The involvement of Nepali soldiers in the First World War has more to it than military gallantry
YARD BY YARD: British Gurkha soldiers take over a trench during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in France during World War I.
Ten days after the Austro-Hungarian army fired shots into Serbia, the 2/8 Gurkha Rifles battalion of Imperial Britain’s Indian Army corps were ordered to war. They would march from Sirmoor to Delhi, then onwards to Karachi from where the 620 natives and their nine British officers would board a ship to Marseille. Twenty four hours after reaching the frontline in central France, 156 Nepalis would perish in their first skirmish on 30 October 1914.
Over the next 12 months, the battalion would be repatched with new recruits, sent out beyond the barbed wire to gain a few yards of trench-line, only to be decimated by machine guns and poison gas. Other Gurkha units suffered a similar fate. After a year of heavy casualties and little progress in Flanders Field, much of the Indian army and with it the Gurkha troops were shifted to Egypt and Palestine.
In Gallipoli, a brief resurgence in a disastrous British campaign to cut through Turkish lines and relieve Russia would leave plenty of Australian, New Zealand, British, and Gurkha soldiers dead. After Allied forces were evacuated from the Turkish coast in January 1916, the Gurkhas were moved to the Gulf and took part in the campaign to realise the British Mandate for Mesopotamia.
Of the 200,000 Nepali soldiers who took part in the First World War, 60,000 were involved in direct combat, others were army bearers or part of hospital units. Although largely undocumented, there were over 20,000 casualties. Also undocumented, as historian Pratyoush Onta says, is the physical harm faced by soldiers who were maimed in the war.
To the outside world, the Gurkhas turned into instant heroes – the martial race with the reputation of unwavering loyalty, bravery, and superior fighting skills. Kulbir Thapa and Karan Bahadur Rana became the first Nepalis to receive the UK’s highest military decoration, the Victoria Cross, for gallantry ‘in the face of the enemy’. But censored letters from injured soldiers to loved ones back home, reveal more shock and awe than bravery.
A letter written by a soldier in a hospital in Brighton, UK reads: “My mother used to tell me that if I did not quit my job and came back home, I would be sorry for it. I laughed at this and now I am repenting at my leisure. When I think of my mother, I say to myself, ‘What can I do?’ What was fated to happen has come to pass. We have been caught just as fish are caught in a net.” It is not known what happened to this soldier or if the receiver got his post – all names were erased by the British army’s record keepers.
The men, who risked their lives in the battlefields of Europe and Africa a century ago, have played a far greater role in their country’s history, diplomacy, economy, and culture than they are given credit for.
While the recruitment of Nepalis into the East India Company army began soon after the Anglo-Nepal War of 1816, it was only in 1885 when Bir Shamsher became prime minister through a coup that he was compelled to recognise British India’s ‘right’ to draft Gurkha soldiers. In exchange, they would blindly support his questionable ascent to power. Thus the Gurkha lahureys became, as anthropologist Mary Des Chene writes, ‘the coin of trade between British and Nepali interests’.
In the early 1990s, Chandra Shamsher went on to pledge Nepal’s entire armed forces and all possible recruits to Britain even before war broke out in Europe in 1914. The British would provide concessions in arms purchase and an annual subsidy of Rs 1 million for the rulers’ private treasury.
The Gurkha regiments bought prosperity not only to Rana rulers, but injected untold wealth into our restricted economy. The survivors of World War I came back with an unprecedented Rs 130 million in remittance, which far outstripped the country’s annual revenue of the time. The families and friends of the soldiers were introduced to the kind of affluence and material riches that they had never imagined possible in their lives.
Writer and analyst Jhalak Subedi, in his book British Samrajyaka Nepali Mohara, quotes court historian Bhim Bahadur Pande: ‘All the way from Nautanawa, these youngsters spent so much money that porters charged more, taverns opened up along the foot trails, minstrels got enough to eat, innkeepers got fatter, and land-prices soared … everyone started hoarding Indian currency at home and people migrated to India and Burma because Kathmandu couldn’t provide the lifestyle that they were dreaming of.’
Lured by the colourful tales and newly acquired wealth of their foreign-returned relatives and friends, young men in the Janajati communities were convinced that upward mobility comes quickest through army pay-cheques. Even today tens of thousands train, apply, and fight for the 230 coveted spots in the British Army every year.
While the days of a Nepali mass exodus to other armed forces are all but over, the exceptional contribution of Gurkha soldiers to their homeland and their adopted battalions in the past 200 years, remains a willfully misconstrued historical oddity.
‘Relics of Empire: A cultural history of the Gurkhas, 1815-1987’, Mary Katherine Des Chene, 1987, Stanford
‘British Samrajyaka Nepali Mohara’, Jhalak Subedi, 2012, Himal Books
‘Dukha during the world war’, Pratyoush Onta, Himal Magazine, Vol 7, No 6, 1994
‘The Gurkhas’, John Parker, 1999, Headline
Gurkha: Pageants of History, David Bolt, 1967
‘Warrior Gentlemen’, Lionel Caplan, 2003, Himal Books
Double centennial, EDITORIAL
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The Gurkhas: An Interactive Timeline, AYESHA SHAKYA
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