Soldiers of the 6th Gurkha Rifles in the trenches

Soldiers of the 6th Gurkha Rifles at Gallipoli, 1915
©Gurkha Museum

More than 200,000 Gurkhas served in the British Army during World War I. Collectively, the 10 Gurkha regiments, each consisting of two battalions, suffered approximately 20,000 casualties and received almost 2,000 awards for gallantry. They each (along with the short-lived 11th Gurkhas – which has been revived in the modern Indian army) fought in all the main 'theatres' of war: From the fields of Flanders in France to the hills of Gallipoli in Turkey and the deserts of Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine.

A New Kind of War

The Gurkhas who arrived in France in 1914 were thrown into a kind of industrial warfare based on the destructive power of earth-shattering artillery, equipment and aircraft, that they had never seen or experienced before. General Sir James Willcocks described the arrival of the 2nd battalion of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles (GR) at the Western front at the end of October 1914:

Here were these gallant fellows just arrived and exposed to every form of terror, and they could reply only with their valour and the rifles and the two machine-guns per battalion with which they were armed [no trench mortars or hand grenades], and yet they did it.

General Sir James Willcocks, 1914

The men of the 2/2nd Gurkha Rifles and all Indian Army troops were new to trench warfare and the conditions they faced were terrible; muddy trenches so deep that the soldiers could not see over the top of them and so full of water that 'trench foot' - infected feet - was a problem for everyone. Worse still, the Gurkhas and the rest of the Indian Army had to face their first freezing European Winter in the trenches, wearing uniforms and boots designed for tropical climates, with frost-bite - especially of the feet - commonplace in the trenches.

In September 1915 the 2nd battalion of the 8th Gurkhas fought until the last man, alongside 2/3 GR at the Battle of Loos. General Willcocks wrote of them:

...Although no longer the corps that suffered so terribly in those early days, it was determined to leave its mark deep cut in the soils of Flanders... and we may well pronounce that the 8th Gurkhas indeed did their duty and found their Valhalla.

General Sir James Willcocks, 1915

Once they had adjusted to the alien climates, conditions and warfare, the Gurkhas acquitted themselves with honour and enhanced their already high reputation as fearless warriors. In 1915 the men of the 1st battalion of the 6th Gurkhas were the only troops to reach the strategic high point in Gallipoli that later came to be known as 'Gurkha Bluff'.

 

'Bravest of the Brave'

The famous quote from Sir Ralph Turner, a former officer in the 3rd Queen Alexandra's Own Gurkha Rifles, was written in memory of his experiences serving with Gurkhas during the First World War.

As I write these last words, my thoughts return to you who were my comrades…Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds; and at the last your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you.

Professor Sir Ralph Turner, MC, 1914

 

Friends in Far Flung Places

Gurkhas’ bravery is well-known. Perhaps less widely-appreciated is their adaptability and their ability to make friends in unlikely places, such as in Afghanistan today. A historian of the 9th Gurkhas noted that:

Not even the most experienced and knowledgeable pre-war officer... could have conceived what was now a common occurrence... 'Johnny Gurk', clad in serge tunic and balaclava cap, sitting in a French peasant's kitchen with his feet on the stove, smoking a pipe and drinking beer or coffee, and discussing life and the war situation in... broken French!

9th Gurkha Rifles Regimental Historian

 

After the War

For a small nation like Nepal, the loss of tens of thousands of men was a staggering death toll. Like so many troops, the remains of the majority of Gurkhas never made the long journey home. After the First World War, Gurkhas returned to India from where they were sent to fight in the 3rd Afghan War in 1919 and in the bitter battles between the British and the Pathan (or Pashtun) people on India's North West Frontier.

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