Front Page







World Summary

On Air


Talking Point


Text Only


Site Map

Thursday, December 4, 1997 Published at 09:36 GMT


The Gurkhas - Britain's oldest allies
image: [ Does a friend desert a friend in time of need? ]
Does a friend desert a friend in time of need?

Bravest of the brave,
most generous of the generous, never had
country more faithful friends than you.

Those words, written by Sir Ralph Turner, a former officer in the 3rd Gurkha Rifles, have been carved on a memorial to Britain's Gurkha soldiers, unveiled on Wednesday.

The nine-foot Gurkha statue was sculpted by Philip Jackson and is located in London's Whitehall. It was commissioned by the Gurkha Brigade Association Trust and unveiled by the Queen accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles, who is Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Gurkha Rifles.

The Trust says the statue will act as a permanent memorial to "the most constant friend and ally that Britain has ever known."

But who are the Gurkhas? Where do they come from? How illustrious is their history in battle?

Origins of the Gurkhas

The term Gurkha is traditionally used to describe men of Nepal who serve as soldiers in the armies of Nepal, India or Britain. The word derives from Gorkha, a city-state in Nepal which in 1814 came into conflict with British troops serving in the East India Company.

After two bloody campaigns, a peace treaty was signed in 1816 but by then both sides had come to respect the other. So much so, that under the terms of the treaty, Gurkhas were allowed to serve in the Company's army.

Gurkha regiments fought in various conflicts over the following 40 years before proving where their loyalty lay during the Indian Mutiny. In 1857, the 2nd Gurkhas and the 60th Rifles held Hindu Rao's house, the key to the British position, for three months against the attacks of the Mutineers. They did so despite suffering 327 casualties out of a strength of 490.

Later in the Mutiny, 8,000 Gurkhas formed part of the relief force which finally raised the siege of Lucknow.

The First World War

Over the next 50 years the Gurkhas served the British Army in many locations throughout South and Far East Asia.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the entire Nepalese Army was placed at the disposal of the British Crown and more than 100,000 Gurkhas enlisted under the British flag.

Some served in India, but others served in theatres such as France, Flanders, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine. A battalion of the 8th Gurkhas distinguished itself at Loos in Flanders, fighting nearly to the last man.

The 6th Gurkhas won fame in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign when they threw the Turks back in their sector. They were the only Allied troops to reach and hold the hill crest line, looking down on the Straits which was the force's ultimate objective.

Two Gurkhas won Victoria Crosses, Britain's highest military honour.

The Second World War

When war broke out in 1939, the Gurkhas again came to Britain's aid. Some 112,000 men served in 40 battalions in battles in the Western Desert, Italy, Greece, Malaya, Singapore and Burma. Ten Victoria Crosses were awarded to Gurkhas.

[ image: Gurkha grave at Monte Cassino in Italy]
Gurkha grave at Monte Cassino in Italy
In addition, the Nepalese government gave money to buy military equipment and to help those made homeless in London by the Blitz.

The strength of the relationship between the Nepalese and the British forces was illustrated in 1940 after the fall of France, when Britain requested permission to recruit a further 20 battalions. The Nepalese Prime Minister replied: "Does a friend desert a friend in time of need? If you win, we win with you. If you lose, we lose with you."

Post-war action

The Gurkha regiments were formally part of Britain's Indian Army. When India and Pakistan were granted independence in 1947, the Gurkhas were divided between Britain and the fledgling state of India. Eight battalions therefore became an integral part of the British Army.

In the post-war years, these units saw considerable action in Malaya, Korea, Cyprus, Kenya and Borneo. From the late 1960s, however, Britain began to reduce its defence commitments and the number of Gurkha soldiers was cut from 14,000 to about 8,000.

One of the remaining battalions served in the Falklands War and detachments served in the Gulf.

End of the Cold War

The end of the Cold War and the withdrawal from Hong Kong, the Gurkhas' base, meant further cutbacks.

[ image: A long tradition]
A long tradition
At one point, it looked as though the Gurkhas would be disbanded altogether, bringing to an end nearly 175 years of continuous service, but the 1990 Options For Change defence review eventually decided to keep two battalions and various detachments in a total of some 3,800 men. They are now based in Britain following the loss of their Hong Kong base.

Competition among young Nepalese men to join the British Gurkhas is intense, with many more applying than are accepted. At least part of the thinking in retaining the Gurkhas was that in time of need there would be the option of recruiting more troops. That would have been much harder if the link had been severed.

Greater equality

Although their numbers are down, there have been positive changes in recent years in the Gurkhas' conditions of service.

The original deal worked out at Indian partition meant that the Gurkhas were paid at the same basic rate as their compatriots serving in the Indian army - considerably less than British troops. That was changed last February when Gurkhas were awarded the same serving pay as other soldiers. Some were also allowed to bring wives and children to Britain.

One thing which did not change, however, was pensions, which are still paid at the basic rate. The rationale behind this is that the cost of living in Nepal is so much lower than in Britain.

Campaigners are trying to redress that imbalance and one of their arguments is the benefit it would bring to the local Nepalese economy. In 1991, some 30m went from Britain to Nepal in the form of pensions, savings and general aid - this total was Nepal's third-biggest inflow of foreign currency.

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage

[an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive]
Internet Links

The British Army

Gurkha Welfare Trust

The Gurkha Museum

Information About Nepal

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.