Anglo-Nepalese War
Gurkhas

The Badass Series: 'Better To Die Than Be A Coward'

Part four of the BFBS Badass Series explores why the Gurkhas are so internationally revered

Anglo-Nepalese War

The BFBS Badass Series explores the reputations of the world's most elite defence organisations and regiments. Instead of just detailing historical accounts of these organisations' bravado, we look behind the stories and examine the truths, myths, first-hand accounts, and news reports that play a part in the formation of a reputation. In this feature, the Badass Series details the Royal Gurkha Rifles.

To start this exploration of over 200 years of loyal service to the British Armed Forces, it is worth briefly explaining how the Gurkhas and Great Britain's relationship came to be.

Interestingly, this long bond finds its origins in conflict. At the start, the British military and Nepal, from where Gurkhas originate, were posed on different sides.

When the British invaded Nepal using her East India Company in 1814, the country's inhabitants fought tremendously and essentially held back the invading imperial troops. The Anglo-Nepalese War resulted in a treaty that allowed Britain to recruit from her former enemy's ranks. This was based on the fact that the British were just so damned impressed with their fierceness. Thus, the Gurkhas' long relationship with Great Britain was officially established.

With Partition in 1947, an agreement between Nepal, India and Britain allowed four Gurkha Regiments to be transferred to the British Army. This agreement established the Gurkha Brigade.

Gurkha Company
Gurkha recruits Pass Off.

Warriors

The Gurkhas' reputation is that of being devout warriors, unafraid of death and meticulous in matters of fieldcraft and combat. Field Marshal Viscount Slim said of them:

"The Almighty created in the Gurkhas an ideal infantryman, indeed an ideal Rifleman, brave, tough, patient, adaptable, skilled in field-craft, intensely proud of his military record and unswerving loyalty."

And there are countless examples of Slim's sentiments across the pages of the two centuries worth of Gurkha history …

In 2010, Acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun singlehandedly held a position on a checkpoint roof, fighting off 30 Taliban fighters armed with AK47s and RPGs. Sgt Pun killed them all in less than one hour, even resorting to beating one of his enemies with the tripod of his machine gun when he found himself out of ammo and grenades. Pun's actions that day in Afghanistan read like a fanciful section of a screenplay or fictional book, yet they are indeed facts. Sgt Pun was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.

An article by Jonathan Schifman told the story of WWII soldier Bhanubhakta Gurung in action against Japanese troops. Of Gurung, he said:

Starting in a platoon of only 10 troops, Gurung came under heavy fire from machine guns, grenades, mortars, and a sniper. Gurung shot the sniper out of a tree, and then charged uphill alone. He threw grenades into a foxhole where enemies were shooting from and took another three foxholes with his bayonet.

Far ahead of his comrades, Gurung then charged the bunker with two smoke grenades and his kukri knife, the famed curved blade of the Gurkhas. He defeated two Japanese soldiers with the knife, and another one with a rock.

Gurung then held off a counterattack with three other men at the bunker, this time using a rifle.

For this action, Bhanubhakta Gurung was awarded Britain's highest military award, the Victoria Cross.

13 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to Gurkhas

Palpable Fear 

There are recorded instances of the enemy deserting positions merely upon hearing that the men coming over the hills to attack them were Gurkha soldiers.

This matter of palpable fear was discussed by Leela Jacinto for ABC News. She said:

With their battle cry "Ayo Gurkhali!" — "Here come the Gurkhas!" — the hardy Nepali hillsmen gained such a reputation as fighters that stories of enemies fleeing their positions upon hearing rumors of their advance abound.

During the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, when local sepoys revolted against their British officers, a rumor running through the northern Indian town of Simla that the Gurkhas had joined the sepoys so frightened the resident British that they panicked and fled the town, some men even abandoning their wives and children.

But the Gurkhas stayed loyal to the British and did not join the mutinying sepoys, passing their first test of loyalty.

Many years later, after Argentina's surrender to Britain in the 1982 Falklands War, Argentine troops told reporters that rumors of the Gurkhas slitting the throats of 40 Argentine soldiers in single strokes and of Gurkhas jumping into enemy foxholes with live grenades gave them the jitters and seriously shattered their morale.

In her latter point, Jacinto outlined an utterly false matter. A lie. Yet, as we will see, a lie like this where reputations are concerned is not a bad thing, by any stretch. 

Anglo-Nepalese War
Gurkhas exercising their tactics. BFBS

The Falklands War

The Falklands War provided the Gurkhas with an opportunity to demonstrate their regimental aptitude for battle in what were rather old-fashioned warfighting circumstances. The conflicts that followed, although equally fierce, have not represented a situation to that of a British territory being invaded by a foreign enemy. Similarly, like the liberation of Europe almost forty years earlier, the Falklands' recapturing began with beach landings, and the progress made by British forces had to be hard-fought for. In a recent interview with BFBS, a Falklands War veteran of the Blues and Royals, Kavin Lambert, described the admiration he and his colleagues still held for the "brave" men of the Argentine Air Force. The war was a hard slog between two conventional armed forces, and all these years on, respect remains.

In 2001, another Falklands War veteran, Gurkha Nermail Rai, spoke to the BBC World Service about his experiences fighting in the South Atlantic in 1982. In the interview, the soldier, who was still serving, described the terrified nature of the enemy he encountered on Tumbledown Mountain alongside his fellow Gurkhas, comparing their unit experience to that of the Scots Guards. The Scots were fighting simultaneously on the other side of the mountain, yet, he claimed, were facing a less frightened enemy.

Gurkha recruits line up for selection in early 2021. BFBS

Captain Rai's interview was reported in South Atlantic news agency Merco Press:

After taking some injuries from an Argentine artillery barrage, his battalion was tasked to capture one side of Tumbledown Mountain, but as they advanced on the well defended feature the Argentines left their defences and retreated rapidly towards Stanley. In contrast, at the other end of the ridge, the Argentine defenders had been taken on by the Scots Guards, and apparently without the same degree of fear, fought hard.

Captain Rai was asked if the Gurkhas ferocious reputation is deserved. He replied, "I think yes."

He went on to recall that as he and his comrades moved through the largely abandoned Argentine positions on Tumbledown, they found several Argentine medical troops who may have remained behind to care for wounded. The men were taken prisoner and the Gurkhas unsheathed their huge curved "kukri" knives. The incident is Captain Rai's most abiding memory of the war. He said: "The Argies were terrified that we were going to chop off their heads. In fact we had drawn the kukris to cut up shoe laces to tie them up with."

The article ended by explaining Rai and his Gurkha buddies reassured their captives they were not about to be killed in cold blood. A few hours later, the Argentinian soldiers were moved to a designated Prisoner of War camp.

Whereas the focus of commentary around the Falklands War is often confined to the six weeks of actual fighting, the military book publisher Pen & Sword offered a more legacy-based perspective of the Gurkhas for the publication of Mike Seear's memoir With the Gurkhas in the Falklands: A War Journal. A press release for the book said:

Thirty-five years post-war, the Gurkhas' psychological impact continues to live a life of its own in Argentina. No other unit in the 1982 British Task Force can claim such an astonishing long-term effect on a nation. It may be a result of myths and exaggerated stories, nonetheless the Gurkhas form one of most professional armed bodies in the world. That is why their reputation, even now, does its work so effectively for them.

Soldiers of the Queen’s Gurkha Engineer Regiment contributed to the building of the Nightingale Hospital at The Excel centre, London, in 2020. Credit: MOD

On the one hand, the Gurkhas' reputation can be described as solidly based on centuries of heroic fighting, underlined by the countless written accounts of those actions, some of which we have explored in this feature.

But on the other hand, one could say that their reputation is complicated and made up in equal parts of in-battle fierceness and loyalty, but also myths that have tended to begin within the ranks of the enemy, too often on the backfoot against what has consistently been one of the most formidable fighting forces in military history.

History shows that when a reputation can be weaponised to take a large chunk out of the enemy's morale before the fighting begins, whoever owns that reputation will be the victor of any war. This is the real consequence of the Gurkhas' reputation.