19 January 2019
Gurkha soldiers resting in a trench in Gallipoli in 1915. The Nepalese played key role in many battles during the First World War and won hundreds of gallantry medals. Photo: 6th GR official website
Gurkha soldiers resting in a trench in Gallipoli in 1915. The Nepalese played key role in many battles during the First World War and won hundreds of gallantry medals. Photo: 6th GR official website

Gurkhas in the First World War

After the end of Anglo-Nepalese war (1814-16) and the signing of The Treaty of Sugauli, relationship between Nepal and the British Raj was said to be somewhat frosty. Things only started to warm up after the reign of Jang Bahadur Rana, whose dynasty eventually ruled Nepal for the next century or so with iron-fist.

The enlistment of Gurkhas from the hills of Nepal to the British Raj didn’t start right away. But it took root under Maharaja Jang Bahadur Rana who took the relationship to a new height by heading south umpteen times with troops whenever the British were in trouble. The King, said to be an admirer of Queen Victoria, once undertook a one-month trip to Britain. He became a staunch friend to the colonial power throughout his reign.

But it was Maharaja Chandra Shamsher Rana, who visited England in 1908, and a historical visit to Nepal in 1911 by the newly-crowned King George V of England that gave great impetus to the relationship between the two nations. The prime minister of Nepal accompanied the British King in one of the greatest shooting expeditions ever arranged in Nepal and was reputed to have shot over 21 tigers, 10 rhinoceros, and 2 bears.

It was during that visit when King George V decreed that Gurkhas would be eligible for the Victoria Cross (VC), Until then, the highest valor a Gurkha soldier could get was the Order of Merit. The Gurkhas would eventually win two VCs in the First World War.

Just before the start of the World War I in 1914, it is believed that there were around 26,000 men serving in 10 regular rifle regiments that formed the Gurkha Brigade of the Indian army. As the World War started, more than twice that number had been recruited from Nepal, with the full support and blessings of Maharaha Chandra Shamsher Rana. Many people came down from hilly regions to join in both combatant and non-combatant roles. During the course of the war, the numbers exceeded 200,000, out of a total population of about 5 million in Nepal. One in 10 never returned.

In addition, 16,544 Gurkha soldiers from the Nepalese army, including forces from the Maharaja’s personal bodyguard, came down and guarded the empty garrisons in India so that the regular forces could go overseas for the war. Before they could be sent overseas, one more favor from the Maharaja of Nepal was needed and he did oblige readily. 

As Hindus, the soldiers from Nepal were forbidden to cross the “Kaala Paani” or black water as they called the sea, under pain of losing of caste, except with special dispensation, and a purification ritual called “Paani Patia”. Maharaja Chandra Shamsher Rana arranged with the supreme religious authority, the Raj Guru, for this dispensation to be granted automatically to all the Gurkhas going overseas with the approval of the Nepalese government, solving the problem once and for all.

The Gurkhas were flung into the quagmire of France against the Germans. Rifleman Kulbir Thapa won the 1st Victoria cross in the Battle of Loos on September 25, 1915. Another rifleman, Motialal Thapa, uttered the famous words “Kafar hunu bhanda mornu ramro” (better to die than being a coward) at the 2nd battle of Ypres. The Nepalese soldiers distinguished themselves against the Turks in Egypt, beating off Djemal Pasha’s attack on Suez Canal at El Kubri, and gained immortal fame at Gallipoli, where their feats were commemorated by renaming a landmark as “Gurkha Bluff”.

The Battle of Gallipoli was said to be one of the biggest failures of Allied forces, led by the British, yet the Gurkhas were the only force that displaced the well-trenched Turks from the high hill and managed to hold it up until bombardments from the British warships pinned them down and gave the retreating Turks an unprecedented opportunity of mounting counterattack and retaking the hill. The battle was lost, tens of thousands were killed and yet, the Gurkhas were the last man to leave from the battlefield.

The soldiers also fought in Salonika, Mesopotamia, Baghdad, Basra, Kut-el-Amara (Gurkha Mound), Kut, and many parts of the Persian Gulf areas. In Palestine, a detachment of Gurkha volunteers served under Lawrence of Arabia in 1918. Rifleman Karna Bahadur Rana won 2nd VC in El Kefr, Egypt. The First World War was said to have cost the Gurkhas around 20,000 lives. The soldiers received almost 2,000 gallantry awards in total.

In return, Maharaja Chandra Shamsher Rana was made the honorary General of the British Army, awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, the Imperial Order par excellence, and styled “His Highness’ by the government of India. In addition, he was also made a Grand Commander of the Legion of Honor by the French. 

It was the First World War that brought the Gurkhas onto the world stage and they have been known as the bravest of the brave since then. 

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