So much has been written of the Gurkha and the Sikh that officers who pass their lives with other classes of the Indian Army are tired of listening to their praises. Their fame is deserved, but the exclusiveness of it was resented in days when one seldom heard of the Mahratta, Jat, Dogra, and Punjabi Mussalman. But it was not the Gurkha’s or the Sikh’s fault if the man in the street puts them on a pedestal apart.
Both have a very distinctive appearance; with the Punjabi Mussalman they make up the bulk of the Indian Army; and their proud tradition has been won in every fight on our frontiers. Now other classes, whose qualities were hidden, live in the public eye. The war has proved that all men are brave, that the humblest follower is capable of sacrifice and devotion; that the Afridi, who is outwardly the nearest thing to an impersonation of Mars, yields nothing in courage to the Madrasi Christian of the Sappers and Miners.
These revelations have meant a general levelling in the Indian Army and the uplift of classes hitherto undeservedly obscure. At the same time the reputation of the great fighting stocks has been splendidly maintained.
The war has proved that all men are brave, that the humblest follower is capable of sacrifice and devotion
The hillmen of Nepal have stood the test as well as the best. Ask the Devons what they think of the l/9th Gurkhas who fought on their flank on the Hai. Ask Kitchener’s men and the Anzacs how the 5th and 6th bore themselves at Gallipoli, and read Ian Hamilton’s report. Ask Townshend’s immortals how the 7th fought at Ctesiphon; and the British regiments who were at Mahomed Abdul Hassan and Istabulat what the 1st and 8th did in these hard-fought fights.
Ask the gallant Hants rowers against what odds the two Gurkha battalions* forced the passage of the Tigris at Shumran on February 23rd. And ask the commander of the Indian Corps what sort of a fight the six Gurkha battalions † put up in France.
Nothing could have been more strange to the Gurkha and more different from what his training for frontier warfare had taught him to expect than the conditions in Flanders. The first trenches the Gurkhas took over when they were pushed up to the front soon after their arrival in France were flooded and so deep that the little men could not stand up to the parapet. They were exposed to the most devastating fire of heavy artillery, trench-mortars, bombs, and machine guns. Parts of their trench were broken up and obliterated by the Hun Minnewerfers and became their graves. They hung on for the best part of a day and a night in this inferno, but in the end they were overwhelmed and driven out of the position, as happens sometimes with the best troops in the world.
The surprising thing is that they became inured to this kind of warfare. Not only did they stand their ground, but in more than one assault they drove the Huns from their positions, and in September, 1915, the same battalion that had suffered so severely near Givenchy carried line after line of German trenches west of Martin du Pietre. Those early months in France, when our troops, ill provided with bombs and trench- mortars and inadequately supported by artillery, were shattered by a machinery of destruction to which they could make little reply, were very much like hell. The soldier’s dream of war had come, but in the form of a nightmare.
The Gurkhas were severely tried in the ordeal by which this change was effected, and they played a stout part especially in the Tigris crossing
Afterwards in Mesopotamia, the trench-fighting at EI-Hannah and Sannaiyat was not much more inspiring. But the hour was to come when our troops had more than a sporting chance in a fight, and war became once more for the man at the end of the rifle something like his picture of the great game. The Gurkhas were severely tried in the ordeal by which this change was effected, and they played a stout part especially in the Tigris crossing, the honour of which they shared with the Norfolks; but, like the British Tommy in these trying times, they were always cheerful.
It is not the nature of any Sepoy to grouse. Patience and endurance is the heritage of all, but cheerfulness is most visible in the “Gurkh.” He laughs like Atkins when the shells miss him, and he is never down on his luck. When the Turks were bombarding us on the Hai, I watched three delighted Gurkhas throwing bricks on the corrugated iron roof of a signaller’s dug-out. A lot of stuff was coming over, shrapnel and high explosive, but the Gurkhas were so taken up with their little joke of scaring the signallers that the nearer the burst, the better they were pleased. The signallers wisely lay “doggo” until one of the Gurkhas appeared at the door of the dug-out and gave the whole show away by a too expansive grin.
In France the element of shikar was eliminated. It would be affectation in the keenest soldier to pretend that he enjoyed the long-linked bitterness of Festubert, Givenchy, and Neuve Chapelle. But in Mesopotamia, especially after the crossing of the Tigris and the capture of Baghdad, there were many encounters in which one could think of war in the terms of sport. “There has been some shikar,” is the Gurkha’s way of describing indifferently a small scrap or a big battle. Neuve Chapelle was shikar. And it was shikar the other day when a Gurkha patrol by a simple stratagem surprised some mounted Turks. The stratagem succeeded.
The Gurkha fights as he hunts. Parties of them go into the jungle to hunt the boar. They beat the beast up and attack him, with kukris when he tries to break through their line.
The Turks rode up unsuspectingly within easy range, but the Gurkhas did not empty a single saddle. Their British officer chaffed them on their bad shooting; but the havildar grinned and said, “At least a little shikar has taken place.” That is the spirit. War is a kind of sublimated shikar. It is the mirror of the chase. The Gurkha is hunting when he is battle-mad, and sees red; and he is hunting when he glides alone through the grass or mud on a dark, silent night to stalk an enemy patrol. Following up a barrage on the Hai, the 1/9th were on the Turks like terriers. “Here, here, Sahib!” one of them called, and pointing to a bay where the enemy still cowered, pitched his bomb on a Turk’s head with a grin of delight and looked round at a paternal officer for approval. Another was so excited that he followed his grenade into the trench before it had burst, and he and his Turk were blown up together.
The first time I saw Gurkhas in a civilized battle was at Beit Aieesa, where the little men were scurrying up and down the trenches they had just taken, with blood on their bayonets and clothes, bringing up ammunition and carrying baskets of bombs as happy and keen and busy as ferrets. They had gone in and scuppered the Turk before the barrage had lifted. They had put up a block and were just going to bomb down a communication trench. I saw one of them pull up the body of a British Tommy who had been attached to the regiment as a signaller and was bombed into a mess. The Gurkha patted him on the shoulder and disappeared behind the traverse without a word.
The Gurkha fights as he hunts. Parties of them go into the jungle to hunt the boar. They beat the beast up and attack him, with kukris when he tries to break through their line. It is a desperate game, and the casualties are a good deal heavier than in pig-sticking. The Gurkha’s attitude to the Turk or the Hun is his attitude to the boar. There is no hostility or hate in him, and he is a cheerful, if a grim, fighter. There was never a Gurkha fanatic. The Magar or Gurung does not wish to wash his footsteps in the blood of the ungodly.
The relations between officers and men are as close as between boys and masters on a jaunt together out of school, and the Gurkha no more thinks of taking advantage of this when he returns to the regiment…
To the righteous or the unrighteous stranger he is alike indifferent. There is no race he would wish to extirpate, and he has few prejudices and no hereditary foes. When his honour or interest is touched he is capable of rapid primitive reprisals, but he does not as a rule brood or intrigue. His outlook is that of a healthy boy. There is no person so easy to get on with as the “Gurkh.” The ties of affection that bind him to his regimental officers are very intimate indeed. When the Sahib goes on leave trekking, or shooting, or climbing, he generally takes three or four of the regiment with him. I have often met these happy hunting-parties in and beyond the Himalayas. I have a picture in my mind of a scene by the Woolar Lake in Kashmir.
The Colonel of a Gurkha regiment is sitting in a boat waiting for a youth whom he has allowed to go to a village on some errand of his own. The Colonel has waited two hours. At last the youth appears, all smiles, embracing a pumpkin twice the size of his head. No rebuke is administered for the delay. The youth squats casually in the boat at his Colonel’s feet, and as he cuts the pumpkin into sections, makes certain unquotable comments on the village folk of Kashmir. As the pair disappear across the lake over the lotus leaves I hear bursts of laughter.
The relations between officers and men are as close as between boys and masters on a jaunt together out of school, and the Gurkha no more thinks of taking advantage of this when he returns to the regiment than the English schoolboy does when he returns to school. It is part of his jolly, boyish, uncalculating nature that he is never on the make. In cantonments, when any fish are caught or any game is shot, the firstfruits find their way to the mess. No one knows how it comes. The orderly will simply tell you that the men brought it.
Perhaps after a deal of questioning the shikari may betray himself by a fatuous, shy, bashful grin.The Gurkha does not love his officer because he is a Sahib, but because he is his Sahib, and the officer has to prove that he is his Sahib first, and learn to speak his language and understand his ways. A strange officer coming into a Gurkha regiment is not adopted into the Pantheon at once. He has to qualify. There may be a period of suspicion; but once accepted, he is served with a fidelity and devotion that are human and dog-like at the same time.
I do not emphasize the exclusive attachment of the Gurkha to his own Sahib as an exemplary virtue; it is a fault, though it is the defect of a virtue. And it is a peculiarly boyish fault. It is the old story of magnifying the house to the neglect of the school. Infinite prestige comes of it; and this is to the good. But prestige is often abused. Exclusiveness does not pay in a modern army. In the organism of the ideal fighting machine, the parts are compact and interdependent; and it would be a point to the good if every Gurkha were made to learn Hindustani and encouraged to believe that there are other gods besides his own.
The Gurkha does not love his officer because he is a Sahib, but because he is his Sahib, and the officer has to prove that he is his Sahib first, and learn to speak his language and understand his ways.
When one hears officers in other Indian regiments disparage the Gurkha, as one does sometimes, one may be sure that the root of the prejudice lies in this exclusiveness. I have heard it counted for vanity, indifference, disrespect. It is even associated, though very wrongly, with the eminence, or niche apart, which he shares in popular estimation with the Sikh. But the Gurkha probably knows nothing about this niche. He is a child of nature. His clannishness is very simple indeed. He frankly does not understand a strange Sahib.
Directly he tumbles to it that anything is needed of him he will lend a hand, but having no very deeply-ingrained habit of reverence for caste in the abstract apart from his devotion to the proved individual, he may appear sometimes a little neglectful in ceremony. But no Sahib with a grain of imagination or understanding in him will let the casual habits of the little man weigh in the balance against his grit and gameness, his loyalty, and his splendid fighting spirit. I am always suspicious of the officer who depreciates the Gurkha. He is either sensitively vain, or dull in reading character, or jealous of the dues which he thinks have been diverted from some other class to which he is personally attached.
This last infirmity one can understand and forgive. It grows out of an officer’s attachment to his men. It is present sometimes in the British officers who command Gurkhas. Indeed, a man who after a year’s service with any class of Sepoy is so detached and impartial in mind as not to find peculiar and distinctive virtues in his own men, ought not to be serving in the Indian Army at all. I remember once hearing a subaltern in a very obscure regiment discussing his class company. The battalion had not seen service for at least three generations, and everyone took it for granted that they would “rat” the first time they heard a shot fired. But the boy was full of “bukh.”
Anyhow the boy had the right spirit even if his faith were founded in illusion; for it is through these ties of mutual loyalty that the spirit of the Indian Army is strong.
“By Jove!” he said, “our fellows are simply splendid, the best plucked crowd in the Indian Army, and so game. . . . Oh no! they’ve never been in action, but you should just see how they lay one another out at hockey.”
Before the war one would have smiled inwardly at this “encomium,” if one could have preserved one’s outward countenance, but Armageddon, the corrective of exclusiveness and pride, has taught us that gallantry resides under the most unlikely exteriors. It has taught us to look for it there. Anyhow the boy had the right spirit even if his faith were founded in illusion; for it is through these ties of mutual loyalty that the spirit of the Indian Army is strong.
The devotion of the Sepoy to his officer is common to most, perhaps to all, classes of the Indian Army. In some of the Gurkha battalions it is usual for two of the men to mark their Sahib when he goes into action, to follow him closely, and if he falls, to look after him and bring him back whether wounded or dead. This is a tacitly understood and quite unofficial arrangement, and the officer knows no more about his self-appointed guard than the hero or villain of melodrama about the detective who dogs his footsteps in the street. In France, a British officer in a Gurkha regiment knocked out by shell-shock opened his eyes to find his orderly kneeling over him fanning the flies off his face. He lost consciousness again. When he came to the Gurkha was still fanning him, and the tears were rolling down his cheeks.
“I am crying, Sahib,” he said, “because my arm is gone, and I am no more able to fight.” And with a nod he indicated the wound. The shell that had stunned the Sahib had carried off the orderly’s forearm at the elbow.“Why are you crying, ‘Tegh Bahadur ?’” he said; “I am not badly hit.”
The Medical Officer will tell you that the Gurkha is the pluckiest little fellow alive. In hospital he will go on smoking and chatting to you when he is dying, fighting his battles over again. I remember a Gurkha in an ambulance at Sinn pointing his index finger, which was hanging by a tendon, as he described the attack. During a cholera outbreak in 1916 among the Nepalese troops garrisoning the Black Mountains frontier, a Gurkha, who was evidently in extremis, was being carried by his Major and another officer to a bit of rising ground where there was some shade and a little breeze. When in an interval of consciousness he opened his eyes and saw two Sahibs carrying him, he tried to raise himself to the salute, but fell back in a half faint. “You must pardon me, Sahib,” he said, “but owing to weakness I am unable to salute.” The Major told him to lie still. “ We are taking you to a cool place,” he explained. “Now you must be quick and get well.” The Gurkha answered with a faint smile, “Now that your honours have honoured me by carrying me, I shall quickly get well.” In a few minutes he died.
The devotion of the Sepoy to his officer is common to most, perhaps to all, classes of the Indian Army.
The Gurkha is not given to the neatly turned speech, the apt phrase, and one might search one’s memory a long time before one recalled a compliment similar to this one spoken in simple sincerity by a dying man. The arts of conciliation are not practised where he camps. There is a delightful absence of the courtier about him, and he could not make pretty speeches if he tried. The “Our Colonel Sahib shot remarkably well, but God was merciful to the birds” story is told of a very different race. If a colonel of the Gurkhas shoots really badly, his orderly will probably be found doubled up with mirth.
The few comments of the Gurkha that stick in the mind are memorable in most instances for some crudeness, or misconception, or for a primitive, and not infrequently, a somewhat gruesome, sense of humour. One meets many types, but the average “Gurkh,” though observant, is not as a rule quick at the uptake. I heard a characteristic story of one, Chandradhoj, a stalwart Limbu of Eastern Nepal. It was in November last year, in the days of trench warfare. His Colonel had sent him from the Sannaiyat trenches to Arab Village to have his boots mended, and when he was returning in the evening the Turks got it into their heads that a relief was taking place, and put in a stiff bombardment, paying special attention to the road. Chandradhoj got safely back through this. When the Colonel met him in the evening passing his dug-out, he stopped him and asked him how he had fared.
The Gurkha sees what he sees, and his visual range is his mental range.
“Well, you’ve got back all right,” he said. “You wern’t hit!”
“No, Sahib, I was not hit. I came back in artillery formation.”
One could see him solemnly stepping aside a few paces from the road, the prescribed distance from the imaginary sections on the left or right. These were the Sahib’s orders at such times, he would argue, and there must be salvation in the rite.
The Gurkha sees what he sees, and his visual range is his mental range. At Kantara he only saw the desert, and the desert was sand. Other conditions beyond the horizon, an oasis for instance, were inconceivable. He tried to get it out of his Sahib how and where the Bedouin lived who came into Kantara Post. He thought they lived in holes in the sand, but what they ate he could not imagine. When they came into the Post looking wretched and miserable he gave them chapattis. “But, Sahib,” he asked, “what could they have eaten before we came other than sand?”
One is never quite sure what will move a Gurkha to laughter. He grins at things which tickle a child’s fancy, and he grins at things which make the ordinary man feel very sick inside. When the Turk abandoned Sinn in May, 1916, we occupied the position. The advance lay over the month-old battlefield of Beit Aieesa, and the enemy’s dead were lying everywhere in a very unpleasant stage of dissolution. Suddenly the grimness of the scene was disturbed by explosive bursts of laughter. It was the Gurkhas. “Well, what is the joke? What are you laughing at ?” an officer asked them. “Look, Sahib!” one of them said. “The devils are melting.” Only he used a much more impolite word than “devil,” for which we have no translation.
Here was an excellent chance of shikar, and a havildar and four men asked if they might go out at night and stalk the Pathans. They were allowed to go, the conditions being that they were to go barefooted, they were not to take rifles, and they were to do the work with the kukri.
…remove the Gurkha from the atmosphere of barracks and camps and the whole ritual is forgotten like a dream.
Also they were to stay out all night, as they would certainly be shot by the sentries of other regiments if they tried to come in. Only one sniper’s bullet whizzed into camp that night. The next morning the havildar entered the mess while the officers were breakfasting. He came in with his left hand behind his back and saluted.
“Sahib,” he said, “two of the snipers have been killed.”
“That’s good, havildar,” the Colonel said. “But how do you know that you got them? Are they lying there, or have their brothers taken them away?
The havildar, grinning broadly, produced a Pathan’s head, and dumped it on the breakfast table. “The other is outside,” he said. “Shall I bring it in?”
The Gurkha is good at this kind of nightwork; he has the nerve of a Highlander and the stealth of a leopard. His great fault in a general attack is that he does not know when to stop. Without his Sahib he would not survive many battles. And that is why the casualties are so heavy in regiments when the British officers fall early in the fight. When the Gurkhas were advancing at Beit Aiseesa, I heard an officer in a Sikh regiment say, “Little blighters. They’re always scurrying on ahead, and if you don’t look after them they will make a big salient and bite off more than they can chew.” This is exactly what happened, though with the Turkish guns as a bait, guns which they took and lost afterwards by reason of the offending salient, they would not have been human if they had held back.
The Gurkha battalions, as everybody knows, have permanent cantonments in the hills, and do not move about like other regiments from station to station. Most of them have their wives and families in the lines, and in the leave season they get away for a time to their homes in Nepal. In peace, the permanent cantonment with its continuity of home life is a privilege; but in the war, the Gurkhas, like every other class of sepoy, have had to bear with a weariness of exile which it is difficult for anyone but their own officers to understand. It is true of the Gurkha, as of the Indian of the plains, that he gives up more when he leaves his home to fight in a distant country than the European.
His great fault in a general attack is that he does not know when to stop
The age-worn traditions and associations which make up homeliness for him, the peculiar and cherished routine, cannot be translated overseas. And, it must be remembered that the sepoy has not the same stimulus as we have. It is true that he is a soldier, and that it is his business to fight, and that he is fighting his Sahib’s enemy. That carries him a long way. But he does not see the Hun as his Sahib sees him, as an intolerable, blighting incubus which he must cast off or die. One appreciates his cheerfulness in exile all the more when one remembers this.
On a transport this summer in Basra, Asbahadur, a young Gurung from Western Nepal was pointed out to me. He had just come home from leave. He had six weeks in India, but there was the depot to visit first. He had to pick up his kit and draw his pay, and by the time he had got to his village, Kaski Pokhri, on the Nepal frontier, sixteen days hard going from Gorakhpur in the U.P., he found that he had only four days at home before he must start off again to catch his steamer at Bombay. But he had seen his family, his house, his crops, the barn that had to be repaired, the familiar stretch of jungle and stream. He had dumped his money in the only place where money is any good; and he had seen that all was well.
He had learned, too, that it was well with his young brother, who had run away from home to join the army, as so many young Gurkhas did at the beginning of the war—literally “running” for the best part of two nights and days, only a short neck ahead of his pursuing parents, who had now forgiven him.
There is conscription in Nepal now and there is no need for the young men to run away. Asbahadur told me that he had met very few young men of his age near his home. In his village the women were doing the work, as they were in France, and as he understood was the case in the Sahib’s country. The garrisoning of India by the Nepalese troops had depleted the county of youth. You only met old men and cripples and boys. Early in the war the Nepal Durbar came forward with a splendid offer of troops, which we were quick to accept. Thousands of her best, including the Maharaja’s Corps de garde, poured over the frontier into Hindustan, and released many regular battalions for service overseas. They have fought on the frontier, and taken their part in policing the border from the Black Mountains on the north to as far south as the territory of the Mahsuds.
The age-worn traditions and associations which make up homeliness for him, the peculiar and cherished routine, cannot be translated overseas.
There are three main divisions of Gurkhas: the Magar and Gurung of Central and Western Nepal, indistinguishable except for a slight accent; the Limbu and Rai of Eastern Nepal; and the Khattri and Thakur, who are half Aryan. The Magars and Gurungs are the most Tartar-like, short, with faces flat as scones. The Limbu and Rai physiognomy assimilates more with the Chinese. In the Khattri and Thakur, or Khas Gurkhas as they are called by others, though they do not accept the term, the Hindu strain is distinguishable, though the Mongol as a rule is predominant.
They are the descendants of Brahmans or Rajputs and Gurkha women; hence the opprobrious “khas,” or “fallen”. But it is a blend of nobility—a proud birthright. It is only the implication of the “fall” they resent—for these marriages were genuine but for the narrow legislation of orthodoxy and caste. Before the war it was taken as a matter of course by some that the streak of plainsman in the mountaineer must imply a soft-ening of the national fibre, but the war has proved them as good as the best. In the crossing of the Tigris at Shumran, the miniature Mesopotamian Gallipoli, the Khas (9th Gurkhas) shared the honours in full with the Magars and Gurung (2nd Gurkhas); but long before that any suspicion of inferiority had been dissipated.
It is difficult to differentiate the different classes, but the Khas Gurkha is probably the most intelligent. In the Limbu and the Rai there are sleeping fires. They are as fastidious about their honour as the Pathan and the Malay, and when any sudden and grim poetic justice is exacted in blood in a Gurkha regiment, the odds are that one or the other are at the bottom of it. The Magars and the Gurung are the basic type, the “everyman” among Gurkhas, the backbone in numbers of the twenty battalions. As regards pluck there is nothing to choose between any of them, and if one battalion goes further than another the extra stiffening is the work of the British officers.
One’s impression of the Gurkha in war and peace is of an almost mechanical smartness, movements as quick and certain as the click of a rifle bolt. Soldiering is a ritual among them. You may mark it in the way they pitch camp, solemnly, methodically, driving in each peg as if it were an ordained rite. They have learnt it all by rote. They could do it as easily in their sleep. And the discipline has stood the shock of seismic disturbance. In the Dharmsala earth-quake of 1905, the quarter guard of the 2/8th Gurkhas turned out and saluted their officer with the same clockwork precision, when their bungalow had fallen like a house of cards. They had escaped by a miracle, and half the regiment had been killed, or maimed, or buried alive.
It is difficult to differentiate the different classes, but the Khas Gurkha is probably the most intelligent.
But remove the Gurkha from the atmosphere of barracks and camps and the whole ritual is forgotten like a dream. Out on shikar, or engaged in any work away from the battalion, he becomes his casual self again. But the guest of a Gurkha regiment does not see this side of him. I have memories of the men called into the mess and standing round like graven images, the personality religiously suppressed, the smile tardily provoked if Generals or strange Sahibs are present. A boy, with a smooth, round, innocent face, as still and as expressionless as if he had been hypnotized. Next he’s a man with the face of a bonze. Another with an expression of ferocity asleep and framed in benevolence. Passion has drawn those deep lines at right angles with the mouth. They are scars of the spirit—often enough now in the same setting as dints of lead and steel.
You get these faces in Gurung, Magar, Limbu, Khas, and Rai. But differentiation is profitless and often misleading, whether as regards the outward or inward man. I heard an almost heated discussion as to relative values by officers, who should know best, terminated by an outsider with the laconic comment, “They are all dam good at chivying chickens.” As to this all were agreed. And the remark called up another picture—the Gurkha returning from a punitive raid against a cut-throat tribe, smothered in spoil and accoutrements, three carpets under one saddle, and the little man on top with chickens under each arm, and strung as thick as cartridges to his belt and bandolier.