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The Gurkhas

By Sgt. Peter Fitzgerald
First published in
SFOR Informer#124, October 17, 2001

New members to the United Kingdom Battle Group (UKBG) include a battalion of Gurkhas, Nepalese warriors with a long history of service in the British Army. Their unquestionable soldier skills and engaging personality make them invaluable assets in carrying out SFOR's mission of maintaining a safe and secure environment in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

Mrkonjic Grad - Outside the British Bus Station Camp, Gurkha troops mingle with local children. Only a week in BiH, the soldiers are already trying out some Bosnian phrases with the kids. Communication seems to come naturally to the Gurkhas, and soon the children are smiling.
Just across the street a few soldiers are preparing for a visit from COMSFOR, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John Sylvester. Before the Blackhawk helicopters land with the general and his entourage, Gurkha riflemen secure the area surrounding the landing site. So practised is their field craft, none of them can be seen.
This is the dual nature of these soldiers from Nepal.
"The Gurkhas have a natural charm, but they also have excellent warrior skills," said Lt. Col. Ian Thomas, UKBG commander.
The combination of skills makes the Gurkhas particularly well suited to the mission of maintaining a safe and secure environment in BiH, Thomas added.
"We want to earn the respect and trust of the people in our area of responsibility so they feel confident in our ability to promote the secure environment. The Gurkhas are an engaging people and can be a reassuring presence, but that presence is also a deterrent force," he said.
The Gurkha force is nearly 500-strong in BiH. All infantrymen, they are from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles (RGR), based in southern England. Along with a company of Royal Engineers, a cavalry squadron and an artillery battery, the Gurkhas help make up the UKBG.
"We're very looking forward to the tour," Thomas said. "We can bring a lot to the mission."
He added that the interaction between Gurkha and British troops within the battle group has been a "seamless coming together." Thomas attributes much of this to the long history of trust and respect between the two.
The relationship
The relationship between the Gurkhas and the British was one borne of war. As the British Empire expanded in the 19th Century, the East India Company declared war on Nepal in 1814. During the war, in which the adversaries fought to a virtual standstill, a mutual respect and admiration developed between the British and the Gurkhas. A peace treaty was signed to allow Gurkhas to serve in the East India Company and the first Gurkha regiment was formed in 1815. Since then, Gurkhas have fought alongside British troops in nearly every campaign, from World War I to the Gulf War. They have also been deployed extensively throughout the Balkans.
"They've always been in there fighting together with British troops," said Maj. Neil Stevens, RGR Support Company commander. "There's a bond of friendship as a result of long-term campaigning."
Stevens said the Gurkhas are well qualified for this mission, having come from operational tours in Sierra Leone and East Timor.
"We've got a wealth of experience in terms of peace enforcement and peacekeeping," he said. "There should be no doubt that when we need to act, we can act with resolve and do so quickly."
Becoming a Gurkha
The process of joining the RGR starts back in Nepal, with ex-soldiers going into the hills and mountain villages to seek recruits. The selection process requires extensive physical and medical tests. One test of strength involves mountain climbing with a 70-pound sack of rocks strapped to the shoulders. Only one out of every 600 prospects eventually joins the Gurkha Rifles. Once selected, the men are sent to the United Kingdom for training.
"There they train alongside British troops and do exactly as the British troops," Stevens said.
Because of the limited opportunities in Nepal, competition for service in the Gurkha Rifles can be intense. For many young men in Nepal, a career in the RGR is an opportunity to earn a good salary and see the world.
Support Company Sgt. Maj. Tejbir Gaha said he joined the RGR for the experience of meeting people and travelling.
"In the Army you're part of a big family," he said. "In the villages in Nepal, there are few people. The Army's a chance to make friends, experience different environments and cultures."
For Lt. Sumanchandra Rai, Support Company executive officer, joining the Gurkhas was a chance to follow a tradition of military service.
"My father fought for Britain in the Indian Army. I'm following in my generation," he said.
Loyalty has played an important role in the historical relationship between Gurkhas and the British. Gaha, who has served more than 17 years with the Gurkhas, said he's found the relationship to be very successful. He attributes this success to a shared system of values, where loyalty, honour and respect are important in both societies. Bonds have also been strengthened by a long history of shared hardships, campaigns and training.
"There's a natural empathy between the British and the Gurkhas," Thomas said.
Cultural identity
Though the Gurkhas have many shared experiences with the British, they do retain distinctive elements of their own culture. While English is the official working language of the RGR, various dialects of Nepalese are spoken among the troops. Still, most Gurkhas speak English very well as it is a prerequisite for promotion. British officers working with Gurkhas also learn their language, though it becomes a mix of English, Nepalese and military jargon known as "Gurkhali," said Stevens.
Another distinction can be found on the uniform. Gurkhas carry a "khukri," a crescent-shaped combat knife used as a secondary weapon to the rifle. The traditional blade is a symbol of the Gurkhas and their warrior image.
During his visit to the UKBG, Sylvester met with Gurkhas and was presented with a khukri. The general, an avowed knife collector, wasted no time in making it a part of his uniform.
"This will be a treasured part of my collection," Sylvester said.
Before departing, COMSFOR met with the various elements of the UKBG and thanked them for their role in SFOR. As he headed for his helicopter, Gurkha soldiers were already in position, out of sight.

Related link:
Nations of SFOR: UK
SFOR at Work