Nepali Times
The river was red with blood

The real voice of the Gurkhas has often been overshadowed by a romantic version of their role in British Army during both world wars. Retired Gurkha soldiers, most of them more than 75 years old, are now telling their own stories and 13 of their testimonies have been published by Himal Books in Lahurey ko Katha and were translated for Nepali Times. This fortnightly serialisation of extracts of the soldiers' stories in their own words begins with the recollections of 91-year-old Man Bahadur Gurung from Pokhara who fought in Burma.

In keeping with the prevailing custom then, I didn't go to school and lived in a cowshed till I ran away with an army recruiter and enlisted at Bettiah camp in Darbhanga, Bihar.

The recruiters used to come to the village in secret. They had to meet us in the forest and sweet talk us as if they were courting us. They were apprehensive about entering the village openly because a number of them got lost in that war. This had made parents suspicious, and they forbade recruiters from entering the village for fear they would lead the boys to their deaths. If any recruiter was found sneaking into the village, he was caught and beaten up.

This was the way it was even when I enlisted in 1928. The recruiting officer at Darbhanga was British. I was selected for the Burma Army. After enlistment, training and education was at the training centre.

On our arrival at Matila in Burma, we were trained and learnt the basics of marching in the course of a year. After that we were posted at Machina. I was smarter than others in our lot and was selected to be an instructor. I served in that capacity for 11 years. World War II started while we were at the training centre and we plunged right into battle.

At that time I held the rank of sergeant and we were sent to Katha for a junior leadership course. Approximately 500 infantrymen were deputed from Burma Rifles for training. Our British instructors taught us schemes of warfare. During the training, rumour was rife that war had started in Manchuria. In those days, there were no transistor radios and we kept ourselves abreast of the happenings through big radios.

After our training was completed, we were sent to our respective units. Meanwhile, we heard that the war front was approaching our area. Having successfully completed our training, we were in the process of training others. We had no information that the Japanese had already made their way inside Burma, and were close to where we were stationed. We had no doubt that the Japanese, after penetrating inside Burma, had taken to wearing Burmese clothes and were looking for where we stored our weapons, medicines and food.

The Burmese are a very cold-blooded people, and there were a few of them in our regiment. We usually frequented clubs where one could read, drink beer and play cards. There one could buy all sorts of liquor or beer. Under the influence of rum the Burmese would blurt out that their father had stepped in. We were at a loss to understand what this revelation by the Duppy implied. Burmese were called Duppy because they let the fish rot inside tins, then mixed it with other things and consumed it. In Burmese such rotten fish is called Duppy hence the moniker for the Burmese. They had hidden Japanese in their places, which made them blurt out that their father had gone, and our father has stepped in. That implied that Japanese were their father and Britishers were ours. Those were the code words.

Information reached us that Japanese were expected to advance along the Sitang river from Thailand. On the basis of that information all of our troops-Burmese, English, Punjabi, Garhwali, Dogra and Gurkhas-headed in that direction. If the Gurkha regiment was in the front, it was covered by another regiment and that one by another. In case the regiment in the front was wiped out its position was automatically taken by those behind it. In so doing, they were simply complying with strict government orders. Meanwhile, Japanese troops had crossed the river downstream following a shortcut.

Since telephone lines from headquarters were cut off, there was no communication. The supply of rations was disrupted. Under the circumstances, imagine the predicament of our troops. On inquiry it was found out that the Japanese had blocked the supply lines from behind. They had also blown up the bridge ahead. The supply of weapons and rations from the rear was disrupted. Fleeing was the only way out as the Japanese continued bombarding us from the other side. As we retreated we discovered that the bridge was blown up. They did so in order to trap us from all sides and then massacre us.

The only option open was to plunge into the Sitang river and indeed we took that recourse not withstanding the fact that Sitang is a large river. As we were putting all our efforts into floating, the Japanese started non-stop firing with machine guns. Countless lives were lost. The whole river turned red with blood. Skilled swimmers managed to cross the river; the rest lost their lives. Human bodies floated on the water and naturally, the casualties had to be astonishingly high.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)