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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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.

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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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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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Viscount Slim was the opposite of Field Marshal Montgomery

General Sir Peter Duffell (source: Nepali Times)

After the publication of my review of his excellent book Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & sword), General Sir Peter Duffell generously accepted to answer my questions for this blog. Below is the content of this fascinating exchange.

But before you read any further, let me remind you that if you are a military history aficionado, this book is a must for your bookshelves.

In my time, we certainly adopted items of jungle equipment from the Australians and rifles from the Americans as they were deemed to be more effective and soldier friendly.

Whenever I attend the change of the guard at the Citadel in Quebec City (home of the Royal 22e Régiment, the legendary Vandoos), I am always impressed by the “Bearskin” hat worn by the soldiers, a tradition that comes from the French. At Waterloo, the red coats picked the hats from the dead bodies of their fallen opponents. Throughout its history, the British Army always knew how to integrate the best parts of other traditions. The Gurkhas are no exception, having been integrated to the British Order of Battle after the Nepal War of 1814-1816. Has the British Army kept this capacity for accepting other’s best capacities and features?

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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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Prince Philip and the Gurkhas

Sir Peter Duffell (left) introducing HRH the Duke of Edinburgh to the two Queen’s Gurkha Orderly Officers at the annual Field of Remembrance on the grounds of Westminster Abbey in November 2012. (source: courtesy of Sir Peter Duffell)

I have always been a huge fan of the Gurkhas, who are among the best soldiers who have served and are still serving for Queen and Country. In that regard, I have the privilege of being in touch with Sir Peter Duffell, author of Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword), a former commanding officer of the Gurkhas, who later went on to commanding British Forces in Hong Kong between 1989 and 1992. This impressive and generous military figure also served as British Army’s Inspector General.

Upon learning of Prince Philips’s passing two weeks ago, I wrote Sir Peter to ask him about the relationship between the consort and the Gurkhas. Here’s what he mentioned:

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