The Crown and the Gurkhas

Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell (right) as a Lieutenant Colonel commanding First Battalion 2nd KEO Gurkha Rifles with his Colonel-in Chief, the then Prince of Wales, visiting a training exercise in 1982. (source: Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell)

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In the aftermath of the passing of our beloved Sovereign, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I reached out to one of my favorite military figures, Lieutenant-General Sir Peter Duffell, who is a retired high-ranking officer of the Gurkhas and the former Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong. Sir Peter – who is notably the author of the enthralling book Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword) – generously accepted to share his insights with me, in an exclusive piece I am extremely happy to share with you below. These comments detail the relationship between the Gurkhas – who are among the very best soldiers in the world, but who also serve in one of my favorite units in the British Army, with the Scottish Regiments – and the Crown.

Many sincere thanks for sharing this with us on this mournful and historic occasion, Sir Peter!

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In the volume of commentary that has followed the passing of Her Majesty the Queen, almost every aspect of her reign and the life of King Charles III has been well documented including their very personal links with the Armed Forces of the Crown.

Everyone who has served in uniform will have sworn allegiance to Queen and Country and will have been reminded constantly through their titles, insignia, medals, standards and colours of proud and important links with the monarch.

And most of us in the course of our duties will have met one or more members of the Royal Family and these will have been memorable occasions. For me at this historic time it is the connections between our Queen, and now the King, and the Gurkha soldier that has been strongest in my mind.

The link between the royal family and the Gurkha soldier has always been strong.

For me that first connection was in June 1953 when as a young schoolboy I watched with my father the coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth ll. It was here that I first saw a company of soldiers who looked rather different; they were dressed in dark green; they carried their rifles at the trail and not at the shoulder and they seemed to raise a special cheer from the crowd. My father told me they were British Army Gurkhas, they came from Nepal and they were very formidable soldiers. In 1960 I was commissioned into the senior Gurkha Regiment, 2nd King Edward Vll’s Own Gurkha Rifles.

The link between the royal family and the Gurkha soldier has always been strong. Aside from their distinguished campaign service, since Victorian times two Gurkha officers have held the appointment of Queen’s (or King’s) Gurkha Orderly Officer escorting the monarch at various official functions and standing by their side at every investiture that they held to award honours and decorations to their subjects. Additionally, two of the then four Gurkha Regiments also held contemporary royal titles – 6th Queen Elizabeth’s Own Gurkha Rifles and the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles.

The Prince of Wales was much taken with the Gurkha soldiers’ skills and charm, and they were much taken with him.

In 1977, the then Prince of Wales was appointed Colonel in Chief of my own Regiment at the start of a long and close association. In 1979, we introduced the Prince to his Regiment in Hong Kong with a two-day visit demonstrating every aspect of its duties through general war fighting; surveillance on the border with China and ceremonial, Gurkha dancing and Beating retreat. It was clear to me that the Prince of Wales was much taken with the Gurkha soldiers’ skills and charm, and they were much taken with him.

In 1980, when commanding the First Battalion of my Regiment in England, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the State Banquet held at Buckingham Palace for the King and Queen of Nepal. Seated well below the salt I heard the Queen in her generous words of welcome refer to ‘my gallant and light-hearted Gurkhas;’ and this phrase continues to resonate with me to this day.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have several private audiences with my Colonel-in-Chief.

Over the next 45 years our Colonel-in-Chief has continued to pay numerous formal and informal annual visits to the Regiment and mutual affection and admiration has been obvious to see. I was fortunate to accompany our Regimental Colonel-in-Chief on two overseas visits to Nepal where we trekked for several days in the hills and to Brunei where a Battalion of the Regiment was serving. Over the years, I have been fortunate to have several private audiences with my Colonel-in-Chief and have come to appreciate our Colonel in Chief’s sense of humour, his wise counsel and his concern and interest in the welfare of our soldiers. He seems to much enjoy their company.

On my return to UK after serving as Commander British Forces in Hong Kong, I was also privileged to have a private audience with Her Majesty the Queen. Our uninhibited one-to-one talk seemed to range and probe far and wide on matters such as China, security issues, the future of Hong Kong and the Gurkha soldier about whom she expressed the greatest admiration.

I expect to see a strong contingent of Gurkhas march in the coronation procession of King Charles lll.

Among many other memorable royal events that I particularly recall have been the presentation by our Colonel-in-Chief of Afghanistan medals to 140 Gurkha soldiers held in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace, many tours of demanding Public Duties in London, a marching guard for the funeral of Lord Mountbatten and many other State occasions. Succession will bring changes, but our links are strong, and we very much hope these will continue as our Colonel-in-Chief ascends the throne. I expect to see a strong contingent of Gurkhas march in the coronation procession of King Charles lll.

Lieutenant-General Sir Peter Duffell

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Sir Peter Duffell, Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown, Yorkshire, Pen & Sword, 2019, 304 pages.

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