Any history buff strolling in Old Jerusalem can observe some vestiges of the British Empire. There’s the Mahane Yehuda police station on Jaffa Road, which served during the Mandate. Less than two hours from the capital city of Israel, on the Mediterranean Coast, one can visit the Acre prison where Jewish nationalists were imprisoned, including those who were condemned to death. At least, it was possible to do so when I visited back in 2008.
The rebirth of Israel in 1947-1948 was a direct consequence of the disappearance of the British Empire in the aftermath of World War II. The same year also witnessed the partition between India and Pakistan, a development that would give rise to population displacements and massacres. Robert Atkins, author of The Gurkha Diaries of Robert Atkins MC: India and Malaya 1944 – 1958 (Pen & Sword) and his fellow Gurkhas [the sturdy and legendary Nepalese soldiers who serve the Crown since the middle of the 19th century] were deployed on that theater and attempted “[…] to mitigate the massacres [between Hindus and Muslims] and stem the violence in the last days of a teetering Raj.” The magnitude of the violence perpetrated during that tragic chapter of contemporary history must have been staggering for the young soldiers, but they carried on with admirable bravery, nevertheless.
The British presence was also under assault in Southeast Asia and the author of the diaries was sent to Malaya to fight communist terrorists. After battling alongside the Tommies during the war, the disciples of Mao turned against London afterwards in the context of the national liberation movements. One of their leaders, Kong Pak, “[…] had been on the Allied victory parade in London in 1945, when he was appointed an OBE [Order of the British Empire], and he held the honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army!” Quite a turnaround.
A far cry from the shiny boots and pressed uniforms wowing the crowds on ceremonial duty on parade square or public displays, Robert Atkins and his fellow Gurkhas spent the bulk of their time in the jungle. Sleep deprived, they were once forced to eat edible fungus as well as larvae, and fungal foot was a daily concern. These challenges were as taxing as staying alert and ready to combat their enemies.
They were also called to perform acts that few of us could even imagine. I certainly couldn’t before reading about them. During a patrol in the jungle, a British soldier complained about stomach pain, but it was impossible to evacuate him by helicopter. “His appendix was inflamed, and [I was] instructed […] on how to remove the appendix using a razorblade as a scalpel, but suggested that with rest the patient might be better in the morning. He made a remarkable recovery!”, writes Robert Atkins. Gruesome as it may seem, that passage reveals the extent of the commitment and resourcefulness of those who took the King’s shilling. The book is filled with such details, which offer the reader the crude reality experienced by these soldiers. They say you can’t truly understand someone if you haven’t walked in their shoes. Thanks to The Gurkha Diaries, one can wear the boots of these men whose task was to ensure that the sun set as safely as possible on the British Empire.
The relationship between the Gurkhas and the Royal family has been covered on this blog. In that regard, the bookoffers very interesting vignettes about the presence of the Crown on the soldiers’ path. While serving in India, Robert Atkins witnessed something peculiar. During the partition, “[…] Coming out of the march and arriving on the main road, Lady Mountbatten [the wife of Lord Mountbatten, last viceroy of India and descendant of Queen Victoria] and Mr Nehru were supposed to have been watching the exodus, but in fact they were cuddled together under a bridge. I was asked by the men who it was: was it the Vicereine?!”
The former Gurkha officer also recounts how he was informed of King George VI’s death when he emerged from the jungle in 1952. Few months later, in October, his company went for rest and re-training at a depot “[…] commanded by Colonel Phillip Townsend, brother of Group Captain Peter Townsend, who at that time had just broken up with Princess Margaret.” The final episode happened two years later, on March 14, 1954, when the Gurkha officer received the Military Cross (MC) from Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at Buckingham Palace in recognition of his service in Southeast Asia fighting communist terrorists.
At the book launch in 2021, Lieutenant-General Sir Peter Duffell – who is the author of an authoritative history of the Gurkhas – said that “Robert’s vivid and important diaries depict some rare fragments of imperial and military history; of times now long gone but which deserve to be recorded and remembered.” The times in which Robert Atkins and his comrades served might be long gone and now confined to history books, but their gallantry still lives in their successors. The numerous challenges facing the world will undoubtedly require similar selfless qualities in the future. The author fought communists who were subservient to China. Better understanding what they encountered in the jungles of Malaya and other theaters can only serve in the current geopolitical context.
Without hesitation, The Gurkha Diaries deserves to be read. I can only hope that more books of the genre will be published under the pen of those who served in the ranks of the Gurkhas, notably during the last days of the British presence in Hong Kong.
Robert Atkins, The Gurkha Diaries of Robert Atkins MC: India and Malaya 1944 – 1958, Barnsley (South Yorkshire), Pen & Sword, 2021, 144 pages.
I would like to express my gratitude to Daniel Yesilonis of Casemate Publishers for his incomparable contribution to this blog.