Byron Farwell: The Gurkhas, Penguin 1985, London, 317 pages, ISBN o-14-007569-0
‘The Gurkhas’ is a history of the finest infantrymen in the world who come from a country where ‘It is better to die than to be a coward,’ and where most bear the name Bahadur, which means ‘courageous,’ and who carry out their mission with the help of the deadly, curved kukris.
‘Ayo Gurkhali!’ Here come the Gurkhas! Is a battlecry that makes their enemies in battle wince, and sometimes abandon their weapons to save their dear lives. Younghusband marched unopposed into Lhasa on August 3, 1904 with his Gurkhas. During the Falkland War the Argentines fled when they realized that they were being outflanked by the Gurkhas.
Byron Farwell narrative about the Gurkha battalions and their military engagements are enhanced by citations from the books on the same, making it a jolly reading material. The readability score is good and the book is studded with historical photographs of the Gurkhas’ acts of gallantry.
Farwell served as an officer in North Africa and Italy in the Second World War and later also in the Korean War. He has travelled more than a hundred countries. His other books are: The Man Who Presumed, a biography of Sir Richard Burton bearing the title ‘Burton,’ Prisoners of the Mahdi, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, the Great Boer War, and a social history of the Victorian and Edwardian Army with the title ‘For Queen and Country.’ In 1986 Viking published his ‘Eminent Victorian Soldiers’ and he’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1964.
Farwell’s book is a comprehensive history of the lives and achievements of the Gurkha soldiers of Nepal in the Indian and later British Gurkhas after India gained its independence, and about the extraordinary relationship which existed, and apparently still exists between the British officer and Johnny Gurkha. Since the author served as an officer in the North Africa and Italian campaigns in the Second World War, it’s only natural that he enthuses about the cheerful, stocky hillmen of Nepal.
As to the sources used by the author, he has relied much on regimental histories and the autobiographical works of officers who served with the Gurkhas. Farwell has used the Indian Army’s English annual journal called ‘The Gurkha.’Besides that he used ‘The Khukri,’ a similar journal published by the British Brigade of Gurkhas and interview with some officers. It might be mentioned that not all acts of bravery were noted in the past. Citing an item on a Gurkha from the Third Battalion of the 8th Gurkha Rifles, he mentions: ‘Particular mention must be made of the courage of 86600 Rifleman Punaram Pun. Unfortunately he died. We never know how Pun distinguished himself.
The book has 29 chapters devoted to war and peace in Nepal, the role of the Gurkhas in Delhi, made famous by Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ film. The chapter on Character and Characteristics deals with how Johnny Gurkha ticks. There are chapters devoted to Gurkhas in Afghanistan in the olde days, the North East Frontier, how Gurkhas are recruited, the role of the Nepalese warriors in World War I (France), Gallipoli, Suez and Mesopotamia. A chapter on Gurkha officers, relationships, Nepalese festivals (Dasain and Tihar), home, family, preparing for battle (World War II), the North African War in the Second World War, South East Asia, Italy, retreat from Burma, Chindits, India’s independence and partition, the savage wars of peace, Borneo, reduction of force and retirement. The role of the Gurkhas today and tomorrow. The book has a four-point appendix and the last one is about the Gurkha tribes.
In the aftermath of the Falklands, the author stated, ‘there will continue to be a place for these Nepalese mercenaries in the British Army. In a world unwilling to abandon war as a means of settling disputes the Gurkhas will always play a role as warriors or as peace-keepers.
The steadfast, stocky, courageous Gurkhas have never deserted their British officers. But two Brit officers Major Boileau and Captain Butcher who deserted their Gurkha soldiers at the Residency, were court-martialled and cashierd.
The first edition of the book was published by Allen Lane in 1984 which was after the Falkland war. Farwell writes:’Mercenaries have been in bad odour in recent years, but the trade is an ancient and enduring one. He cites A.E. Housman who had praise for them in ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’:
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
In his book Farwell is conspicuous for his branding the Gurkhas as ‘mercenaries’ throughout the text. During the Falkland War the British MoD was politically embarrassed by the Argentinians at the UNO that the Brits were using ‘mercenary Gurkhas’ for the battle in the Malvinas. This made the Brit government declare with emphasis that the Gurkhas ‘were an integral part of the British Army. If that was so why did Johnny Gurkha receive only half the pay of a Britsh Tommy all these years? Why weren’t the children of the Gurkhas allowed to go to British schools to earn their GCE ‘A’ levels? Generations of Asian schoolkids domiciled in England have been passing the exams and studying in British colleges and universities. Why not the Gurkha school-kids? When you ask such questions you either get a diplomatic silence or some silly excuse about a British-Nepalease Treaty dating back to 1816 forgetting that we’re in the 21st century, in here and now in the UK.
The sad part of the Gurkha-story is that the Brits never intended to integrate the generations of Gurkhas, who served in Britain’s Army and fought its wars, into the British society. This issue has always been taboo in British military circles. The Gurkhas should die serving the Queen and the Union Jack but they should return to Nepal when their service contract was over, much like Helmut Kohl’s Turkish guest-workers who were invited to Germany to run the factories for the German males had died in the war or were crippled and couldn’t work. Kohl hoped that the Turks would return to their homes. The Turks, Italians, Spaniards and Portugese weren’t obedient, disciplined and loyal like the Gurkhas. They knew what democracy was and that they had rights to live in Germany. The Brits sent the Gurkhas home to Nepal whenever there was disagreement. You could court martial a Gurkha for disobedience, but the so-called Gastarbeiter (guest-worker) in Germany weren’t soldiers and nothing could subordinate them. They fought for their rights, like the second generation of workers’ children who were born in Britain. The Gurkhas were left alone. Not one Brit officer came forward to fight for the cause of their oh-so-heroic Gurkhas because there were scared stiff that the MoD would fire them. It was a strange ‘special’ relationship between the Gurkhas and their officers. Not a single officer worth his grain opened his mouth. It took a Joanna Lumley, a woman, to corner a minister about the Gurkha Issue with a running camera.
Whereas Byron Farwell doesn’t look at the Gurkhas from the anthropological view, he does compare the Gurkhas among themselves in terms of tribes and clans, which is typical of colonialists out to seek the best of Mongolian hillmen from Nepal and to turn them into obedient, loyal fighting-machines. In this process he quotes from the sources listed on the last few pages of his book. What emerges is a Gurkha profile as an ideal rifleman who’s brave, tough, patient, adaptable, skilled in fieldcraft, proud of his military record and unswerving loyal towards their bread-givers: the MoD in London and Delhi.
It is said that the Gurkhas can stand hardships and anything, except abuse.
And yet they have been abused by both the Nepal Durbar and the British Ministry of Defence, despite the Gurkhas’ ‘selfless devotion to the British cause, which can hardly matched by any race to another in the whole world history of the world. Why they should have thus treated us is something of a mystery.’ It was General Francis Tuker who said that. Farwell adds: ‘Indeed; and a mystery which needs to be explored, for while the Brits undoubtedly had enormous affection for the Gurkhas, they failed in the event to match their loyalty.’
The author’s purpose in this book was to bring in a historical account of the Gurkhas from Nepal and how and where they fought under the Union Jack from Queen Victoria’s times till the Falkland War, for that’s where the book ends. The reader learns a great deal about the Gurkha regiments and Brigades in British India, independent India and the Gurkhas in Britain and Hong Kong, along with the role of the Gurkhas in Britain’s skirmishes around the world. Since this book was published in 1984 an up-to-date sequel is imperative to keep the readers abreast with new developments. Nevertheless, the author has done a good job in presenting the Gurkhas to readers around the globe for they have fought Britain’s wars in France, Gallipoli, Suez and Mesopotemia in the First World War and in almost every front in the Second World War from Singapore to Italy and North Africa.
What does it mean to a Gurkha to be refused at a Gurkha recruiting depot? It means an anticlimax and shame to a prospective soldier. Most young men bid farewell to everyone they know in their villages in a solemn ceremony. The mother presents him a handful of coins which he distributes to his girl-friends who’re waiting along the path. Failed recruits don’t wish to return home. I knew a young man, a school drop-out, who went to the British Camp in Dharan (Nepal) was rejected, and instead of returning home in shame and ignominy, he chose to work as a school-teacher in a local school in the hills, and a year later passed the recruitment test to join the British Gurkhas. He returned home after two years with lots of presents for his family and relatives, and wore immaculate Hong Kong tailor-designed suits, and went for walks much like the elderly veterans in his hometown. According to Farwell ‘every young man who set off for the recruiting depot was confident of acceptance.
In reality the story of the Gurkhas isn’t always courage and glory. In letters home during the First and Second World Wars many Gurkhas wrote to their parents, friends and girl-friends about the loneliness, absurdity and fear in the trenches but these letters were opened, censored and never reached their destinations for they were withheld by the MoD, and now given free for public viewing in the archived of the British Museum.
The Gurkhas as a theme are topical, much like the US Navy Seals and the French Foreign Legion, and the significance of the Gurkhas and their tribulations and woes at the hands of London’s MoD which has, in recent times, led to court cases of the Gurkhas versus the MoD. This book provides a good background of how the Gurkhas, as a cheap mercenary force to fight Britain’s battles in the world fronts, on a hire-and-fire basis. To this end, young Nepalese men join the Gurkhas and are exposed a world of new experiences, depending on whether they are doing guard duty in front of the Buckingham Palace or elsewhere. In order to adapt they had only to do as they were told; the army took care of them.
Were the Gurkhas integrated into British lifestyle? The answer is no. They were confined to their barracks. If they ever fought against against discrimination, they were sent back to Nepal. They lived a parallel life, divided by culture and religion. There has always been a latent racial prejudice in the ranks of the officers and the MoD. British identity was seen in the 1950s in racial terms but in the 1990s Britishness became simply the ability to tolerate different religions, and ethnicity as an affirmation of who they are. Whereas outside the Gurkha barracks, youths of Asian and Carribean origin who were genuine British passport holders, fought for their political and social rights in Britain, and helped to generate political struggles against discrimination by creating bridges across ethnic, racial and cultural barriers, the Gurkhas have always had a ghetto existence in their British barracks, aloof from what went on politically in the United Kingdom. When the MoD came up with cuts in military manpower, the loyal, courageous, cheerful, obedient Gurkhas were obliged to accept it as their fate as ‘mercenary soldier’ who could be hired-and-booted out as the situation demanded. No insurance, no NHS-benefits, no accommodation outside the barracks. No chance to mingle and fraternize with the British civilians. They were kept, and still are, like the asylum-seekers in Switzerland. At 10 pm they have to be in their barracks.
There were always human resources in the hills of Nepal for the next battle anywhere in the world. Despite their sterling qualities, the Gurkhas have been given a raw deal in terms of remuneration in the British Army. Whereas the migration to Britain made central in the curriculum of secondary schools, whereby pupils are expected to learn core ‘Brit’ values such as tolerance, respect, freedom of speech and justice and learn of the shared British heritage, the Gurkhas and their children still feel alienated in Britain, and left out from the bebefits of the civil society. For its fighting force Britain recruits young, enthusiastic men from Nepal but what happens to the Gurkhas who have developed gerontological problems? The NHS turns a deaf ear and the MoD too.
The first migrants landed in Britain in 1948 and integration of Asians from India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh as well as West Indians has partially worked well. The interracial marriage between black-white is high at 40% but Asians prefer not to marry white women and Asian women are married off by their parents with partners from their former home countries or males who’ve grown up in Britain. The West Indians are also well represented in politics (MPs or councellors). Asian children are regarded as being diligent and assimilation in education is good. Education and employment go hand in hand. The hardworking Asians possess business acumen. Underlying racial prejudice still exists in the UK which is regarded as a ‘mind matter’ which no law can possibly change, much like in Germany where neonazis are facing trial for killing migrants who were shop-owners.
The Gurkhas are known for their ability to adapt to different combat environments in the jungle, desert, craggy terrain, and he can also adapt in Britain’s jungle of concrete, given the opportunity by their officers, MoD and Her Majesty’s government. It’s high time the Gurkhas came home to Britain to roost with all the benefits that the British society has to offer for they have been ignored and treated as foster-children for too long. A start has been made by Gurkhas who have appointed solicitors to fight for their rights in British courts. It took long time for the Gurks, as they are fondly called by the Brits, to react in the British society. The Gurkhas are catching on and are absorbing so-called ‘alien, unregimental ideas’ which are democratic, humane and beneficial to them.
Why do the British use Nepal as a human warehouse for its wars?
Kalunga (Nepal) has gone in the annals of British Military History as a bloody affair, and the British suffered greater casualty than the Gurkha, even though the latter were outnumbered. Balbahadur lost 520, the British lost 31 officers and 750 other ranks. But in the end Ochterlony defeated the Gurkha General Amar Singh at Jaithak, and once again in a decisive battle at Malaun. What followed was the Treaty of Segauli signed on march 4,1816. Nepal was obliged to give up the provinces of Kumaon and Gharwal, as well as the lower Terai. Moreover, Nepal had to accept a British Resident and the most curious and important clause in the Segauli Treaty was that it gave the ‘British the right to recruit Nepalese subjects.’ What remains of the two battles are two tiny obelisks erected by the Brits at Kalunga (20 km from the India border-town Raxaul) dedicated to General Rollo Gillespie and his British and Indian dead. The other obelisk is dedicated to their gallant adversaries. ‘The love affair’ between the Brits and the doughty little Mongolian hillmen had begun and has lasted 194 years.
Farwell writes: ‘the Gurkhas being mercenaries, enlisted for pay. Indeed the pay, low though it was, seemed attractive to those from a land where there is little hard cash. They also wanted to leave ‘the confined and restrictive life of the mountain village and to see the world beyond the mountains.
A scheme to admit Gurkhas to military institutions of higher learning began in the 1950s. A line boy officer cadet Bijay Kumar Rawat was the best overall officer cadet at Sandhurst.
Ironically enough in recent times the Brigade of the Gurkhas have been deployed in the Hindukush, and a Brit Gurkha officer was disgusted that a Johnny Gurkha took out the head of a Taliban he’d slashed with his khukri. During the World War II the war in Burma was brutal. A patrol of the 4/8th Gurkhas brought back to camp the severed head of a Japanese officer. Lieutenant Colonel Walter C. Walker, the battalion commander, had it nailed to the trunk of a tree near his bunker. The head had a ‘wispy beard and a drooping moustache.’
Byron Farwell speaks of the ‘zest of the Gurkhas in their pursuit of the retreating Japanese has been compared to that of terriers after rats.’ One British commander offered a reward for each head brought in and one Gurkha havildar returned with six bloody ears in his haversack. The commander asked where the heads were. The Gurkha replied, ‘Too heavy to carry, sahib.’
At another skirmish forty Japanese ran into a Gurkha trap and the Lieutenant Commander McCready of the 1/10th Gurkhas commented: ‘There was a great blooding of khukris and ..no wounded were brought back.’ Lalbahadur Limbu received an immediate award of the Military Cross.
Are told by veterans in the hills of Nepal. What the Gurkha did in Afghanistan was to re-live one such story he’d heard in his childhood. It was the British officers who encouraged and rewarded such feats and took delight in them and bragged about their men at the mess-halls and officer’s clubs, and they still do it.
Recently, a pensioned old Gurkha was going for a walk and was robbed by a white gang who took away the Rolex watch he was wearing. There’s no human warmth and consideration among the urban gang members, and they’re known to be ruthless and cold. A Gurkha’s past isn’t interesting to them and they don’t care what happens to them. Their cool heroes are Scarface and Goodfellas. Welcome to Britain today. Daylight break-ins muggings and car thefts are common in parts of London. Freiburg (Germany), where I live is known for its bicycle thieves. When it comes becomes dark the police in Brixton are unwilling to go to the trouble spots.