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The Gurkhas: Nepal’s Legendary Warriors

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The legendary British Gurkha troops of Nepal carved out their legend over nearly 200 years from the Western Front in Aubers, France, to Flanders Fields in Belgium, from Persia to Gallipoli in Turkey, throughout China, Burma, Malaya, and India, in North Africa and the Falklands, and modern-day Afghanistan. Indeed, few modern military units can claim nearly as illustrious a history.

Modern Gurkha soldiers still carry their traditional weapon with great pride: the khukuri. It also remains the classic working knife of Nepal where it retains its deep cultural significance. During WWII’s hard-fought China/Burma/India campaign, the men of the famous “Merrill’s Marauders” special operations learned saw first-hand about the utility and efficiency of the khukuri in the hands of the legendary Gurkha warriors who trained them in the art of jungle warfare.

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Seeing that the khukuri was far more efficient than their machetes at clearing tough jungle growth, many requisitioned them, traded for them, or had their own custom khukuris crafted for battlefield use.

Years ago, I was privileged to teach the martial arts to an aging “Marauder.” I didn’t know his background when he called me, asking very humbly, if I thought he could still train at his age. I said sure. His name was Bob, and we all marveled at his toughness and spirit.

He’d occasionally drop his training stick during class, and when I asked what was wrong, he drawled reluctantly, “Awwwwh… I hurt my arm during the war…” Shaking and flexing his fingers, he added, ruefully, “Goes numb, occasionally.”

Given the casual dismissal, I figured he’d fallen down a set of stairs or perhaps wrecked a jeep, but when I examined his arm, there was a deep scar in the center of the right forearm, and another ragged scar emerging on the other side.

My eyebrows sought my hairline. “Whoa!” I said, “HOW did you do THAT???”

Clearly embarrassed, he confided that he’d taken an enemy bayonet through his arm: His foe was not as lucky. Hiding my astonishment, I showed him some massage and acupressure techniques, and five minutes later he was back in action, working hard as ever.

Eventually he shared his story with me… Bob had “been there, done that,” as they say. He was a career military man who had survived three different wars. A small case tucked away in his home held his many decorations and unit flashes. His personal Khukuri had the useful addition of a small guard between the blade and the hand – just big enough to keep the fingers off the blade without becoming entangled in clothing or gear, and lending a subtle “American” touch to the khukuri’s ancient design.

Bob had only the highest praise for the khukuri, and the bravery of the tough-but-friendly Gurkha riflemen who wielded them with such lethal effect on the battlefield.

From the time of King George III, these legendary warriors – small in stature, but unequaled in courage – have served the King (or Queen) and Great Britain. This alliance was born in battle. A large force of crack British East India Company troops set out to “pacify” Nepal, but were stopped in their tracks by skilled warriors so brave that it was much later said of them: “If a man says he has no fear of death, he is either lying, or is a Gurkha.”

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The Gurkhas gained great respect from the British for their ferocity, chivalry, and honor during the hard-fought campaign of 1814 to 1816. Ultimately, the two sides formed an alliance, under the Treaty of Seguli, and a partnership with the Gurkhas was born which endures to this day.

Gurkhas are typically friendly, courteous, quick to laugh, and generous to a fault – until engaged in battle with the enemy. Only 200 of approximately 28,000 candidates join Gurkha units each year. Their British officers train them with none of the bluster and verbal abuse that is associated with typical army life. Gurkha troops allow nothing less than mutual respect: Smiles and polite conversation are the order of the day. “They’re already motivated,” British officers explain.

They’re also extremely fit. They possess extraordinary leg muscles and remarkable endurance from trekking up and down Himalayan foothills – the high altitude has given them greater lung capacity than ordinary men, and more red blood cells to carry oxygen more efficiency. British trainers teach them to swim, and build their weight and upper body strength; but otherwise, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Despite their affability, Gurkhas manifest near-superhuman courage on the battlefield. Their motto is: “It’s better to die than be a coward.” This saying is not empty rhetoric – Gurkhas live and die by this creed. In the 158 years since the Victoria Cross was created for conspicuous valor and extreme courage in the face of the enemy, only 1,357 have been awarded; twenty-six have been awarded to members of Gurkha regiments.

Perhaps the highest number of hand-to-hand kills ever recorded by a single soldier in one engagement occurred during an insurrection in which a lone Gurkha, armed with only a Webley pistol and his Khukuri, entered a house held by armed enemy combatants. He left unscathed, but with 35 confirmed enemy kills in his wake. Most of the casualties had been inflicted with the khukuri.

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During World War II, the Gurkhas were among the few troops that battle-hardened Japanese units truly feared. And with good reason. It amused them to sneak into Japanese camps at night, with all the stealth of ninjas, gathering intelligence on the position. If a Japanese sentry happened to be caught dozing, he woke up to find that his boot laces had been neatly slit by a razor sharp Gurkha blade, during the night… IF he woke up. It was the kind of thing that promoted an almost supernatural dread of the fearless, diminutive troops with the large knives.

In one World War II engagement, British officers arrived just after a battle between tough Japanese troops and an outnumbered Gurkha regiment, and were astonished to find that the superior Japanese position had been wiped out … and, even more astonishingly, to find that just in front of the Gurkha position was … a huge pile of Enfield rifles: The Gurkhas had run out of ammunition and simply dropped their rifles, drawn their khukuris, and charged.

Nor was this an isolated event. Another Gurkha unit in North Africa during World War II noted succinctly, in an after-action report: “Enemy losses: ten killed, ours nil. Ammunition expenditure nil.”

Nor has this a tradition been cast aside: On September 2, 2010, retired Gurkha soldier Bishnu Shrestha – whose father had also served with the Gurkhas – armed only with a kukri, single-handedly defended a passenger train attacked by armed bandits in India. He was ready to give up his valuables, but when the bandits wanted to rape an 18-year-old girl sitting nearby, enough was enough. In a wild melee lasting about ten minutes, he killed three of the bandits, wounded eight more, and sent some 40 other bandits fleeing for their lives.

Courage and skill like that is the stuff of which legends are made. But the Gurkhas’ status as warriors is more than mere legend: It is documented historical fact, and that tradition continues today.