The Gurkha Diaries

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.

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L’évacuation de Kaboul

« L’Afghanistan est un pays facile à envahir, difficile à tenir, dangereux à quitter », observe David Martinon dans son époustouflant livre Les 15 jours qui ont fait basculer Kaboul (Éditions de l’Observatoire). J’étais impatient de me procurer cet ouvrage, de le parcourir et de le recenser. J’étais littéralement glué aux bulletins de nouvelles dans les dernières semaines de cet été 2021, alors que les forces occidentales opéraient un retrait en catastrophe de l’Afghanistan qui tombait chaque jour davantage aux mains de la horde talibane.

Et j’ai été ravi.

J’avais bien lu quelques articles dans Le Figaro à propos de cet ambassadeur charismatique qui fut porte-parole de la présidence de la République sous Nicolas Sarkozy en prime. Quel ne fut pas mon plaisir de lire sa plume alerte mais souvent angoissante, au fil du récit de l’une des pages les plus tragiques de l’histoire contemporaine.

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President Bush gave Afghans a taste of freedom

After the publication of my review of his enthralling and inspiring book Special Forces Interpreter, I had the privilege of being in touch Eddie Idrees. He agreed to answer a few questions and I am extremely grateful and happy to publish the content of this exchange today, as we commemorate Remembrance Day. I am sure you will appreciate this content as much as I liked conducting the interview.

President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was a betrayal.

Mr. Idrees, how did you feel about the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan last summer?

In short, it was a betrayal. President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, was not only a betrayal to me and millions of other Afghans, but to the Americans, the families who lost loved ones, to the Canadians who lost their lives in Kandahar or the Brits in Helmand. It was a betrayal of the cause. I felt like Biden allowed a terrorist network to win and gave psychological victory to the rest of the terrorist networks in the West and the Middle East. I have so much to say, but this was a historic betrayal of American values.

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Wellington took care of his soldiers

A few months ago, I reviewed the very insightful book Wellington’s Command by G. E. Jaycock. Being interested in anything related to the Iron Duke, it was therefore natural for me to read S. P. G. Ward’s Wellington’s Headquarters: The Command and Administration of the British Army during the Peninsular War (Pen & Sword).

While the objective of the author was to detail and explain the functioning of the Peninsular Army and give a portrait of the overall machinery of war, the most interesting aspect of the book is the portrait of the warlord. Wellington, it is a known fact, was a micromanager. For instance, the author explains that “[…] he was his own Director of Military Intelligence”. One doesn’t need to be a psychologist to understand that he must have been quite a difficult character to deal with – like most famous personalities in history. About the interrogation of prisoners of war, he reduced one of his subordinates, Stewart, to tears because the latter wrongfully thought it fell within the province of his responsibilities.

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In Afghanistan “with bayonet and kukri”

HRH Prince Harry (right) pictured while he was deployed with Gurkha soldiers in Afghanistan (source: Nepal News Blog)

Having devoured General Sir Peter Duffell’s book The Gurkha Odyssey (which I reviewed here recently) and being interested in anything related to these élite and legendary soldiers, I was extremely worried about the evacuation of the 100 Nepalese Gurkhas who had been tasked with guarding the Canadian embassy in Kabul. I was relieved when I heard that they had been safely taken away from the country.

Nonetheless, the whole episode reminded me of the chapter Sir Peter devoted to the Gurkhas contribution to Britain’s fight in Afghanistan – during the 1st Afghan War (1839-1842), the Second Afghan War (1878-1880), the Third Afghan War (1919) and the Fourth Afghan War (2001-2021). Since 2001, the Gurkhas took part in no less than 24 deployments!

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“When you know you are with the Gurkha, I think there is no safer place to be”

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:

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“Write me a victory”

“Wellington cuts an unattractive personal figure”, writes G. E. Jaycock in his groundbreaking book Wellington’s Command: A Reappraisal of his Generalship in the Peninsula and at Waterloo (Pen & Sword). For the huge fan of the Iron Duke in me, such a conclusion came as a shocker. Full disclosure, this book challenged my conceptions of Wellington’s grandeur and I found myself labouring through it more than once. But I am grateful for the opportunity it gave me to nuance my understanding.

Mr. Jaycock, who completed a MA degree in history about the Duke of Wellington at Buckingham University, argues that “the existing historiography has largely downplayed or ignored” the fact that Wellington’s command was characterized by “poor inter-personal relationships within the army [which] undermined effectiveness.” And his demonstration doesn’t fail to disappoint.

In short, the idolized figure depicted between the covers is one of an autocratic and aristocratic micro-manager who was unable to accept any kind of blame or responsibility. There was also a vituperate – not to say frankly despicable – side to the British icon that could be resumed in the following anecdote brought forward by the author:

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Happy Birthday, Duke of Wellington

Wellington
King and Country item NA256 resting on the second tome of Rory Muir’s biography of the Duke of Wellington, with the Union Jack flag in the background.

Happy Birthday to the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, victor of Waterloo. An extraordinary figure whose unparalleled contribution helped saved Europe and the world from Napoleonic hegemony and tyranny. He would be 247 years old!

Gallipoli and the Arab Revolt

galipoli2
The evacuation of Gallipoli

The recent commemoration of Anzac Day and the battle of Gallipoli brought my attention to a very interesting article published in 2015 in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies by David J. Charlwood.

In this fascinating article, the historian establishes a clear link between the withdrawal of the Allied troops from Gallipoli and the British decision to support the Arab revolt.

To sum up the findings of the author, Sharif Hussein of Mecca wrote to British High Commissioner in Egypt Sir Arthur McMahon in July 1915 to propose collaboration. The first response he received was “[…] that it cannot, on account of its incoherence [the Arab movement’s] be of any value to us.”

But the negative progression of events for the British and Allied forces on the Gallipoli peninsula was associated by a desire, from the same McMahon, to ensure that the foreseeable debacle would mean a loss of prestige, notably in the eyes of the Arabs and hence the high potential of their alignment with the Turks.

As the secret evacuation of the British troops began, the same McMahon wrote to Hussein: “As an earnest of our intentions, and in order to aid you in your efforts in our joint cause, I am sending you by your trustworthy messenger a sum of twenty thousand pounds.”

It is just fascinating to realize the direct link between what happened on the beaches of Gallipoli and the sands of the Arabian Desert.

Prince Harry in Australia

Photo credit: Bauer Griffin. Montage: Pinso.
Photo credit: Bauer Griffin. Montage: Pinso.

His Royal Highness Prince Harry will arrive in Australia next week for a four weeks long attachment to the ADF. If there is one trademark of Captain Wales, as he is know in the British Army, it’s that he puts his money where his mouth his. Far from shying away from grunting, he seems to relish those assignments. It will therefore be a real pleasure to follow him during his presence in Australia and also when he travels to Gallipoli for the 100th anniversary Remembrance ceremonies.

Source: http://www.army.gov.au/Our-work/News-and-media/Prince-Harry-will-begin-military-attachment-to-ADF-next-week