Brigade of Gurkhas: One of the most decorated regiments in the British Army

The Brigade of Gurkhas from the British Army - 200 years service to the crown
Brigade of Gurkhas, part of the British Army (Photo: XY)

Brigade of Gurkhas is an elite unit of the British Army for decades. It is composed of soldiers of Nepalese nationality with the endonym Gorkhali. In addition to the British Army, they are also recruited in the Nepalese Army, Indian Army, Gurkha Contingent Singapore, Gurkha Reserve Unit Brunei, UN peacekeeping force, and war zones around the world.

Gurkhas are people from Nepal. The legend says that the name Gurkha comes from a warrior saint, Guru Gorkhanath, that lived 1,200 years ago. The legend further says that Guru Gorkhanath predicted that his people would become world-famous for their bravery. And right he was. The motto for the Gurkhas is “Better to die than be a coward”, and these brave soldiers have truly lived up to that motto.

History

In the mountainous Himalayan regions of Nepal, did the unknown soldiers of the Gurkhas became first witnessed by the world when they were invaded more than 200 years ago, by the British East Indian Company. The British were armed with fine rifles, while the Gurkhas were armed with their traditional knives called Kukri. In times past, it was said that once a kukri was drawn in battle, it had to “taste blood” – if not, its owner had to cut himself before returning it to its sheath.

The knife called Kukri is Brigade of Gurkhas trademark
The knife called Kukri is Brigade of Gurkhas trademark (Photo: XY)

After six months of fighting each other, Britain had had enough and had suffered immense casualties from the hands of the Nepali soldiers that had fought courageously and cleverly. The British forces were eager to sign a peace treaty with Nepal.

The peace treaty’s terms were besides setting the borders for Nepal, also allowing the Gurkhas to join the East India Company’s army. Ever since then, more than 200,000 Gurkhas have fought in virtually every military campaign that the British have been a part of.

The Heroism of the Gurkhas

The first world war had an estimated number of 100,000 Gurkhas that fought in the battlefields of France as well as many other countries.

The Nusseree Battalion, later known as the 1st Gurkha Rifles, in 1857
The Nusseree Battalion, later known as the 1st Gurkha Rifles, in 1857 (Photo: XY)

During the second world war, there were estimated around 250,000 Gurkhas fighting for the Brits. They were used by the British to put down revolts in India. Gurkhas fought in Syria, North Africa, Italy, Greece, and against the Japanese in Singapore and in the jungles of Burma. The bravery of a Gurkha soldier is illustrated in the case of rifleman Lachhiman Gurung.

In 1945, Gurung was in a trench with two other soldiers when 200 Japanese fighters opened fire on them. After his comrades were wounded, Gurung noticed several incoming grenades fall into his position. He threw them back; however, after the first two, the third grenade exploded in his right hand.

Suffering massive injuries, Gurung managed to use his left hand to fire his rifle to kill several Japanese soldiers as they were storming his trench. All in all, 31 Japanese soldiers were killed during the fight.

Although that no one can question their bravery, it however comes with a coast – 43,000 of these brave soldiers died in WWI and WWII. Although they have suffered heavy losses, their heroism hasn’t gone unnoticed. 26 Victoria Crosses, the UK’s highest award for bravery has been awarded to the Gurkha Regiments.

The Treaty of Sugauli -British East India Company and the King of Nepal
The Treaty of Sugauli -British East India Company and the King of Nepal (Photo: XY)

In the past 50 years, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. The British aren’t the only country privy to the Gurkhas services: Singapore, Malaysia, and India have all employed them in their own armies and police forces.

Brigade of Gurkhas

The Brigade of Gurkhas is part of the regular British Army and it is considered as an elite unit of the British army. It was formed on August 15, 1951. The brigade is 3,640 strong, and the Brigade of Gurkhas is usually used as the collective term for units of the current British Army that are composed of Nepalese soldiers. It draws its heritage from Gurkha units that originally served in the Indian Army. That was prior to Indian independence, and prior to that of the East India Company.

British gurkha regiment posing for picture with khukri knife
Brigade of Gurkhas: Gurkha soldiers posing with their Kukri knives (Photo: XY)

The Brigade of Gurkhas includes infantry, engineer, signal, logistics, and training and support units for performing all kinds of objectives. As we mentioned earlier, they are famous for their ever-present kukris knives. Kukri knife is a heavy knife that comes with a curved blade.

The former Indian Army Chief of Staff Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, once stated that “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gurkha.”

The ranks among the Brigade of Gurkhas have been dominated by four ethnic groups: the Gurungs and Magars from western Nepal; and the Rais and Limbus from the east, who live in hill villages of hill farmers.

They are known for their extraordinary history of bravery and discipline as soldiers mostly in the British and Indian Army. The Britons recruited Gurkha through history in their colonial army because they were brave, professional, and high-disciplined warriors. Today, Gurkhas are the elite soldiers in the British and Indian armies fighting alongside Special Air Service and Special Boat Service operators.

Selection and Training

The selection process is a tough task for every candidate. Every year British and Indian government recruits Gurkhas from Nepal. It’s a very tough recruitment process where thousands of young Nepali lads go through but very few succeed. For 200 places a year, there are typically 25,000 candidates. They are driven through rigorous tests and selection, and only the best candidates are allowed to basic training.

Gurkha soldiers serving in British Army preparing for the drills
Brigade of Gurkhas: To became Gurkha, the candidates need to go through rigorous selection and training. (Photo: XY)

Recruitment

Recruitment sees the prospective soldier undergo two stages of selection; first the regional selection at either Pokhara or Dharan, where the recruit undertakes a series of physical tests, written English and numeracy assessments, and an interview. Those that pass regional selection move forward to the central selection process in Kathmandu, which sees further physical and language tests, a medical and a second interview.

Basic training

Gurkhas training lasts for 36 weeks and addresses a range of areas such as the Brigade ethos, language training, cultural training, career management, and trade selection, as well as the same 26-week Combat Infantryman’s Course that the Line Infantry receive. This enables the trained Gurkha soldiers to fulfill their roles in operations and continue the traditions of their forefathers.

In addition to running the recruitment of soldiers to join the British Army, British Gurkhas Nepal also runs the recruitment process for the Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force. Recruits indicate at the registration stage whether they wish to join the Singapore Police or the British Army.

Gurkhas in SAS

More than a dozen of the Gurkhas serving in SAS (Special Air Service) is on secret operations with the most elite fighting force in the world. Their cultural heritage is crucial on undercover missions in Islamic countries. Their advantage is Urdu, a dialect that grants Gurkhas a valuable advantage in Asian war zones.

A source said: “The makeup of the SAS is very secretive but we now know that there are 12 Gurkhas in the ranks. It’s extremely difficult to get in and they only take the best of the best. It’s a massive feather in the cap for any soldier who makes it. It’s also a very proud thing for that soldier’s own regiment. For the Gurkhas to now have 12 of their own in the most elite fighting force in the world is testament to their indomitable spirit and physical toughness.”

Gurkhas in SAS (Special Air Service) - operators are posing with their weaponry
The Special Air Service (SAS) is a special forces unit of the British Army. (Photo: XY)

Organizational structure

The unit’s headquarters are located at Trenchard Lines, Upavon, Wiltshire. The two battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles are formed as light role infantry; they are not equipped with either armored or wheeled vehicles. One battalion is based at Shorncliffe Army Camp, near Folkestone in Kent as part of 52 Infantry Brigade, and is available for deployment to most areas in Europe and Africa. The other is based on the British garrison in Brunei as part of Britain’s commitment to maintaining a military presence in Asia.

Structure diagram

  • HQ, Brigade of Gurkhas, at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Surrey
  • British Gurkhas Nepal – recruits for the British Army and Singapore Police, handles soldier and ex-soldier welfare
  • 1st Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles in Shorncliffe – an air assault infantry battalion, part of 16 Air Assault Brigade
  • 2nd Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles in Brunei – a light infantry battalion, part of British Forces Brunei
  • 3rd Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles in Aldershot Garrison – a specialized infantry unit, part of the Specialised Infantry Group
  • 10 Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment RLC, in Aldershot
  • Queen’s Gurkha Engineers
  • 69 Gurkha Field Squadron (part of 36 Engineer Regiment), in Maidstone
  • 70 Gurkha Field Support Squadron (part of 36 Engineer Regiment), in Maidstone
  • Queen’s Gurkha Signals
  • 246 Squadron (part of 2 Signal Regiment), in York
  • 247 Squadron (part of 16 Signal Regiment)
  • 248 Squadron (part of 22 Signal Regiment), in Stafford
  • 249 Squadron (part of 3rd (UK) Division HQ and Signal Regiment), in Bulford
  • 250 Squadron (provides command support to Commander Joint Forces Operation and his Staff when deployed), in Bramcote
  • Brunei Signal Troop, in Brunei supporting British Forces Brunei
  • Nepal Signal Troop, in Kathmandu supporting HQ British Gurkhas Nepal
  • Gurkha Staff and Personnel Support Company – administration for all Brigade of Ghurkas units
  • Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas (raised in November 1859)
  • Gurkha Company Catterick at the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick
  • Gurkha Company (Sittang) at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst
  • Gurkha Wing (Mandalay) at the Infantry Battle School, Brecon
  • Gurkha Training Support Company (Tavoleto) at Waterloo Lines, Warminster
  • Brigade Training Team
  • Nepali Language Wing, Catterick

In 2018, the UK Government announced that it intended to expand the Brigade of Gurkhas by more than 800 posts, with the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers receiving an additional squadron, while the Queen’s Gurkha Signals and the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment will receive two new squadrons.

Additionally, approximately 300 new posts within the Royal Gurkha Rifles will be created forming a new battalion planned for the Specialist Infantry role. For the first time, women became eligible to join units in the brigade in 2020.

Awards and commendations

Awards

The Brigade of Gurkhas has won 26 Victoria Crosses, 13 Victoria Crosses were awarded to British officers, 13 were won by the Gurkha soldiers themselves. That makes the Gurkha Brigade one of the most decorated regiments in the British Army.

London memorial

The British memorial to the Gurkhas was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II on 3 December 1997. The inscription on the monument is a quotation from Sir Ralph Turner, a former officer in the 3rd Gurkha Rifles.

200 years of service

A series of events took place in 2015 to mark 200 years of service by the Gurkhas in the British Army including a march past Buckingham Palace.

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