The Gurkhas: Special Force

Gary Sheffield finds much to admire in a reassessment of the Nepalese soldiers who have served the British armed forces with distinction for 200 years

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Reviewed by: Gary Sheffield
Author: Chris Bellamy
Publisher: John Murray
Price (RRP): £20

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May 2009 saw a remnant of Britain’s long-vanished Indian empire make the lead on the national news.

The actress Joanna Lumley, the daughter of a (British) Gurkha officer, spearheaded a successful campaign to allow Gurkhas who had more than four years’ service to settle in the UK. Her triumph underlined the sentimental attachment that many Britons still have for these soldiers from Nepal, who continue to fight for the UK in what is correctly termed the Fourth Afghan War.

It is a good time for a reassessment of the Gurkhas, and in his admirable new book Chris Bellamy does it well.

Bellamy writes with affection and personal knowledge of the Gurkhas. He relates his experience as a defence correspondent in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, where “the relaxed professionalism of the Gurkha soldiers had made an instantaneous impression” on him.

Bellamy has a reporter’s eye for the telling anecdote and detail which has resulted in a wonderful piece of historical writing, albeit one that does not match the heights of his last book, the prize-winning Absolute War (2007) – a history of the most destructive conflict in history, the Russo-German war of 1941–45.

Not that Gurkha history lacks nastiness – witness the 18th-century Gurkha leader who cut off the lips and noses of the men of a captured city. War is a dreadful, bloody business, and Bellamy makes no attempt to disguise it. But war has its moral compensations, including courage, comradeship and loyalty.

Gurkha loyalty to the British is a constant theme in the book. Indeed the fact that Gurkha regiments stayed loyal during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 was a key factor in the survival of the British Raj for another 90 years.

In Bellamy’s words, the performance of the Gurkha units in the mutiny “had ranged from exemplary to legendary”. The Gurkhas’ first Victoria Cross (an honour established at this time) was won by a British officer, while Nepalese soldiers won numerous Indian Orders of Merit (the VC was not available to Nepalese Gurkhas until 1911).

Although Gurkha solders had been in British service since 1816, it was perhaps the Indian Mutiny that cemented the relationship with the British.

As Bellamy argues, the Gurkhas held a unique position in the armed forces of the Raj. Being Nepalese, they were outsiders, just as the British were, and often had little sympathy for Indian troops. They were cheaper to employ than the British, but were “just as reliable”, with a fearsome reputation.

This made Gurkha units extremely valuable to the British.

As General Sir Charles Napier noted in 1849, a Gurkha force added to British troops would create “an army able with ease to overthrow any combination” of Hindus or Muslims, or indeed an alliance of the two. The outbreak of the mutiny only eight years later demonstrated the prescience of these words (although the fact that Sikh regiments remained loyal was also of great importance).

This being the case, it might have been thought that the raison d’etre of the Gurkhas vanished with Indian independence in 1947. Far from it: the Gurkha regiments were divided between the armies of Britain and newly independent India.

For the British, while no doubt there was an element of sentimentality, the reliability and relative cheapness of the Gurkhas continued to be highly attractive. Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck (‘the Auk’) referred to them “as a sort of Foreign Legion under HMG [His Majesty’s Government]”.

Bellamy agrees with this characterisation, and points out that both Gurkhas and the French Foreign Legion featured heavily in Britain and France’s retreats from empire after the Second World War.

The Gurkhas is a very readable mixture of military, political and some social history. It is not a dense academic text: clearly Bellamy believes that historians should speak to a wider audience than merely other historians, and deserves applause for that.

Not everyone will agree with all his judgments, although my gripes were minor. Bellamy gives some valuable insights into this legacy force that Britain has yet to learn how to do without. 

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Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham. His new book, The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army, will be published by Aurum Press in September 2011