From The New Review – 1909
THE GURKHAS: A FIGHTING RACE.
ACCORDING to Sir Charles Dilke, who has dealt with this subject at some length in his “Problems of Greater Britain,” the only native soldiers fit to be placed in the field in Afghanistan are Gurkhas, Sikhs, Pathans, Afridies, and the best of the Punjab Mussulmans. This view is not universally accepted, but undoubtedly the races he specifies do furnish the best soldiers of our Indian army, and it is rather significant that with the exception of the Sikhs and Punjabis, they are all found outside our dominions. The recent disaster in Manipur has brought the Gurkhas more especially to the notice of the public, and in this article it is proposed to go briefly over their military history since we came i in contact with them, describing their characteristics and merits as fighting men, and to examine the credentials they can adduce of their worthiness to stand in line of battle shoulder to shoulder with British troops.
As is well known, the Gurkhas inhabit the hill districts of Nepaul which separate that kingdom from our northern territory. They are a mixed race (except the western tribes, who are the best fighting men), and are supposed to be the descendants of Hindu refugees who fled from before the Mussulman invasion and the Mongol tribes inhabiting the Nepaulese hills. Be that as it may, their physiognomy is of an unmistakably Chinese or Tartar character, with small eyes, fiat noses, and meagre whiskers. They are sturdily built, but in stature are very short; the average height of a Gurkha soldier cannot be much over five feet three inches. The present writer remembers, when his own was brigaded with two Gurkha regiments at a camp of exercise at Delhi many years ago, the difficulty, almost impossibility, experienced by the British riflemen, themselves not tall men, of conforming to the short, quick step of the Gurkhas when marching past with them. In those days there were some very old soldiers among them; one native officer was a white-haired veteran of fifty-two years’ service, but he still appeared hale and hearty. But comparatively few as his inches are, the Gurkha is a man every inch of him, and he is a standing proof that height is not a sine qud non in a soldier if his heart is in the right place and if his physique in other respects is satisfactory. It is true that in England a diminutive stature is apt to be accompanied by a diminutive chest, but still I am not sure that too much importance is not attached to the height standard.
No doubt, other things being equal, a good big man is better than a good little man, but there must be no mistake in the former quality. A tall, growing lad wants more nourishment than a short one, and in the classes from which our recruits are drawn this is not always or even often sufficiently procurable. It may well be doubted whether for the wear and tear of a campaign the cobby man of five feet five inches is not often far more effective than his more elongated comrade of six feet. I remember a Crimean veteran telling me his experience. He was only five feet four inches, and had great difficulty in being accepted as a recruit, but as he was of sturdy build an exception was made in his favor. I quote his own picturesque language : ” While it was peace I was always hid away in the centre of the rear rank and kept out of sight as much as possible, but when we come to the Crimea I never missed a hour’s duty the ‘ole time, and did the work of many a tall man dead or sick, and at Inkerman a bullet went through the ‘air of my ‘ead, which if I ‘ad been a inch higher it would have gone through my ‘ead.” However, this is a digression, and, to return to the Gurkhas no additional inches are required in his case to make a splendid fighting soldier.
Whether it is fighting hand to hand with the bayonet or with his national weapon, the kukri, a murderous-looking curved knife with the sharp edge on the inside like a sickle, or at long range with the modern arms of precision, is all one to him, and he thoroughly enjoys himself either charging or skirmishing. These kukris in their hands are formidable weapons; with them they can bisect goats or decapitate a bullock, and, of course, can use them on the human body with equal effect. In one of our frontier expeditions the Pathans were retreating up the hillside, pursued by some Gurkhas. One of them, the smallest man in his regiment, got above the. track by which the enemy were retreating, crouched behind a rock, and on a tall Pathan stopping just below him to fire, sprang out at him, and, as related to me by an eye-witness, cut his head in two like a pumpkin. Another eye-witness told roe that in the Mutiny he saw some Sepoys take refuge in a house, and a little Gurkha crouch down by a window, watching for his opportunity like a cat by a mouse hole. After some waiting a Pandy Cut his head cautiously out to reconnoitre, but he never drew it in again, the Gurkha having cut it off with a single blow. It must be confessed that there is something of the savage in the Gurkha, and his employment against a European enemy might be objected to by some over-sensitive philanthropists; but, after all, if you are to be killed in action, it does not matter much whether your head is sliced in two by a kukri or pierced by a bullet from a Mark II. magazine rifle, which, I suppose, may be taken as the most civilized lethal weapon now before the public. The Gurkhas are Hindus in religion, but they are not always averse to alcoholic indulgence or to hobnobbing with their English comrades, and in more than one instance very close bonds of union exist between British and Gurkha regiments. Thus the 4th Battalion Rifle Brigade and the 4th Gurkhas started an acquaintance when brigaded together at the Delhi camp of exercise in 1875, and this ripened into close friendship under the more exciting circumstances of the Afghan war of 1878.
The men used to help to pitch and strike each other’s tents; they drank tea, and perhaps rather stronger beverages, and gambled mildly with each other; on Christmas day each rifle company presented two sheep to the corresponding Gurkha company, which compliment, with the addition of a dram of rum per man, was returned later on; the Rifle Brigade presented the Gurkhas with a musketry challenge shield and a silver bugle. A similar brotherhood arose between the Sirmoor Gurkha Battalion (now the 2nd Gurkhas) and the 60th Royal Rifles during their association on the Ridge at Delhi in 1857, and the next time they met a symposium of a somewhat Bacchanalian character took place. This alliance was, I believe, renewed twenty years later in the Afghan war, though with a different battalion of the Rifles. This feeling should be encouraged and fostered whenever it exists, and if it became universal would do more than anything to weld our two Indian armies into one homogeneous whole. There does not seem to be the same tendency on the part of the Gurkhas to fraternize with other native regiments to the same extent. On the eve of the Mutiny a detachment of them in the musketry camp at Umballa asked leave to pitch their tents among those of the British troops, as they did not like being mixed up with the fcala log (black fellows).
Nor bad they any sympathy whatever with the latter in their aversion to the greased cartridges, the issue of which was one of the immediate causes of the outbreak; in fact, they asked that these cartridges should be served out to them for use at target practice. The restrictions of caste do not seem to press at all heavily on them, especially in war time, a great advantage whenever they serve outside India.
For many years there were not more than three or four battalions of Gurkhas in our service, and these were mostly composed of the best fighting type. It must be remembered that Gurkhas are not all alike, and the best of them are not always procurable. The fighting tribes are only found in three of the western districts of Nepaul, and though men from further east have served in considerable numbers in our ranks, those who have had experience of them do not consider them I equal to the real fighting class of Gurkhas found in the west. At first there does not seem to have been much difficulty in recruiting, but after a time the Nepaulese government, and especially Jung Bahadur, the famous prime minister, began to object to the loss of so many of their best fighting men, and serious obstacles were thrown in the way of the recruiting parties.
Men were more or less smuggled out of Nepaul, and some lost their lives in the attempt. It would have been difficult to keep up the regiments from foreign sources only — it took three years to fill up the ranks of the Sirmoor Battalion after Delhi — but a new and excellent supply of recruits became available in the “line boys.” These were the sons of soldiers, who, as a rule, were looking forward to the time when they could enlist and serve side by side with their fathers.
They were pure bred Gurkhas — when men were scarce, recruiting parties were sometimes encouraged to bring back Gurkha women, who found husbands in the regiments —and were as good as the foreign born recruits. Gurkhas could never return to Nepaul; hence a proposal was made to colonize a portion of the Dhoon country with discharged soldiers, and a scheme with this object was submitted to government by Sir Charles Reid, of Delhi renown, commandant of the 2nd Gurkhas, but nothing came of it, though it seems to have been practicable and desirable.The first experience we had of the fighting qualities of the Gurkhas in the Nepaulese war of 1814-16, when our troops met them as enemies for the only time in their history. This war was not one that added much to the laurels of our army. Though we put in the field the very considerable force of over twenty thousand regular troops, and some ten thousand irregulars, while it is doubtful if the Gurkhas had half that number, it took two years’ tough fighting to bring them to terms. The first year’s campaigning was almost entirely in their favor, but it must be added that the incapacity of most of the brigadiers employed contributed greatly to the unfortunate results. In this war the Gurkhas displayed against us all the splendid martial qualities which have been conspicuous on a hundred battlefields since, when they have been fighting shoulder to shoulder with British troops against Jats, Marathas, Sikhs, Sepoy mutineers, Afghans, Pathans, Malays, and Burmans.