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DateOriginal Topic
18th February 2005More 'What if?'s - Ghurkas!
By Paul Cubbin
The Anglo Zulu War of 1879 appears to attrack a great deal of 'What if?' scenarios, specially considering its relatively short time span (for a famous war, not for colonial 'small' wars).
Inspired by my upcoming holiday in Canada I started thinking about Imperial Colonial Troops and their use in British military history. Then a thought struck me. What if the Ghurkas had been in Zululand? What if Chelmsford and Bartle Frere had sent a message to some Indian chums and begged a favour. Bingo! Have a battalion of Ghurkas old chum!
Now, they haven't always been the best shots in the world and their strict adherence to orders has sometimes been questioned, but boy, do these guys like to get stuck in! They would probably be able to march longer and further than any of the other troops available to the British and would undoubtably have boxed outside their class in a Ghurka vs Zulu hand to hand dust-up. I do have horrible visions of them charging into the midst of the first Impi they find never to emerge, though. Kukri vs Ikwla, doberman vs terrier. Mouthwatering! What think you all?
18th February 2005Peter Ewart

Well, Stanley Baker would have had to insist on a fire-step even higher than the one he did, or else the poor little chaps wouldn't have been able to see over the parapet!

19th February 2005Paul Cubbin
Well, actually, the average height of soldiers at the time was well below ...... yawn ...... snore .... .zzzzzzzz.......
19th February 2005Coll
Judging by the knives the Ghurkas use, it wouldn't take much to cut the enemy down to their height.

19th February 2005Richard
Theres a very good reason the Gurhkas(it can also be spelt Ghurka and Goorkha) werent in the AZW. Until wwi troops in the Indian Army only served in India.
19th February 2005John Young

I have take issue over your comment that Indian Army didn't serve outside India until WW1 tell that to Indian troops that served in the 2nd China War 1860; the Abyssinian War 1867-8; Malaya 1875 (Perak Campaign); Egypt 1882; 1st Sudan War 1885-6; Burma 1885-7; China 1900 (Boxer Uprising) & Tibet 1904.

I've discounted the Afghan campaigns, as they were on the Indian border.

John Y.
19th February 2005Peter Quantrill
First, let's get the spelling right.The Indian Army, now with over 30 battalions, raised from seven post war regiments handed over by the British in August 1947, generally use the spellig, when refering to regiments, as "Goorkha" or "Gorkha"
The British post war 2nd Goorkhas ( Sirmoor )Rifles) also used this spelling. The remaining three post war British Regiments ( 6th, 7th and 10th) spelt it "Gurkha" There is no such spelling as Ghurkha.
Second, they are exceptional shots, look at your Bisley list. Far East shooting championships, invariably won by a Gurkha Batallions finishing 1st 2nd and 3rd.
Third, there are recorded instances, very few, of orders being disobeyed This, in every instance, was a matter of leadership or lack of language skills on the part of British officers seving with Gurkhas. Discipline is unequalled, and orders never questioned.
Third, Kukri vs assagai? No contest, Kukri every time! Now work out how many VC's have been awarded to Gurkha's since the Indian Mutiny thru' to the 1962 Borneo Campaign.
Having said that, were a Gurkha Batallion at Isandlwana, ( the topic of Paul) the result would have been exactly the same. They would not have fared any differently under the same circumstances, to the 24th.
19th February 2005Paul Cubbin
19th February 2005Bill Harris

You forgot to mention the contingent of sepoys sent to Egypt in 1801 to help expell the French. The fighting was mostly over by the time they got there, but I believe that was the first time Indian troops fought for the British outside India.

Incidentally that was also the campaign where the 24th earned their sphinx badges (but I'm sure everyone already knew that!)

Bill H.
19th February 2005Peter Ewart
Gurkhas have been stationed at both Shorncliffe Camp, Folkestone and, in smaller numbers, at Howe Barracks, Canterbury, more or less continuously during the last six or seven years.

They are popular locally and, needless to say, are a credit to themselves and to the Army.

19th February 2005Michael Boyle

Your post suddenly brought up a question I hadn't yet considered ; Given that the Gurkhas originally hailed from the village of Gorhka in western Nepal (and originally called Gorhkalis) in the Kingdom of Nepal (and still hail from Nepal), how is it that they ended up as part of the Indian Army (apart from those who ended up comprising "The Royal Gurkha Rifles")?, and, are there any "Gurkha" battalions in the Nepalese Army?

Brushing up on my knowledge (?!) of the Nepal war of 1812 I'm struck by the similarities with the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The British attitude of "While we're about it why not pop over the border and handle those troublesome natives",being fought to a standstill before ultimate victory and finishing the campaign with mutual respect seems eerily familiar.(Sir Bartle-Frere and Lord Chelmsford must have 'cut school' the day of the Nepal lecture!)

It also seems curious that given that mutual respect, the British Army (or I suppose the East India Army at the time) enlisted Gurkha battalions into it's ranks but never enlisted Zulus (as such). Perhaps it's just an affect of the Victorian social food chain or politics.

(However even before the AZW the U.S.[always much more racist] had found a place for the "Buffalo Soldier" cavalry and our own 24th Infantry Regiment.)

I agree with Peter, with the previso of the addition of a single Gurkha coy, the only change in the outcome should have been an increase in the Zulu body-count. However the addition of a Gurkha ( or any 'regular') battalion to Pulleine's command could have made all the difference.(The extra coys. could have helped maintain cohesion.)

For an excellent overview of the Gurkhas see:

(Takes a long time to load due to all the photos)



19th February 2005Michael Boyle
Wow, we're all on line at the same time! I'd intended my query for Peter Q. but any insight is appreciated!


20th February 2005Peter Ewart

Your point is certainly true that the British Army never enlisted Zulus as such in Victorian times. However, after 1879, the status of Zululand vis-a-vis the British Empire was somewhat confused and changed several times between then and the 20th century, ranging from Wolesley's divide-&-rule regime during the short-lived "less-than-sovereign" Zululand state, to annexations in 1887 and 1897 which eventually made Zululand part of the Empire, via its assimilation into Natal. And then, although those Zulus living under the Boer-occupied "New Republic" since 1884 were brought back into Natal in 1903, the relations between British and Zulu was complicated and involved "loyals" and "rebels" (a bit of an insult, the latter) especially in 1888 and 1906. In many ways, the vacillation and incompetence of the colonial administration between 1879 and the coming of the Union in 1910 did far more harm to the Zulu people than the AZW ever did. (There was the Zululand Police, however, although not part of the British Army).

Eventually, Zulus were recruited into the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) created during the Great War and drafts were sent to France, although their duties were those of labourers and pioneers, along with the Chinese and Japanese, rather than as fighting soldiers. Nevertheless, many died and are buried in northern France, but the most poignant losses were those of the 616 SANLC men who drowned in the icy English Channel 88 years ago tomorrow, when their transport vessel, the SS Mendi, was involved in a collision. Of this 5th Bn, in reality only a minority were Zulu, but oral tradition has it that on the orders of their leader, with all hope of survival gone, they performed their barefoot "death dance" on the tilting deck of the ship as the vessel sank beneath the waves. It is suspected that the story of this famous dance has been exaggerated over the years. Who knows?

It is certainly true, however, that Zulu were recruited into Empire forces among the 20,000+ black S African volunteers of the Great War.

Peter Ewart
20th February 2005Michael Boyle
Peter Ewart,

Thanks, I've only just begun my study from the Zulu perspective, but can start to appreciate the complex political situation. Perhaps the fact that the conclusion of the Nepal war of 1812 resulted in a 'done' thing as opposed to the AZW of 1879 resulting in an 'undone' thing played a crucial role. Still I can't help but feel that the exclamation that "the Zulus are here!" would have been every bit as demoralizing to the foe as "the Gurkhas are here!".(Maybe just a lost opportunity.)

Had the Germans reached a position to force the SANLC to 'show their stuff' I'd bet that they would have regretted it!

Still I'm rather intrigued by the thought that the Gurkhas seemed to have become an export commodity. (That sounds awfully crass and I don't mean it to be, provision of expert services may be more to the point.)



20th February 2005Derek C
When you come to Canada, and if you need a place to stay, give me a shout, I'm in the Windsor/Detroit area.
20th February 2005Derek C
When you come to Canada, and if you need a place to stay, give me a shout, I'm in the Windsor/Detroit area.
20th February 2005John Young

I was aware of the Indian presence in Egypt, but excluded them from the above as they were at the time H.E.I.C.'s forces, rather than Crown. I applied the same reasoning to my other exclusion of Persia 1856-7.

John Y.
20th February 2005Paul Cubbin
Derek - ah, I've heard about you internet-stalker-types.....
Thanks for the offer but its a rushed 10 day extravaganza across Alberta including skiing, watching rugby videos (supplied by me to the sadly 6 Nation-starved rugby lovers), drinking beer and, well, drinking beer.

To the best of my knowledge, Gurkhas have served in the Nepalese Army, the Indian Army and the British Army (and presumably a couple of others over the centuries). Despite being a diminuative, softly spoken people who are utterly charming, the Gurkhas have always seen service in the British Army as being the ultimate goal of manhood and (current pension problems notwithstanding) the money they can return home with makes them very wealthy indeed in their own country.

Storytime - go on, one more before I'm away for a fortnight. Right, storytime - I heard of an action in the Falklands where a stubborn Argentine unit was dug in deep in a wood and was resisting all efforts to dislodge them. In a surprise attack the Gurkhas rushed the position from the rear without firing a shot - they used their kukris. The terrified (surviving) Argentinians were seen streaming out of their positions with hands high and immediately surrendered. One wonders how many had night terrors for years to come, haunted by grinning men with big shiny knives.
20th February 2005Peter Quantrill
May I ask you for for indulgence in responding to Michael's queries on matters Gurkha. The latter word is the English spelling and pronounced by the British as "Gerkha." This is strictly speaking incorrect and certainly not how either the Nepalese or Indians pronounce the word, both using "Gorkha" (pronounced "Gorrkha) or "Goorkha" The Regiment ( Palten) is known as a "Gorkhali Palten."
The British invasion of Nepal 1812- 1815 was repulsed three times by General Amarbahudur Thapa, before submitting on the fourth invasion. The quality of the Gorkhas compelled the British to commence recruiting immediately, hence nearly two hundred years of uninterupted service.
On Indian Independence in 1948, there were eleven Gorkha Regiments( with multiple batallions) serving, all located in India. A tripartite agreement was signed by Nepal, India and UK whereby four Regiments would be transferred to the British army, and the balance to the Indian army.The Nepalese army does not refer to their regiments as "Goorkhas" rather "Nepalese Army." They recruit from the darker skinned valley Nepalese and plainsmen. ( Newars and Chettris) whilst the British and Indian army get to the hills of both west and east Nepal to recruit the lighter skinned and more militant tribes. ( Gurungs, Puns, Magars, Rais and Limbus.)
The method of selection of the Regiments which came over to the British Army in 1948, met with universal army criticism.They were chosen for logistical reasons, i.e. those already situated close to shipping in order to transport them to their new home in Malaya. Thus the 2nd,6th, 7th and 10th Regiments,
(two batallions each) became part of the British Army Order of Battle,whilst older and more famous Regiments such as the 1st, 3rd,4th and 5th Royal, passed into the Indian Army Order of Battle The men earmarked for the Britiah army were given the option of transferring to the Indian Army Regiments, or coming over to the British. The Labour government refused to be rushed into terms of emplyment, and who can blame the many that, as a direct result of being offered no specific terms or conditions, opted for India. Understrength batallions arrived in Malaya. In the case of my regiment, the 1/7 th, less than three hundred men opted for British service. Our second battalion had under two hundred. A sad chapter in British mismanagement and lack of governance.Continual Defence cuts have now resulted in all four Regiments loosing their identities, currently leaving just two batallions, renamed 1st and 2nd batallions Royal Gurkha Rifles.
How long they will continue is in the hands of their ever fickle political masters.
The Indian Army, on the other hand, have recruited many more than my previously posted 30 batallions; in fact 70. Discipline is as tight as before, and all traditions continue, including mess nights with regimental silver always displayed. God help Pakistan should the Kashmir dispute escalate.
Apologies to all, for this non Zulu War ramble.
20th February 2005Michael Boyle

Thank you, that clears up much of my confusion. I do hope the Gurkha tradition will continue in the British Army even in it's much reduced circumstances.


21st February 2005Richard
As for the spelling, the RN frigate was called HMS Ghurka!
22nd February 2005Derek C
To Paul....,
Well spotted, I am a cyber stalker!!!!? (just kidding). If you run out of videos', I can express mail a copy of the 1995 World Cup?

It's sad when one watches the NFL Final purely for the advertisments and ignores the rest of the game!!! Rugby rocks!. Having said that.... Baseball does make cricket look like a Granny's knitting class.

Enjoy your stay in the "Big Fridge" and while the beer isn't the greatest, Blue or Coors Light is a good stepping stone, minimal hangovers!!
Cheers Mate.

22nd February 2005Peter Quantrill
A Senior Service error of some magnitude!