Nepal

A Short History of the Gorkha Soldiers

General Gillespie was as seasoned an officer as could be found anywhere in the great British Army. Thus, when in 1814 General Gillespie set out to conquer Nepal, that small mountainous country neighboring Hindustan, it wasn’t such a big deal.

Or at least that’s what must have gone through the minds of the British force as they entered the hilly terrain of Nepal and came upon a fortress in a place called Nalapani, in the western part of the kingdom. Little did they know that they would encounter such fierce resistance from a small force of 600 Gorkhas who marshaled its walls, many of them women. Following a proven strategy, the British laid siege to the fort, with skirmishes occurring at periodic intervals.

Legend has it that, after a siege that lasted weeks–when not even a drop of water was available inside the fort–the British soldiers witnessed a sight as had never been witnessed before in warfare. The doors opened and before their disbelieving eyes, a line of ragged-looking men and women walked out, with wicked-looking blades known as khukuris in their hands. The leader called out to the British, requesting drinking water, and the shell-shocked British obliged. After they had had their fill, the Gorkha soldiers again walked back into the fort, closing the massive doors behind them.

It was perhaps from this point on that the British realized that they were against a people that knew no fear. This was further validated by the fact that when they eventually managed to break into the fort, 750 of their soldiers were dead, including 31 officers either killed or injured. This battle was a tremendous loss for the mighty British Army, a battle-hardened force.

A Short History of the Gurkha Soldiers

Gurka soldiers in 1942. Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy/Flickr

The Battle of Nalapani (as it came to be known) introduced to the world a clan of warriors who were braver than the bravest, who inhabited a small kingdom called Nepal. The Gorkhas at Nalapani were led by General Bal Bahadur Thapa, who with 90 of his men managed to escape from the fort. They joined 300 fresh Gorkhas at a place called Jyathak, where they had to face the onslaught of an intimidating force of three British Army detachments. However, here too the British were in for an unpleasant surprise. The battle ended with the British soldiers in complete disarray, with 1500 soldiers and twelve officers dead or wounded.

Thenceforth the British–who were far superior in terms of training, organization, numbers, and weapons–became very wary of fighting these incredibly fearless warriors known as the Gorkhas. They were especially fearful of the Gorkhas’ primary weapon of war, the khukuri.

In February 1815, further fuel was added to the fire of legend when 200 Gorkhas (under General Ranjit Singh Thapa) defeated a force of 2000 under Lieutenant Young, another well-decorated officer of the British Army. This battle was the final nail in the coffin as far as further British ambitions for conquering Nepal was concerned, and soon brought an end to the 1814-1815 British military misadventure.

There was, however, a flare-up the following year, when British General Ochterlony and his soldiers fought the formidable Gorkhas. The war came to an end at Makwanpur, with the signing of the Sugauli Treaty on March 4, 1816. One of the terms of the Treaty was that the British would be allowed to recruit Gorkha soldiers into their ranks.

So began an important tradition: the recruitment of young soldiers into the British Army, the Gorkha Regiment. It first began with the enlistment of three battalions of Gorkhas from the forces of General Amar Singh Thapa. It was high praise from the British for the valor of the Gorkhas. As historian Brian Hodgson recorded at the time, “Gorkhas are bold, enduring, faithful, frank, very independent and self-reliant men, and they possess preeminently that masculine energy of character and love of enterprise which distinguish so advantageously all the military races of Nepal.”

Top image: ResoluteSupportMedia/Flickr

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