Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Gargantuan Gurkhas - Nepal's Unsung Heroes!

Words and pictures by Barry Greville-Eyres

Notwithstanding the controversy and professional distinction between groupings within the broader Gurkha Contingent (GC) – Indian, British, Nepali, Malaysian and Singaporean, this post addresses all Nepalese Gurkhas wherever they serve(d) and is designed to cast a spotlight on their immense military, peacekeeping and humanitarian achievements spanning centuries. It’s also an attempt to personalise everyday interactions with these amazing people and convey the extent to which our lives, as civilian clients, are made so safe and normal by their shadowy, protective presence.  It also celebrates the Nepali heritage, work ethos and professionalism, rich culture and traditions all of which have withstood, unwaveringly, the test of time.

Colours and symbolism of Nepal's famous Gurkhas with, at centrepiece, their traditional and signature weapon the khukuri - a forward curving Nepalese knife. Gurkhas have an indisputable reputation for their fearless military prowess

In recent travel to Nepal and in countless conversations with Nepalese, serving and retired Gurkhas, the perpetual questions of:  Why has so little been said and written about the achievements of the Warrior Gurkhas  (the absence of stories by Gurkhas for Nepali and broad-based consumption) are generally met by shrugs of the shoulders, casual nonchalance and sheepish grins – all of a decidedly conspiratorial nature.  In the delightful albeit gung-ho blog posting by James G, entitled Civilian Contractors: The Nepali Gurkha in International Security Contracting – October 2010, a number of select quotations, comments and anecdotes extol Gurkha virtues superbly and imaginatively, some of which are shared below. I hope blend these into my own personal narrative and experience, with the confidence that I do our unsung heroes justice.

“If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gurkha”
Field  Marshal Sam Manekshaw - Former Chief of staff of the Indian Army

Having served, as a development practitioner, on tours in consecutive fragile and conflict affected states (Iraq, Timor-Leste and Afghanistan respectively) there is no escaping the vexing issue of international security contracting and those, civilian contractors, that ply their trade in this morphing multi-billion dollar industry.  My personal history (mandatory military conscription and active service in the South West African/Angolan Border War 1981/82) and subsequent close proximity to many private security contractors (PSCs) or civilian contractors (especially South African) primarily in Iraq - Baghdad, prompted me to pen an earlier posting entitled ‘Saluting Iraq’s Gentle and Caring Infidels’ ( Struck by post-Apartheid’s spreading South African diaspora, military and civilian, I felt compelled to tell our story. Years later, there is the need to do the same on behalf of Nepali friends, colleagues and Gurkhas as they too have to contend with their own, equally fascinating diaspora.
“10 Expat PSC’s aren’t equal to 1 Gurkha PSC – These self-entitled US or UK PSC’s always have sand in their vaginas despite the fact they get paid 20 times more and do 1/50th the amount of work an ex-Gurkha PSC does.”

Anon, Security Contractor, Convoy Escort TL Baghdad, Iraq 2004

My most vivid, in field, recollections of Gurkha character and fortitude include snappy salutes and friendly "Good morning Sirs;" immaculately turned out men going about their business with great pride and dedication; a parched, dusty and desolate compound in Kandahar where the only life and greenery was delivered through the patchwork of lovingly tendered vegetable gardens; posted sentries having to put up with semi-inebriated and smart-arsed expats in Baghdad; countrymen and brothers-in-arms drawing great strength and comfort from one another on endless tours of duty far from family and loved ones; mind numbing routine after routine blending into so many years....... its what these men do to support their extended Nepalese families.

Early Gurkha beginnings include the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814–1816) which was fought between the Gurkha Kingdom of Nepal and the British East Indian Company as a result of territorial disputes and ruthless expansionism of both confrontational parties but more so, probably, by the bullying Brits. The impressive Gorkhali soldiers were recruited mainly from the Nepali hill tribes such as the Magar, Gurung, Tamang, Sherpa, Chhetri, Thakuris, Rai and Limbu, although original Gurkhali soldiers were mainly of Chhetri, Thakuri, Gurung, Magar, Rai and Limbu ethnics.

Gurkhas in the making - Nusseree Battalion Circa, 1857

There were many battles of which the Battle of Kalanga in 1814 is well documented. Balbhadra Kunwar, who had approximately 600 Gurkhas under his command, held high ground against some 4,000 attacking British troops. After being besieged for almost a month and in almost constant mortal combat Balbhadra and about 70 remaining survivors managed to slip away, silently and undetected, through the British lines. The war ended with the signing of the Peace Treaty of Sugauli in 1816 and it was agreed that Gorkhalis could be recruited to serve under contract in the East India Company's army. Under contract implies some form of remuneration and perhaps the true origin of the latter day remittance economy that thrives within Nepal to this day. 

In a personal conversation with Padam Bahadur Limbu MVO (Bahadur Limbu – one of the original Gurkha Warrior Castes in Nepal), retired British Army Major (2nd Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles) and current Senior Project Manager for IDG Gurkha Security Services (Afghanistan) he confirmed “the pride and importance of the home-grown, Nepali Gurkha brand name globally, particularly within military and security contracting circles.” According to him the brand is indisputable and synonymous with “professionalism, impeccable discipline and service, integrity, resilience, reliability and unsurpassed bravery and toughness.”

A 3rd generation Gurkha, Padam served for 31years in the British Gurkha Army undertaking tours of duty in the Falkland Islands, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan. He was somewhat reluctant to discuss his first tour of duty, as a very young man, to the distant Falklands War  more out of modesty than bravado.  Amongst many personal achievements and distinguished decorations, his most prized is MVO Member, The Royal Victorian Order. Membership is conferred by the reigning monarch, in this case HM Queen Elizabeth II, on those who have performed personal service for the sovereign. Padam served directly as Queen's orderly officer at Buckingham Palace for HM Queen. 
Major Padam Bahadur Limbu MVO, proud recipient of the illustrious decoration Member, The Royal Victorian Order together with his family at Buckingham Palace. (Photo: Courtesy of Padam Bahadur Limbu)

. “As a testament to these fearless little warriors from Nepal, is a story (that can be verified) from the Falklands Conflict. The Argentinians were dug in on one of the mountains leading up to Port Stanley and were intent on making a fight of it. When they were told that they would be up against the Gurkhas, to a man, they either surrendered or fled, without a shot being fired. Of course, the Ghurkas were very disappointed with this outcome but I think it speaks volumes of the reputation of these tough little fighters.”
 Richard Newson
Major Padam Bahadur Limbu, 2nd  Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles at Buckingham Palace prior to receiving his MVO award for personal service to HM Queen Elizabeth II   (Photo: Courtesy of Padam Bahadur Limbu)

Of IDG, founded by the rather private and reclusive Ian Douglas Gordon aka IDG (comrades-in-arms and also ex-officer with the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles) Padam confirmed that within Afghanistan IDG provides exclusive personal security and key installation/property protections services to a host of UN agencies country-wide. The company specializes in Gurkha - 100% Nepali recruited and Indian domiciled – international armed guards that are selected and placed according to IDG’s stringent selection criteria including a minimum of 14 years active military service. Unlike other PSCs who use ‘intermediate’ recruitment agencies, IDG is the real deal and currently employs over 700 highly trained and experienced Gurkhas throughout Afghanistan.

Whereas Nepal's GDP per capita income is estimated at $1,200 - $1,400 pa (2012), most internationally contracted Gurkhas earn this per month. Since most overseas living expenses (accommodation, food, clothing/uniforms) are provided by the contractor or employer, the bulk of savings are remitted back to their families, often living in rural Nepal. Typically, serving Gurkhas have annual leave of about a month where they are flown back home at company expense.   

One of the many distinguished British Army Gurkha regiments - 7th Duke of Edinburgh's Own Gurkha Rifles

Padam was rather outspoken on the “misrepresentation of the enduring Gurkha brand and its erosion and potential abuse by unscrupulous players in the burgeoning PSC market place.” According to Padam ‘fake Gurkhas,’ without requisite training, skills and experience, tarnish the true Gurkha reputation and tradition and potentially put the lives of clients at very real risk.  Although no longer a resident of Nepal, Padam visits his former homeland almost every year and is proudly Nepali. He speaks fondly of his countrymen and the immense sacrifice and contributions they have made to the stability, reconstruction and development of Afghanistan – a far cry from the days when Gurkas, conscripted into the British Army, faced active combat in distant and exotic destinations such as Kabul and Kandahar (1878–1880). It’s estimated that at any one time there are several thousand Nepalese living and working, throughout Afghanistan, serving in many diverse roles and occupations.

Home-grown and brewed - the Gorkha brand is authentic, reputable and timeless and obviously wholly Nepali Himalayan 

“Having had the pleasure of working side by side with Gurkhas a few times throughout my contracting career I can attest to their discipline and professionalism. Out of all the groups of people I have worked with the ex-Brit Gurkha is by far my favorite.”
“You will never meet an ex-Brit Gurkha PSC who has the Douchebag Affliction shirt wearing, beard growing, shitty attitude that is unfortunately so prevalent in this industry these days. These guys have zero ego despite having more combat experience in their pinky than most people have in their entire body – and I am talking about old school combat experience like “wearing face-paint in the jungle” type of fighting.”

Gurkhas were always thought to be a superior warrior or martial race because they were considered to be naturally warlike and aggressive in battle; to possess attributes of courage, loyalty, self-reliance, physical strength, resilience, organization; to be able to work hard for long periods of time and; to fight with resolve and military strength. In preparation for some modest trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area and upon the sound recommendation of a Nepali friend of a Nepali friend, I was able to engage the superb guiding services of  Krisna Bahadur Gurung ( Mobile no. +977 – 9846104807).

The blogger with Krisna Bahadur Gurung taking a breather, on a mountain high and trek, within the Annapurna Conservation Area

After trekking together for several days I was left with no doubt that Krisna, hailing from the village of Gorkha and specifically from the Gurung hill tribe, was one such superior human being. With the burning desire to follow in the true Gurkha tradition, he faltered at the final selection hurdle due to his inability to meet the minimum set weight requirement of 50kgs. Its with a calm resignation, maturity and re-directed energy and commitment (to being the best possible professional trekking guide) that this personal disappointment still and will always remain with him.  This was brought sharply to the fore when he accompanied me to one of the many jewels in Pokhara’s (Nepal’s second largest city) crown – the Gurkha Memorial Musuem. Pride and pleasure were tinged with a real sense of loss and regret - all on a crazy collision course which left us both pretty bewildered.

The Gurkha Memorial Museum a must visit  asset in Pokhara 

We’d both come off a mountain high and I was totally unprepared for the avalanche of emotions that rushed down upon me as we worked our way through the museum. The more recent, recorded history (1800s onwards) is captured in an honest and wholly unpretentious manner. With an unquestionable and impressive roll of honor, I was welcomed into this inner sanctum – drawn by countless ethereal greetings and knowing gazes of serious, virile young men who’d had their date with destiny and glory. I was deeply moved by their call to serve, campaign upon campaign – so little personal gain yet such sacrifice on foreign shores afar.  Many men betrayed shades of mischief, adventure, indomitable belief and innocence but all wore their immaculate uniforms, literally and figuratively as one - gargantuan Gurkha! 
To Krisna’s credit, he has progressed through the ranks from a teenaged porter hauling, nimble-footed and at great speed, ungainly loads of up to 70kgs over insane terrain to the pinnacle of his profession – a highly polished, knowledgeably and thoroughly professional trekking guide. From my perspective it was uncanny to witness this genetic programming in action – Krisna’s ease with and reading of clients of all nationalities; his uncanny field and bush craft; his powers of observation and anticipation to catch a client when he/she falters or falls; his natural service orientation and so strikingly, his radiant Nepali sunshine and personality as it emerges from behind the clouds of doubt and insecurity.
Since its formation in 1949 with 142 men, the Gurkha contingent has grown to over 2,000 in size in 2003. This was a consequence of Indian Independence from Britain in 1947, where 10 regiments of Gurkhas from the British Indian Army were divided between the Indian Army (Gorkha) and the British Army (Gurkha). Those transferred to the British Army were posted to other remaining British Colonies in Malaya and Singapore. Young men are recruited in Nepal at the British Gurkha camp in Pokhara. About 370 are selected annually in December out of a pool of over 20,000 applications with about 140 eventually joining the GC while the rest will go to the British Army.

Some of the basic physical admission criteria in the recruitment camp include:
*  Aged 17½ to 21
*  Minimum height of 160 centimetres (5 feet)
*  Minimum weight of 50 kilograms (110 lbs)
*  Chest circumference of 79 centimetres (31 in) with minimum 5 centimetres (2 in) expansion
*  No applicants needing eyesight aids will be accepted.
*  Generally good oral hygiene, with up to two fillings, false teeth or a single gap.

The proud Gurkha legacy lives on

Applicants are expected to possess a minimum education level of SLC 3rd Division equivalent to 'O' Levels. Upon registration, they have to go through a battery of physical and mental assessments prior to selection, including oral and written tests in the English language, a mathematics test, a board interview and medical examination. The annual selection process, which normally takes 17 days but is spread over four months due to conditions in Nepal, will then assign recruits to either the GC or the British Army.

During World War II (1939–45), following the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940, the Nepalese government offered to increase recruitment of Gurkha battalions in British service to thirty-five. This would eventually rise to forty-three battalions. This expansion required ten training centres to be established for basic training and regimental records across India. In addition five training battalions were raised, while other units were raised as garrison battalions for keeping the peace in India and defending rear areas. Large numbers of Gurkha men were also recruited for non-Gurkha units, and other specialised functions such as paratroops, signals, engineers, and military police.

 “Gurkha combat rifle load is 20 rounds. Their combat philosophy is to close on the enemy with those 20 rounds, and use the Kukri to eliminate the enemy.”
 “Those guys are some of the most switched on dudes I have come across. I haven’t worked with them, but have been around them and I was impressed.”

A total of 250,280 Gurkhas served in 40 battalions, plus eight Nepalese Army battalions, plus parachute, training, garrison, and porter units during the war, in almost all theatres. In addition to keeping peace in India, Gurkhas fought in the hot deserts of North Africa, the cold winters of Europe or the muddy jungles of Burma. Apart from small detachments, the main Gurkha regiments fought in Italy, Greece and Burma. They did so with considerable distinction, earning 2,734 bravery awards including 10 Victoria Crosses in the process and suffering around 32,000 casualties – wounded, dead or missing – in all theatres of war. In effect the entire youth of Nepal was placed at the disposal of the British war machine. With a population of only four million people at the time, this meant that almost every Nepali of military age was serving the British Crown.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s the Gurkha regiments formed a substantial part of the Garrison of India, and played an active and special role securing its borders and holding its remotest regions. In 1935, during a fatal earthquake in Quetta – Pakistan two Gurkas from the 8th Gurkha Rifles received the George Cross for extreme bravery not in the face of the enemy. 

Gurkha Roll of Honour - 13 Victoria Cross recipients for bravery and gallantry 

During World War I (1914–18), more than 200,000 Gurkhas served in the British Army in Europe, suffering approximately 20,000 casualties, and receiving almost 2,000 gallantry awards. The number of Gurkha battalions was increased to thirty-three, and Gurkha units were placed at the disposal of the British high command by the Nepalese government for service on all fronts. Many Nepalese volunteers served in non-combatant roles, serving in units such as the Army Bearer Corps and the labour battalions, but there were also large numbers that served in combat in France, Turkey, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. They served on the battlefields of France in Mesopotamia, Persia, Suez Canal and Palestine against Turkish advance, Gallipoi and Salonika. During the ultimately unsuccessful Gallipoli campaign in 1915, the Gurkhas were among the first to arrive and the last to leave.

“As I write these last words, my thoughts return to you who were my comrades, the stubborn and indomitable peasants of Nepal. Once more I hear the laughter with which you greeted every hardship. Once more I see you in your bivouacs or about your fires, on forced march or in the trenches, now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by a pitiless and burning sun. Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds; and at the last your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you.”
Professor Sir Ralph Turner, MC - 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles World War I

Nepali Gurkhas heavily involved in Afghanistan whether in the formal military or international security contracting

Gurkhas are served and saw action in the Falklands War in 1982, in the Gulf conflict in 1990 and thereafter in peacekeeping missions to Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Timor-Leste, Afghanistan, Macedonia, Bosnia and Sierra Leone.

Enough said!



On the 18th April 2014, 16 Nepali Mountain Warriors or Sherpas (from the Sherpa tribe) lost their lives on the slopes of Mt. Everest, to a deadly avalanche of ice and snow, whilst preparing for the 2014 climbing season. Some Sherpa guides were angered by the government's meagre offer of compensation to victim's families and threatened a strong protest or strike. On 22nd April, the Sherpas announced they would not work on Everest for the remainder of 2014 as a mark of respect for the victims and their families. More than 250 people have died climbing Mount Everest. However, the 2014 avalanche was the deadliest in Everest's history, superseding a 1996 disaster when eight foreign climbers died. 

 In life and death, we salute Nepal’s Unsung Heroes!

In life and death we salute Nepal's Unsung Heroes!

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