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Before the end of the eighteenth century, Gorkha rulers had sent successful military missions into Tibet and China. Pressure to the south and west, however, met resistance from the military forces of the British East India Company, which were expanding north of the Gangetic Plain into the Tarai and the foothills of the Himalayas. Increasingly frequent clashes of the opposing forces culminated in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16, in which the victorious British forces were impressed by the fighting qualities of their Gorkha opponents. When Nepal's General Amar Singh Thapa was forced to capitulate west of the Kali River in 1815, the remnants of his troops were accepted into the service of the British East India Company. By the 1816 Treaty of Sagauli, the British recognized the sovereignty of Nepal and received permission to recruit Nepalese soldiers (see The Making of Modern Nepal , ch. 1; Relations with Britain , ch. 4).
British recruiting efforts, which actually began in 1815, were carried on semiclandestinely even after the treaty came into force because all foreign military representatives were forbidden by Nepalese law to enter the country. The three battalions formed from General Thapa's conquered forces were expanded into regiments, and each regiment sent its own Gurkha recruiters into the interior. Applicants for service came almost entirely from the mountain areas. The ethnic groups represented included the Limbu and Rai from the Kiranti area in the east, the Magar, Gurung, and Tamang from the center, and the Chhetri and Thakuri castes from the west. These groups, eventually lumped together under the term Gurkha, became the backbone of British Indian forces along with other supposed "martial races" such as Sikhs, Dogras, Punjabis, and Pathans. Throughout the colonial era, the British raised the bulk of their military recruits from Nepal, Punjab, and the North-West Frontier.
The Gurkha reputation for martial prowess and obedience to authority was firmly established during the 1857-58 Sepoy Rebellion, which seriously threatened British ascendancy in South Asia. Some 9,000 Nepalese troops under Prime Minister Jang Bahadur Rana, in power from 1846-77, rendered valuable service to the British (see The Dictatorship of Jang Bahadur , ch. 1). Nepalese exploits in relieving the British resident in Lucknow made a lasting impression on British officials and strategists. Nepalese troops were awarded battle honors, and two additional regiments were raised.
Recruiting continued, and the adaptability of the Gurkha troops to various types and conditions of combat was demonstrated by their performance in the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and in the Boxer Uprising (1900). By 1908 the fabled Gurkha brigade had been formed. A flexible unit, the brigade numbered about 12,000 troops in peacetime and was organized in ten regiments, each consisting of two rifle battalions. Other Gurkha units included the Assam Rifles, Burma Rifles, Indian Armed Police, and Burma Military Police. Regiments and battalions were designated numerically. For example, the Second Battalion of the Seventh Gurkha Rifles was commonly referred to with pride by its members as the 2/7/GR.
Within Nepal itself, Prime Minister Ranoddip Singh, who governed from 1877 to 1885, introduced a militia system in the early 1880s by which the army could be rapidly expanded on short notice--an expedient which proved of great value to future British war efforts.Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana, in power from 1901 to 1929, introduced many military reforms under a program to modernize government service. Among measures affecting the army were the adoption of translated British military manuals for the use of troop units, promotion examinations, improved standards of efficiency, reorganization of administrative processes, and payment of all ranks in cash, rather than in land tenure (jagir--see Glossary) or grain, as was formerly the practice. Despite these reforms, the officer corps above the grade of captain continued to be limited to members of the Rana family and to the Thakuri, Chhetri, and Rai ethnic groups. Barracks remained inadequate for accommodating all the men in the twenty-six battalions stationed in the Kathmandu Valley. Many soldiers had to seek their own food and lodging in towns and villages outside their garrisons.
Until 1914 the British recruited about 1,500 men per year to keep the twenty Gurkha battalions up to strength. As a rule, men from the same ethnic group were assigned to the same units. About seven regiments were composed of Magar, Tamang, and Gurung; two regiments were recruited from the Rai and Limbu; and one from the Chhetri and Thakuri. In many instances, several generations of one family served in the same regiment--a practice that continued in the early 1990s. The Magar, Gurung, and Rai, who over the years have supplied most of the recruits, are most closely associated with the fabled Gurkhas, but the Limbu, Chhetri, Tamang, Sunwar, and Thakuri also were included in the category. On a percentage basis, the Gurung group provided a higher proportion of its total population for military service than any other group.
Under the British system, Gurkha regimental representatives examined and enlisted recruits within Nepal. From there recruits were sent to collection centers in northern India, primarily at Gorakhpur and at Ghum near Darjeeling, for final processing and assignment to units. The Nepalese government encouraged recruitment through assurances that service with British forces would be regarded as service in the Nepalese army and that special efforts would be made to provide employment for returning veterans. This policy was based on the view that returning veterans would add to the military strength of Nepal during emergencies (see Gurkhas Serving Abroad , this ch.). Relatively high pay and pensions as well as the opportunities for advancement in noncommissioned ranks also helped recruitment efforts.
During World War I (1914-18), the army was expanded and six new regiments, totaling more than 20,000 troops--all volunteers--were sent to India, most of them to the North-West Frontier Province, to release British and Indian troops for service overseas. Simultaneously, the Nepalese government agreed to maintain recruitment at a level that both would sustain the existing British Gurkha units and allow the establishment of additional ones. The battalions were increased to thirty-three with the addition of 55,000 new recruits, and Gurkha units were placed at the disposal of the British high command for service on all fronts. Many volunteers were assigned to noncombat units, such as the Army Bearer Corps and the labor battalions, but they also were in combat in France, Turkey, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. The Rana prime ministers urged Nepalese males to fight in the war. Of the more than 200,000 Nepalese who served in the British Army, there were some 20,000 Gurkha casualties.
Following the war, the Nepalese government requested that Britain cede portions of the Tarai in recognition of Kathmandu's contribution to the Allied war effort. London refused, but the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship, signed in December 1923, granted "unequivocal" recognition of Nepal's independence. This treaty formed the basis for Nepal's continued independence following the British withdrawal from India in 1947 (see The Rana Oligarchy , ch. 1).
In 1919 at the height of a civil disobedience campaign called by the Indian National Congress, Gurkha troops serving under British brigadier R.E.H. Dyer brutally suppressed a pro- independence political gathering in a walled courtyard outside the Sikh holy temple in Amritsar. Acting under Dyer's orders, the Gurkhas killed some 300 persons and wounded approximately 1,200 others. The episode generally was considered a watershed in the Indian independence movement. The Indian public, however, held Dyer and the British government responsible for the massacre and did not blame the soldiers who carried out the order to fire on unarmed civilians.
The British call to arms during World War II (1939-45) met with an enthusiastic response from the Rana prime ministers who again coerced Nepalese citizens into joining the British Army. At the outset of the war, ten Nepalese battalions arrived in India, where they served until the hostilities ended. By the close of 1946, various specialized units, such as paratroops, signal corps, engineers, and military police, had been established. Other elements served in Southeast Asia, particularly in Burma. The total number of Gurkha battalions in the British service increased to forty-five. In all, over 200,000 men passed through ten Gurkha training centers to serve in line units that fought on almost every front, although primarily in the Burmese, Middle Eastern, and North African theaters. Casualties in all theaters amounted to over 25,000 persons. Gurkha unit histories are replete with accounts of courageous stands in the face of heavy odds. In the two world wars, twelve Victoria Crosses (comparable to the United States Medal of Honor) were awarded to Gurkha soldiers.
Data as of September 1991
Nepal Table of Contents