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