In themselves, these words from His Royal Highness Prince Harry encapsulate the ethos and history of those soldiers who are called the best in the world. Having completed two tours of Afghanistan, notably for two months in Helmand, the Duke of Sussex has seen for himself what those legendary fighters are made of.
In his amazing book, Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword), retired General Sir Peter Duffell took upon himself to explain what kind of mettle these exceptional fighters who first encountered the British red coats as enemies on the battlefield of the war on Nepal between 1814 and 1816 are made of. Few people could know the subject better, since the author was himself commissioned into the 2nd Gurkha Rifles at the beginning of his military career.
Having lived for several months in Edinburgh (Scotland), I visited the National War Museum on a few occasions. I was always impressed to read that, during World War I, Germans used to call Scottish soldiers “the ladies from hell” – a distinct reference to their kilt and warrior prowess.
I don’t know how Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troops (or other battlefield enemies throughout history) called the Gurkhas south of Ypres in the first months of the Great War, but I can easily imagine a similar fright must be instilled in whoever sees one of those Nepali soldiers advancing toward his / her position. Just to give you an idea of the kind of fighter we are talking about, the author recounts that, in the last stages of the Burma campaign:
“Rifleman Bhanbhagta’s section was pinned down by heavy Japanese machine gun, grenade and mortar fire; a tree sniper was also inflicting casualties. Bhanbhagta, unable to engage the sniper from the prone position, calmly stood up, fully exposing himself to enemy fire, and shot the sniper dead.”
I could also mention the officer who served during the first Afghan war who had “been wounded and losing an arm in the process, amputated by the surgeon at Charika without anaesthetic.” But I think you get the point. You mess with these guys at your own peril. From the Ridge above Old Delhi to Afghanistan, through Monte Cassino and Brunei, the Gurkhas have earned a solid reputation as “One of the greatest fighting Corps that ever served the British Crown.”
The most poignant fight in this book was probably not conducted on the battlefield, but in the corridors of Whitehall. At that stage, Sir Peter, who was then Commander of the British Forces in Hong Kong and Major General of The Brigade of Gurkhas had to wage an administrative battle “[…] for the continued presence of Gurkhas in the British Army.” I remember talking with a military historian in a museum in Scotland and she told me that the restructuring of the British Armed Forces of 1990 following the end of the Cold War was extremely difficult – Scottish regiments also had a taste of that medicine. But the author decided that he “[…] was not going to preside over the total disbandment of the Brigade of Gurkhas.” With a determination like the one showed by his soldiers on the field, Sir Peter went the whole nine yards to make sure that the Gurkhas remained on the British Order of Battle.
I was not very happy to read about that Scottish General whose mantra, in the disbandment or amalgamation process, was that “all Gurkha battalion should go before a single British battalion went to the wall.” After all, Scots and Gurkhas fought side by side on many occasions (Afghanistan, North African and Brunei among others). Politics can be more treacherous than the battlefield. Having survived this ordeal, Gurkha regiments would be reduced from 4 to 2 under the unified name of the Royal Gurkha Rifles.
After reading this book, I came to understand that the kukri is not the only legendary weapon of the Gurkhas. Their identity and their reputation, notably with the public in general, and the Royal family in particular – they nourish a close relationship with HRH the Prince of Wales – probably contributed to their association with and survival in the British Army but is also an essential key to their future. Sir Peter argues that the Gurkha is indispensable because of the “[…] innate and distinctive character and culture, the traditional standards and skills on which he has built and upheld his reputation as a fighting soldier of much worth.”
Of course, Gurkha Odyssey is an essential title on the bookshelf of any military history enthusiast. The author’s style is accessible and engaging. Sir Peter is not shy to share his opinions – the first Afghan War was “totally unnecessary” and he has no inhibition to quote Kipling. But this amazing book is also an essential companion for anyone seeking to deal with the vagaries of life. In the cold of the trenches, under the bullets of a sniper, in the hostile environment of the jungles and outnumbered by enemies, these legendary soldiers have always known how to turn the tide in their favor. On the battlefield of life, this is an extremely powerful lesson.
As for Sir Peter Duffell, I can only express him my gratitude for writing this book – and hopefully for thinking about writing another one soon. For the time being, Gurkha Odyssey ranks among my favorite military history books.
Celer et Audax!
Peter Duffell, Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown, Yorkshire, Pen & Sword, 2019, 304 pages.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Daniel Yesilonis, Marketing Manager of the Casemate Group not only for sending me a copy of this book but also for contributing to my passion about military history with other fascinating titles. Dealing with someone like Daniel is a pure joy, and encouragement, for a blogger.
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