Killer elite

Imperial Warriors: Britain and the Gurkhas

Tony Gould <em>Granta, 480pp, £20</em>

ISBN 186207284

The Gurkhas were the British Empire's killer elite. The diminutive warriors from the Nepal hill country have a distinguished history of service as mercenaries in all but name. They first made their mark at the siege of Delhi during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and have featured most recently as part of the United Nations force in East Timor. In more than 150 years of exploits, they have appeared to advantage in a number of wars: Francis Younghusband's invasion of Tibet in 1903-04; the first world war (where they fought in Gallipoli, Palestine, Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as on the western front in Flanders); the second world war; the "emergency" in Malaya in the 1940s and 1950s; the "confrontation" with Indonesia in the 1960s; and against Argentinian conscripts in the Falklands war.

Tony Gould, who was a National Service Officer in a Gurkha regiment in the 1950s before being invalided out with polio, has written an affectionate and scholarly history of these Nepalese mountain men in British service. By Rudyard Kipling's time in the late 1880s, the Gurkhas were regarded as the shock troops of the Raj, the subcontinent's equivalent of the Scottish Highlanders. Gould shows how the Victorian ethos "overdetermined" the British perception of the Gurkhas. In the first place, they were seen in public school terms as prefects serving their British masters. Then they were viewed as another in the long line of admired mountain warrior races, including the Highland clans. They featured, finally, as one of the "good" warlike tribes of northern India, alongside the Sikhs and Pathans, in contrast to the "bad" and "effeminate" peoples of the southern Indian plains.

Despite their feared reputation, the Gurkhas took a long time to reach top gear as a fighting force on the battlefields of 1940-45. Many British commanders (notably Orde Wingate of Chindit fame) thought them overrated, both literal-minded and slow on the uptake. Gould admits that their initial performance was lacklustre and that, during 1942, they were consistently outclassed by the Japanese; the initial effectiveness of the Gurkhas in jungle warfare was impaired by their fear of water and by how few of them could swim. They were in better form in 1945 and, comprising one-fifth of the Indian army, they scooped ten of the 26 Victoria Crosses awarded to that body during the conflict.

Gould's best scholarly endeavours are on display in an extended analysis of the tortuous negotiations between London and the Congress Party after 1945. Nehru resented the continued existence of the Gurkhas as a colonial residue and pressed hard for the incorporation of all the units into the Indian army. London resisted and, instead, gave the Nepalese the choice of joining the new army of independent India or forming a brigade in the British army. It was expected that the Gurkhas would opt overwhelmingly to stay with Britain, but 60 per cent of them, irritated by British paternalism and London's refusal to countenance non-white officers in Gurkha regiments, opted to serve with India. After the bifurcation, with a majority of their fellow countrymen serving New Delhi, the Gurkhas in the British brigade were based in Hong Kong. All attempts to obtain parity in pay and conditions with other British regiments foundered on the Treasury argument that the entire rationale of the Gurkha brigade was supposed to be that it was cheaper than a British regiment properly so called; if it was not cheaper, what point was there in the brigade's continuing existence? The Gurkhas survived, but only just. Their role was increasingly threatened by the future Chinese takeover of Hong Kong, which would deprive them of an Asian base. They were saved only because the fabulously wealthy Sultan of Brunei preferred them to British soldiers as garrison troops.

This book is clearly a labour of love, yet the author's enthusiasm and commitment only really emerges in the autobiographical fragments at the beginning and end of the formal history. And Gould's unsentimental revisionism, showing London's ingratitude and Nepalese passivity, severely dents the legend of the Gurkhas so that they finally emerge not as Asian tigers, but more as unfortunate pussy cats, perhaps of the kind famously expelled from No 10 by the Blairs.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis