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Gurkhas in World War 1

Srinivas MazumdaruMay 13, 2014

2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. DW takes a look at the contribution of the Gurkhas to the British war effort, fighting alongside Allied forces on European soil.

Gurkha Soldaten aus Nepal 1950 - Bildunterschrift:circa 1950: A troop of Nepalese Gurkhas marching in formation in India. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
Image: Three Lions/Getty Images

In the Himalayan republic of Nepal, located between the two Asian giants of China and India, lies the hill-town district of Gorkha, famed for being the homeland of the legendary warrior group: the Gurkhas. The fighters are predominantly drawn from the hill tribes of Sunwar, Gurung, Rai, Magar and Limbu, among others.

With a battle cry, "Ayo Gorkhali" - meaning "the Gurkhas are here" - and the motto: "It's better to die than to be a coward," the kukri (a long-curved knife) wielding warriors earned a fearsome reputation. Legend has it that once a Gurkha draws the kukri, he must draw blood.

"Their bravery and loyalty, coupled with simplicity, are the reasons behind their fame," says Tikendra Dewan, chairman of the UK-based British Gurkha Welfare Society (BGWS). They are also renowned for their fearlessness with the former Indian army chief Sam Manekshaw who states that: "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gurkha."

The fighters currently serve in the armies of Nepal, India and the United Kingdom as part of a deal struck between the three countries at the time of Indian independence in 1947. At present, while there are around 120,000 Gurkhas enlisted in the Indian military, the number of fighters in the British army stands at around 3500.

Only the strongest

The British recruitment process is considered to be one of the toughest in the world, with about 28,000 young men competing for some 200 positions available annually. In order to pass the test, the youths have to run around 5 kilometers, carrying rocks on their back, weighing almost 25 kilograms, on hilly terrain in less than an hour.

Prinz Charles Gurkhas - epa03063542 (FILE) Prince Charles (L), The Prince of Wales as he presents Afghanistan Service Medals to members of the Royal Gurkha Rifles at Sir John Moore Barracks in Folkestone, southern England, 28 January 2011. Reports on 17 January 2012
Gurkha battalions received some 2000 gallantry awards for their bravery during World War IImage: picture-alliance/dpa

However, despite serving in the British armed forces, Gurkhas didn't have a right to permanent residency in the UK and were sent back to Nepal. They were also paid lower pensions than those given to their fellow British soldiers. But the situation changed in 2007, when the government in London decided to pay equal pensions to all Gurkha soldiers who retired after 1997.

The move represented a minor victory in the warriors' struggle for equal treatment. A couple of years later in 2009, all retired Gurkhas were given the right to live in the UK.

Joining the British

The Gurkhas' first contact with the Western world came during 1814-16, when the British East India Company waged a war against Nepal. Although the conflict ended with a British victory, heavy losses were inflicted upon their army by the Gurkhas. "I never saw more steadiness or bravery exhibited in my life. Run they would not, and of death they seemed to have no fear, though their comrades were falling thick around them," wrote a British soldier in his memoirs.

Thus, impressed by the fighting skills of their enemies, the British included a provision in the peace treaty signed with the then Nepali King, allowing them to recruit Gurkhas to serve in the British army, thereby laying the foundation for the nearly two centuries of military association between the two sides.

First time in Europe

At that time, hardly anyone would have imagined that roughly a century later the Gurkhas would be fighting alongside the British troops thousands of miles away from home, on European soil during World War I (1914-1918).

But it did happen and in total, around 200,000 Gurkhas fought in the Great War with their regiments taking part in battlefields ranging from the trenches of France to Persia in present-day Iran.

Nepalese soldiers have fought for the UK in numerous other conflicts, some of which include World War II, the Falklands War, Iraq and Afghanistan. But it was World War I which marked the Gurkhas' first outing away from South Asia and according to official figures, Gurkha regiments suffered over 20,000 casualties.

During the war, the number of Gurkha rifles battalions grew to thirty-three. "The government of Nepal realized how necessary the Gurkha soldiers were to the Allied campaign and they made additional Gurkha units available for the British high command for service on all fronts," writes author Benita Estevez in her book titled "Gurkhas: Better to die than live a coward."

Gallipoli campaign

The conflict in Europe posed an array of new challenges not only for the Gurkhas but also for the rest of the British Indian Army, as they were forced to deal with difficult conditions such as freezing weather, unfamiliar terrain and trench warfare, said Dewan.

In the words of British general Sir James Willcocks: "Gurkhas were exposed to every form of terror, and they could reply only with their valor and the rifles and the two machine-guns per battalion with which they were armed [no trench mortars or hand grenades], and yet they did it."

The high point of the Gurkhas' contribution took place during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, when the fighters gained immortal fame by capturing a heavily-guarded Turkish-held position with relatively few casualties, an action which was to be known as "Gurkha Bluff." On the Western front, a Gurkha battalion fought until the last minute and to the last man at the Battle of Loos.

Erster Weltkrieg Schlacht bei Gallipoli 1915 - Bildunterschrift:circa 1915: Troops landing at Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Gallipoli campaign was the high point of the Gurkhas' contribution in World War IImage: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The battalions received some 2,000 gallantry awards for their bravery and contribution during the war.

Gurkhas' bravery and contribution to British war efforts during the Great War may be best illustrated by this quote from British Captain Ralph Turner, who fought alongside them: "Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you."