority have progressed into the prestigious Officer rank, including 4 that have become Lieutenant Colonels (a rare accolade for Gurkhas).
“If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha” – Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw
Despite this decorated history and the numerous lost lives in the name of Britain, the Gurkhas are still a forgotten identity to the British public. Amongst the younger demographic especially, it is rare for the term ‘Gurkhas’ to be of normality or to understand why they have Nepalese neighbours. In fact, it was not until the 2008 High Court rule that Gurkha soldiers discharged before 1997 were given the right of abode (freedom to live in the UK without restrictions), which was supported by a justice campaign endorsed by Joanna Lumley, whose father served in the Gurkha Rifles, and reinforced by a petition of 250,000 signatories. Today, Gurkhas have equal rights of residence to British citizens and often live in military barracks across the UK whilst under service or in historic military towns upon retirement. In addition, many senior war veterans and members of the Royal Family were all present in the bicentennial of Gurkhas in 2015 to commemorate 200 years of Gurkha culture and military service.
Indeed, those familiar with the Gurkhas are filled with wide admiration, often sharing anecdotes of their immense bravery; in fact, the Victorians identified them as a ‘martial race’, alluding to their qualities of fearlessness and heroism. In particular, the selection process for Gurkha recruits is notoriously regarded as the toughest in the world and is fiercely contested, where there are only 200 intakes every year from 28,000 young hopefuls. For a lot of them, being selected for the British Army is their only chance of a higher standard of living due to the lack of opportunity and impoverished nature of Nepal, which is currently categorised as a least developed country (LDC) and one of the poorest nations in the world.
The notion of ‘Gurkha bravery’ is, therefore, a compelling one. Often, one wonders if this is an innate trait of Nepalese young men or a survival instinct to strive for a better life. Famously, the Gurkhas are pinpointed by the motto: “Better to die than be a coward”. The sad reality, however, is that a lot of them do not have a choice but to die, or at least endanger themselves in war zones in order to escape poverty in their home country*. Nonetheless, it is fair to assert that the Gurkhas have had a significant impact on Great Britain, helping to establish its status as a world leading military power and influencer of major global events.
Alas, when we think of the British Army, we must also think of the Gurkhas who have served over the past two centuries; and when commemorating all of the fallen soldiers in Remembrance Day, let us also include the Gurkhas within our memories.
*It is estimated 25.2% of people live below the national poverty line in Nepal.
BBC News. (2010). Who are the Gurkhas? Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10782099.
British Army. (2021). Gurkha History. Available: https://www.army.mod.uk/who-we-are/corps-regiments-and-units/brigade-of-gurkhas/gurkha-history/.
The Kathmandu Post. (2018). Nepali origin British Army officer promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Available: https://kathmandupost.com/national/2018/02/04/nepali-origin-british-army-officer-promoted-to-lieutenant-colonel.
Colour-Sergeant Kailash Limbu, Better to Die than Live a Coward: My Life in the Gurkhas (Little Brown Book, 2015)
Major General J. C. Lawrence, Gurkha: 25 Years of the Royal Gurkha Rifles (Uniform Press, 2020)
Major General J. C. Lawrence, The Gurkhas: 200 Years of Service to the Crown (Uniform Press, 2015)