1986 saw the 2nd Battalion celebrate its Centenary of service to the Crown. Although the Battalion was raised in February 1886 it was not possible to celebrate the Centenary in February 1986, due to final preparations for a 6 month tour of duty as Resident Battalion in The Falkland Islands.

There were two major events in 1986 to commemorate this historical achievement.

On the weekend of 13 and 14 September 1986 the Battalion, which was based in Queen Elizabeth Barracks, Church Crookham, Aldershot, celebrated the Centenary on Delhi Day. On 13 September the battalion marched through Fleet Town at the request of the local Council, where the Colonel of The Regiment took the salute with the Mayor of Fleet, Mrs Mildred Stocks. 14 September saw the whole Battalion on parade for its Colonel in Chief , The Prince of Wales, and the handover of The Colonel of The Regiment, Field Marshal Sir Edwin Bramall to General (later Field Marshal) Sir John Chapple.

Through the auspices of The Colonel of The Regiment arrangements were made for Her Majesty The Queen to inspect The Queen’s Truncheon at Buckingham Palace on 15 July 1986, after the return of the Battalion from the Falkland Islands on 3 July.

In attendance at this honour for The Regiment were The Colonel in Chief, The Colonel of The Regiment, and in order shown on the group photograph, from left to right, the following:

Regimental Representation:

Lt Colonel John Brewer MBE, Commandant 2nd Battalion,
Lt Colonel Nigel Haynes MBE, Late Commandant 1st Battalion
Major (QGO) Chandrabahadur Pun MVO, Gurkha Major 2nd Battalion
Colonel in Chief, HRH The Prince of Wales
Colonel of The Regiment, Field Marshal Sir Edwin Bramall, GCB, OBE, MC, JP
Capt (QGO) Manbahadur Gurung , (half hidden behind Colonel of The Regiment) , QGOO and future GM 1st Battalion

Truncheon Escort provided by 2nd Battalion:

Corporal Santabahadur Rai , Queen’s Medallist Bisley
Sergeant Raju Pun, Battalion shooting team and just awarded LSGC
Lieutenant (QGO) Lachhimiparsad Gurung BEM
Sergeant Narbahadur Gurung BEM
Corporal Karnabahadur Gurung

The inspection by Her Majesty was a very memorable event. Her Majesty took a great deal of interest in The Queen’s Truncheon, which was given the due respect and solemnity it deserved. However on completion of the inspection Her Majesty took time to chat with every member of the Escort party and accompanying officers. The time spent after the formal inspection was very relaxed , greatly assisted by The Colonel of The Regiment and Colonel in Chief, as can be seen from the smiles in some of the photographs.

It has to be said that the presentation to Her Majesty very nearly did not take place. Although The Truncheon, with full escort, had been inspected by Her Majesty before, passage of time and changes in advisors had obviously diminished memories of previous agreements on the carriage of arms by the Escort. During the planning phase we were told quite forcibly that no weapons were permitted within Buckingham Palace. There was a time when we had to say that if the Escort was not carrying arms then The Truncheon could not be paraded. The intervention of The Colonel Of The Regiment quickly resolved the situation and on the day The Queen’s Truncheon was on parade and shown its due respect.

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Christopher Lavender commented: “I have come into possession of a WD map of HKG from 1936. I never knew that the hill features near the border were named Cheviots , Mendips and the North and South Downs. Also Snowden in the other photograph I assume to be ‘Nameless’ as it lies north of Kai Kung Leng.”

John Harrop noted that there appeared to be a race course near the site of what subsequently became Gallipoli Lines.

Map2 Map1

After a long absence of two years of Covid-19 restrictions and lockdown, the Gurkha Association Scotland finally managed to have a ‘Get-Together’ in the early summer this year, held at the Oxgangs Neighbourhood Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland. The event was simple but ‘gharelu’ (homely) party, superbly organised by Capt Tika Limbu (ex 10 GR) who is the Chairman GA Scotland and his committee members. The food was magnificient, topped off by a variety of wonderful home-cooked Nepali dishes prepared by didi-bahinis. Although the numbers present looked small it was an enjoyable gathering and great to see everyone again in good health and spirits along with their families and children. An impromptu roll call revealed, in total, there being seven Sirmooris working and living in Scotland, although all were not present at the event . Jai Lali!

The Gurkha Association Scotland gathering

“Flying the Flag” – The 5 Sirmooris in Scotland who attended the event.
(L to R) Kamal Thapa, Padam Thapa, Sudan Dewan, Resham Thapa, Prem Gharti Magar (Band)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This and the following 7 pictures are of Major Yambahadur Gurung and at his ancestral home in Hjanjarkot, an hour north of Pokhara.

Phewa Tal

 

Phewa Tal

 

9966 Uddim Saheb, 5761 Cpl Bel, 0980 Maj Hitman Saheb, 0387 CSgt Jagat

 

Ditto

 

Dudman Saheb (1/2GR and RGR – my Coy 2IC in B Coy 1RS), Uddim Saheb, and 5478 Indra Saheb (1/2GR, 2GR and RGR).

 

2GR Sahebharu act of remembrance for HM Queen Elizabeth

2GR burho toli in Pokhara: me with the other Hitman Saheb and Dudman Saheb.
With Mike Lock (Paymaster 2/2GR 82-85, COS HQ BGN 92-94 and 29 year resident of Kathmandu) being garlanded by KK Ale and Bharat Saheb

Burho toli:0362 WO2 Lachhuman Mor Pl, 0352 CSgt Junbdr Signal Pl, 2269 Cpl Prem (C Coy), 2970 Cpl Krishna (Mor Pl and Bn PTI and Mr. Himal and Mr. Nepal (body-builder), 3913 Tendi Sherpa (Mor Pl), Sherbhadur Saheb (A Coy and MMG Pl (after Al Kennedy).

 

On a one hour panel with my old friend Binod Khadka and KK Ale at the BFBS Nepali studio talking about Her Majesty the Queen and the Gurkha connection during a day long tribute from BFBS Nepali listeners; a last minute ambush!

 

Last appointment for me this trip. A lovely 3 hours with Bharat Saheb and his family over bhat. He said his warm regards to all.

 

Two views of the Field Marshal Sir John Chapple Education Centre at the Central Zoo in Jawalakhel in the Kathmandu Valley:

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Martin Brooks, the Chairman of the Gurkha Museum Trustees, has kindly agreed that the following article can be posted on the 2GR website.  A copy of ‘In the Presence’ is available online here.

IN THE PRESENCE (1912)

Honorary Captain Santbir Gurung, “Sardar Bahadur”, O.B.I. I.O.M., Kipling and the Wrath of the Ranas.

Some of you were asking about Santbir Gurung, on Friday whose medals we saw displayed in the HQBG Conference Room.

Well, thanks to the scholarship of our Vice Patron, our previous Chairman and others, raised up by Kipling’s wonderful interpretation, it is an admirable tale of devoted Gurkha service to the Crown followed by rank injustice at the hands of the Ranas.

“The Armies of India”, The artist A C Lovett was in 1914 the CO of the 1st Bn Gloucestershire Regiment at Mons (later a Brigadier). The images include one of Santbir Gurung 2/2nd King Edward’s Own Goorkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Regiment):

The Vigil at The Lying in State of King Edward VII

Subedar Major Santbir Gurung of the 2/2 Gookhas, Subedar Major Singbir Ghale of the 2/3rd Gurkhas, Subedar Bude Sing Negi of the 2/39th Garhwalis and Jemedar Baij Sing Rawat of 1/39th Garwhalis stood the vigil at the Lying in State of King Edward VII in May 1910. As Tony Gould points out Kipling did not name them and calls them all Gurkhas, reminding us as well that the 39th Garhwalis were originally the 2/3rd Gurkhas.

They refused all offer of interrupting their vigil and could not eat or rest much for 72 hours. This act of stoicism and reverence caused a great deal of interest and admiration in Britain, and as Richard Cawthorne, the former Chairman of the Gurkha Museum noted drew the admiration of no less a figure than Field Marshal Lord Roberts. This prompted Kipling to weave an interpretation of these Gurkhas at the Lying in State, as imagined through eyes of Sikhs and their pandit and interspersed with their own tale of honour and sacrifice; such is his genius.

King’s Gurkha Orderly Officers 1910.  Photograph by C. Vandyk.  
Courtesy of © National Army Museum. NAM1953-06-42-8

Photograph shows: Major H St A Wake, 2nd Battalion, 8th Gurkha Rifles; Subadar Major Santbir Gurung, 2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles); Subadar Major Singer Ghale, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles; Subadar Bude Sing Negi, 2nd Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles; Subadar Baij Sing Rawat, 1st Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles.

The King’s Indian Orderly Officers was a constituency of four distinguished Indian army officers chosen each year to serve as the King’s honorary bodyguard in the United Kingdom. On January 1st, 1903, the Viceroy issued a General Order announcing concessions to the Army in India in connection with Edward VII’s Coronation, notably the annual appointment of Indian officers. The first six Indian orderly officers were appointed in 1903; their number reduced to four in 1904. During the London season, from April to August, they attended the King at Courts and Levees, standing near the throne at reviews and ceremonies, always appearing in full regalia. For this supreme honour, officers were handpicked from all branches of the Indian Army, specially selected by the Commander-in-Chief himself.

The practice of King’s Indian Orderly officers attending Royal Lying in States was discontinued in 1936 and so there was no such attendance in 1952 when King George V1 died, as Richard Cawthorne notes. He also reminds us that The Queen’s Gurkha Orderly Officers were not instituted until 1954.

Santbir’s Exile from Nepal

The Postscript was less pleasant. Honoured by King George V, when Santbir wished to return to Nepal in 1913, he “was banished both from his caste and his country by order of Chandra Shamsher, despite the intervention of George V,” as Tony Gould describes, nominally for travelling to England without his Maharaja’s permission. Shamsher like all hereditary Prime Ministers since Jang Bahadur had inherited the title of Maharaja of Kaski originally granted by the King and therefore most Gurungs were his direct subjects. Santbir had to wait to the age of 83 to be restored to caste and country.

This is cited in academic circles as a particularly egregious example of the brittle and unpleasant nature of Rana elitism during their ascendency .

On the other hand, Chandra did put his own army at the disposal of the British in 1914 and without Jang Bahadur in the 1850s, there would probably have been no Gurkhas as we know it today.

Martin Brooks
29 Jan 2018

*********

Selected Bibliography

Cawthorne, Col Richard. (2010) The Vigil, BNS Journal pp 45-48.

Chapple, Capt John, 2GR. (1959) Kipling Journal, March 1959

Gould, Tony. (1999) Imperial Warriors- Britain and the Gurkhas pp 171-174, Granta Books London.

Whelpton, John. (2005). A History of Nepal, p 85 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kgoos Santbir

(This article has been extracted from the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers 2022 Journal. I’m most grateful to the Editor, Andy Gooch, for permission to reprint it here).

THE MAKING OF THE BRIGADE OF GURKHAS KUKRIS – A MODEL EXAMPLE OF OUR EX-BRITISH GURKHAS

Editor’s Introduction

In 2021 I saw a post on social media from Lt Col Simon Townsend RLC, the current COS British Gurkha Nepal about a trip he had made to Dharan where he had visited the factory that makes the kukris for today’s Brigade of Gurkhas (photo below). Thinking this would be a story our readers would also be interested in I asked Hakaraj Rai (ex QGE Sgt and latterly GWS AWO) to visit and ask some questions. The following is a result of this visit.

Article by Harkaraj Rai

Sgt Tilbahaadur Biswakarma was visited at his residence on 14 March 2022 for short interview regarding Biswakarma Khukuri Industries which was established in 1990 (BS 2047) at 10 Deulari Chowk, Chatara Line, Dharan, Sunsari.

21149842 Sgt Tilbahadur Biswakarma was originally from, Ward 3, Khiji VDC, Okhaldunga and enlisted into the British Army in November 1958 from Paklihawa. He was the last batch to enlist there as the following year recruitment for the Eastern Section moved to Dharan. He served in 10GR and during his time in the British Army he served in Malaya, Hong Kong, Singapore, UK, and Cyprus during Turkish / Greek separation period. He was trained as an armourer where he learnt invaluable skills such as arc welding, soldering and sheet metal works.

After 19 years of service with Brigade of Gurkhas Sgt Tilbahadur Biswakarma retired in 1977 and joined the Gurkha Reserve Unit in Brunei the same year. His GRU number was 498, and his job was to once more look after all weapons. In addition he renovated the canteen and retired from his second career in February 1990.

When asked “Why he started this business in first place?” His answers were very heart touching. In the first place, brave Gurkhas are known across the world and synonymous with the Gurkha Soldier is the Kukri. But on other hand the Nepal Government did not shown any interest in improving the quality of kukris while at the same time India supplied low quality kukris to the Brigade of Gurkhas and other Regiments in India.

Sgt Tilbahadur Biswkarma opened his business with fear and trepidation in 1990 (BS 2047) and first started to supply the British Brigade of Gurkhas in 1992. He missed out on the contract for some years and resumed once again in 2018 and has been supplying ever since. He supplies 600 to 1000 a year.

He personally overseas all that is made in his factory and as well as kukris he also makes other items from iron such as machetes, reaping hooks, swords, Karda, Chakma and knives. They come in various sizes and he will make whatever the customer needs.

The main propose of the kukri is to cut wood and trees and he does good business with countries such as America, China and Japan through a Kathmandu export agency. Every year a few small kuuris are produced as showcase items and are decorated. The cost of the kukri depends on size and quality and ranges from Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 per item; a far cry from the 1990 price of Rs 200.

What is used to make the kukri? He purchases old vehicle suspension leaf springs at auction as they are best for the blade and easily available. Buffalo horns are supplied from Calcutta, India to make the handle. In addition silver soldering rods, brass, a special glue from the laaha tree and hard wood (for the handle (bhend) are needed.

How is the kukri made? Once all materials for the blade have been collected and weighed they are heated up and beaten into shape. The blade is dipped in water to temper it and give it the hardness needed to be the blade of a weapon. The hardness is checked by cutting iron and listening to the sound it produces. After thoroughly checking to ensure it is of the right quality either the wooden or buffalo horn handle is fitted and tied up with a brass ring and sliver soldering to hold it in place. Finally is it highly polished and placed in a leather sheath (the Daap), to keep the kukri, the karda (small knife) and the chakmak (sharpening knife) protected. It takes one skilled person a full day to make one kukri.

Sgt Tilbahadur Biswakarma acknowledged the debt he owes to the Brigade of Gurkhas for training him as an armourer as without this skill he would not be where he is now.

He acknowledged that making kukris is a caste and generational trade and went on to say he will continue to make high quality kukris until his last breath and that he hopes this tradition will continue as long as there is a country called Nepal.

He went on to say that his ambition is not limited to his Kukri Industries business as he also wants to elevate the level of education in Nepal. To help realise this dream he has established two English Boarding Schools in Dharan. The first is the Shree Satya Shishu Niketan Secondary Boarding School which takes children from Nursery to Class 10 (age 16) Already 15 classes have passed through and attained their School Leaving Certificate (SLC). The SLC is equivalent to UK GCSEs. The second school is the Shree Gyan Niketan Primary English Boarding which has classes from Nursery to Class 6.

Sgt Tilbahadur Biswakarma is the Director of both schools and two of his sons help to run the them. His 3rd son, Khargen is helping him to run the Kukri Industry while is first son is working in Hong Kong. There are no shareholders invested in the school and he built the Secondary School on his own land. All he has earned has been invested in these schools.

A lot of Nepalis assume Nepal is a place of tremendous prosperity, technology and naturel sources (like it is in Japan), where highly educated people are the norm and who have many opportunities for innovation.

But for many Nepali’s their dream is focused on joining the British or Indian Armies or working overseas as labourers. With this in mind Sgt Tilbahadur Bisawkarma took these remarkable steps to provide a job and keep his sons in Nepal. His last message to ex-bhupus or serving soldiers is to come up with ideas for new businesses or industries so that the next generation can innovate too and become self-employed and then keep their children busy too.

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Well – fish and chips looked tasty on the menu – but in the event it was not quite what PRD and Christopher has imagined! Nevertheless accompanied by a bottle of Rose it served to fortify us for the task ahead. Peter and Annie, John Swanston and Mark Pettigrew joined Christopher and Griselda for lunch at the Hurlingham Club, basking in a perfect English Summer temperature and the croquet lawns in fine condition. Much enjoyable catching up and a little banter from Mark about Christopher’s right to bring in 5 guests as a reciprocal member (it does seem extraordinary) eventually gave way to locating the mallets and balls and taking to the ‘courts’. Croquet lawns they may appear to be – but the professionals call them ‘courts’ as in tennis!

Griselda had sadly to depart for grandmotherly duties elsewhere in the Capital, and so we commenced with an individual free for all in which Mark and John emerged triumphant on 4 points (having run four hoops each), Peter and Christopher on 2 points and Annie (holding herself back) on one. We then played two games of doubles with Annie and Christopher winning by 4/3 on the first outing and John and Mark winning by a similar margin on the final run. And suitably on the afternoon that Ben Stokes and England were mauling the Proteas batsmen at Edgbaston, Mark, in similar style, took the opportunity to run the fourth hoop from a full 25 yards with a majestic stroke- winning that coveted accolade ‘Sirmooree of the Lawns (oops – ‘Courts’)’!

   That ‘Ben Stokes’ moment!

As usual the Sirmoorees contributed in no small measure to the sartotial elegance of those gracing the lawns and the courts, and Annie modelled a very appealing waist sash – which might yet take the fashion world by storm. Peter did point out though that Annie had never taken part in Public Duties!

A traditionally English tea of Devon cream and scones brought our afternoon to a happy close before the Duffells and John Swanston departed westwards, Mark down the Trinity Road, and Christopher joined Griselda with the grandchildren!

A millinery of Sirmoor Topis join us for ‘Tiffin’!

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Malleteers of the Sirmoor Rifles once again adorned the hallowed lawns of Hurlingham this Summer – and I do not overstate the sartorial elegance of the occasion. On the opening day of the ‘Sirmoor Season’ in late July Hurlingham Members on an adjacent lawn informed Mark Pettigrew that seldom had such a distinguished and elegant quartet been seen on the lawns of the Club. The ‘quartet’ being Mark, Peter and Annie Duffell and David Santa-Ollala! The ‘Quartet’ were joined on the day by Sophie Graham, Kinny and Mimi Evans and Christopher Lavender – and later – after a good luncheon in the Caledonian Club – by David and Joanna Thomas.

After the two ‘heatwave days’ earlier in the week the cooler temperatures at the end of the week were welcome. We had opted to play Golf Croquet – as the more social of the two codes (the other option being the significantly more ‘Machiavellian’ Association Croquet). Kinny and Mimi adapted seamlessly from village croquet to the pristine lawns, and David Santa-Ollala displayed his accuracy with mallet and ball – with skills mastered in an earlier cricketing career. Peter was precise in the positioning of his ball before the hoops – although it proved an attractive target for his fellow Malleteers – while Annie continued to run the hoops with graceful ease. David Thomas made his mark on Lawn 6 as the afternoon drew to a close – with typical aplomb and gravitas, while Joanna encouraged Mimi and Christopher on Lawn 4 in their closely contested match with Peter and Annie – during which Mimi ran two hoops from ridiculous angles.

We ‘took tea’ shortly after Jo Santa-Ollala had arrived and then wended or way home – some as far as distant Wiltshire!

 

            Sophie lines up the next hoop

Annie runs one of many hoops – with admirers looking on.

The Elegant Quartet!

Mimi, Sophie and Kinny – adding their own elegance!

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The auction house Noonans (www.noonans.co.uk) is auctioning a Naval DSM that was awarded ‘’For gallant and distinguished services in operations in Brunei during the period 8th to 23rd December 1962′ to Petty Officer Mechanician P. J. D. Kirwin, Royal Navy (thanks to Major John Harrop for this information).

Kirwin was Stoker Petty Officer of the leading lighter at the opposed Royal Marines Commando raid against heavily armed Indonesian supported rebels at Limbang, Brunei, on 12 December 1962, who, ‘when his craft came under heavy fire, left the safety of his engine room, grasped his automatic weapon, and engaged the rebels himself at very close range’. The award was promulgated in the London Gazette 31 May 1963.

Kirwin’s DSM and Brunei Service Medal

D.S.M. Citation and description of the action:

Up to 1962, the island of Borneo was divided into the vast southern area under Indonesian rule and three British dependencies, Sarawak, North Borneo and, sandwiched between them, the tiny but very wealthy protectorate of Brunei. With the sun gradually setting on British interests in this part of the Far East, a proposal to include these three northern Borneo states into the new Federation of Malaysia was opposed by Indonesia which then proceeded to back the dissident TNKU in mounting an insurrection in Brunei with the aim of maintaining a North Borneo Union. To further this, in December 1962 the rebels occupied several towns, including Brunei town and at Limbang across the border in Sarawak, they held a number of hostages, including the British Government’s Agent – the ‘Resident’, ‘Dick’ Morris – his wife and a nursing sister. There were indications that the hostages were to be executed on 12 December. At this time 42 Commando, who were awaiting Christmas in Singapore, were put on short notice, and two days later ‘L’ Company, under Captain Jeremy Moore (later to command British Land Forces during the Falklands War), flew to Brunei Town where the Gurkhas had restored order. In fact, most of the trouble had been quickly stamped out, except at Limbang, only accessible by river.

Amphibious Assault on Limbang

Tasked with rescuing the Limbang hostages, Moore’s urgency was further sharpened when it was learned that the TKNU had murdered some hostages at Bangar. At the waterfront in Brunei he met the Senior Naval Officer, Lieutenant-Commander J. J. Black (who by coincidence would also rise to senior command during the Falklands War as Captain of the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Invincible) who had requisitioned two Z-Lighter landing craft for the raid, the Nakhoda Manis and the Sindaun, and provided these with five man crews from the minesweepers Fiskerton and Chawton under his command. Lieutenant Willis, being Black’s First Lieutenant, was appointed as the Senior Naval Officer charged with ensuring that the task force arrived off Limbang but once the assault landing was under way, the lighters would then come under the tactical direction of the senior Royal Marine on board. None of the Royal Navy men under Willis had any experience in handling Z-Craft or landing craft operations but they were now being committed to the daunting prospect of an opposed landing.

At 10pm on 11 December, the understrength ‘L’ Company of 87 men, faces blackened, all wearing green berets with glinting cap badges for identification, filed on to the waiting Z-Craft. On board the lead lighter, Nakhoda Manis – commanded by Willis – was Captain Moore, his reconnaissance group, part of Company HQ, and 5 Troop. Also aboard as guide was Captain Muton, the Brunei Director of Marine who would later receive the M.B.E. for his efforts and four more Royal Navy crew including Petty Officer Mechanician Kirwin.

The assault went in at first light:

Terence Cuneo painting of the assault

When they were 300yds from the Limbang police station, and as the leading craft came abreast of the huts south of the town,‘it erupted like a disturbed ants’ nest as the rebels stood to’. At 200yds the Commando Intelligence Sergeant called through the loud-hailer in Malay: ‘The rebellion is over . . . you should lay down your arms.’ They replied with automatic weapons – an LMG, three or four SMGs – and some dozen rifles, supported by over 100 shotguns. The instantaneous counter-fire from both craft gave the commandos, thanks to their Vickers machine-guns, the initiative, enabling the leading craft to beach half a minute later only 30yds from the police station. Two marines of the leading No.5 Troop were killed before the craft gained the bank and their OC, Lt ‘Paddy’ Davis, was wounded as he jumped ashore. Sgt Bickford led two Sections of the Troop against the police station, which was quickly cleared, but the naval coxswain of the leading craft had been wounded and as the craft drifted off the bank, Lt D.O. Willis, RN, drove it hard back ashore; but this shallow draught lighter broached to 150yds upstream between the hospital and the home of the British Resident. Capt Moore sent the reserve section ashore, with HQ personnel led by TSM McDonald, and they cleared the hospital. As they came through to the back of this building, the Troop sergeant and two marines were killed, ‘for the jungle comes literally right down to the back door of the hospital’. The grounding of the craft up-river had been a fortunate accident, for Capt Moore found some of the hostages in the hospital. A rebel had fired at them but missed, and no one was hurt. While the ground between the hospital and the police station was being cleared, as was the Resident’s house, the Company Commander was told of more hostages. Therefore, he organised the clearing of the rest of the town to the south, and by the afternoon had released another eight hostages but at nightfall there were still rebels inside the Company’s perimeter, two of whom were killed close to the marines’ positions. Next day the town was secured. Five marines had been killed and six wounded (including a sailor), but the action here, coupled with those of the Gurkhas and Queen’s Own Highlanders elsewhere in Brunei, had broken the rebellion. At Limbang alone 15 rebels had been killed and 50 captured from a force of 350, – twice the expected size. They had been taken by surprise, as the commandos now discovered. The Vickers guns in the second craft had been masked, the Company Commander also learnt, by the leading craft, until QMS Cyril Quoins asked the officer commanding this lighter if he could pull out of line to give them a clearer shot. ‘Sergeant Major’, the officer replied, ‘Nelson would have loved you’, and promptly swung his craft into a more exposed position.’ (The Royal Marines by James D. Ladd refers.)

It is also worth quoting Captain Jeremy Moore’s observations, made much later:

‘It is perhaps interesting to note that, though my assessment of where the enemy headquarters might be was right, I was quite wrong about the hostages. Furthermore, it was chance that the second beaching happened where it did, that resulted in us taking the hospital from the direction we did. It could be that this saved us heavier casualties, though I assess the most important factor in the success of the operation was first class leadership by junior NCOs. Their section battle craft was a joy to watch and the credit for this belongs to the troop and Section commanders.’

Moore received a Bar to the Military Cross he had won during operations against Communist terrorists in Malaya during the Emergency of the 1950s. Royal Marine Corporals W. J. Lester and R. C. Rawlinson were awarded the M.M. and decorations were also awarded to two of the Royal Navy crew of the 1st Lighter. Lieutenant Willis got the D.S.C. for his command of the 1st Lighter when, having had two of his helmsmen shot at his side and 140 bullet holes in the bridge of his landing craft, he took the wheel himself and landed his Commando. Petty Officer Mechanician Kirwin, also of the 1st lighter under Willis, would be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal – The Naval Chronicle recording how, with his craft coming under heavy fire, Kirwin chose to leave the safety of the engine room and grasping an automatic weapon, engaged the rebels himself at very close range. Captain J. J. Black would later write of Kirwin’s gallantry: ‘after having heard the battle raging around his craft, he left his engines under the charge of his assistant, picked up his sten gun and joined in the gun battle by sticking his head out of his hatch.’

Kirwin’s rare award is one of only four Distinguished Service Medals awarded to men of the Royal Navy in the period from the Korean War in 1953 until the Falklands War in 1982. Two of these were for the Near East (Suez), one for operations in Borneo, and there is this sole award to Petty Officer Kirwin for Brunei. Just one of these other interim post-war D.S.M.s has been seen at auction (Able Seaman Loader’s Suez Crisis group which sold in these rooms in December 2021) while the other Limbang gallantry awards – to Moore, Rawlinson, Lester and Willis – are all yet to be sighted.

Patrick John Dennis Kirwin was born in 1932 at Barton upon Irwell, Lancashire, the son of Kathleen Mary Magee and John Kirwin. He died at Salford, Greater Manchester, in 1989.

 

Memorial outside Limbang Police Station:

Close up of the plaque commemorating those killed:

 

Reminiscence from Brigadier Bruce Jackman on 13th May 2022:

Coincidentally at the time [of the Limbang assault] I was OC 8 Pl in B Coy 1/2GR commanded by Terry Bowring. We relieved L Coy RM at Limbang days after their action, in which incidentally the Vickers machine guns that are mentioned had been borrowed from 1/2GR! 8 Pl and I then spent the best part of 2 months chasing Salleh bin Sambas, a turncoat rebel Police Field Force weapon training instructor.

Wanted poster for Salleh bin Sambas

He inflicted most of the casualties on the RM assault with a LMG fired from the roof of the Limbang customs building before he fled with one or two of his henchmen. We conducted a 10 day ambush on his house, which was on what we called ’the Limbang trail’ (a rough unmetalled road from Limbang to Bangar), but fortunately for him he kept away from the house and his gorgeous young Brunei/Malay wife! After Noel Fordyce had taken over from Terry Bowring we received a tip off from a local who led us to Salleh bin Sambas’s camp in a cave in the hills, but he and his group of about 4 people had left some 3 hours earlier, judging by the embers of a fire. We ambushed the cave for 10 days but he never returned. Two weeks later we found another camp built in a mangrove swamp on the edge of the Limbang River. We were set to ambush that for 10 miserable days perched in mangrove trees, but after 7 days we were forced to withdraw because the river Limbang overflowed after days of very heavy rain that caused the major floods in the whole Limbang valley. When 8 Pl and I left the now flooded ambush position to make our way out to a road-head about 2 miles away the water was up to the Gurkhas’ chests and we had to cut poles to feel our way through it. Finally the water level became too deep to proceed to the road over the last hundred yards or so. We only got out by felling a row of rubber trees and working our way along the line of fallen tree trunks – thank goodness they are planted in straight rows! Because of the huge widespread flooding all military operations were curtailed and the battalion began a humanitarian mission to rescue locals from the many longhouses upriver that were completely submerged or just washed away. I spent a couple of weeks with my orderly, a Gurkha signaller, and a couple of Royal Marines with a Gemini speedboat, living in the roof of a school building way up river, from where we helped coordinate events. Incidentally one of the Royal Marines was Capt David Storrie RM (recently died), who was a helicopter pilot in 845 Sqn RNAS that supported us in Third Division during our first Borneo tour in late 1963-early1964! Bob Waterton, OC D Coy, was awarded a humanitarian medal for his role in this humanitarian operation. Salleh bin Sambas meanwhile fled with other leaders of the rebellion over the border into Indonesia via Ba Kelalan (where I subsequently commanded C Coy in 1964). He returned to Brunei in May 1963 with Yasin Affendi (the rebel commander) and his ‘command group’ in the belief that they could re-ignite the rebellion, but they were captured (two killed?) by 1/7 GR on an island in the Brunei river on 18 May 63 in what was the last action of the Brunei Rebellion. When Salleh bin Sambas was released (I don’t know the year) he became the Chief Customs Officer in Limbang!

Book review courtesy of Brigadier Ian Rigden which explains what happened to Salleh bin Sambas (highlighted in red):

EILEEN CHANIN, Limbang Rebellion. Seven Days in December 1962.
Singapore: Ridge Books, 2013 (reprinted by Pen & Sword Military,
2014). XXII, 249 pages, $28.00. ISBN 978-9971-69-775-4 (pbk)

This book is family history, military history, colonial history and political history
in one. The rebellion of the title took place in Borneo during the decolonisation
era. The author, Eileen Chanin from the University of New South Wales, is a
prize-winning historian. Her new book, many years in the making, is based on
extensive research in Sarawak (Malaysia), Singapore, Australia and the United
Kingdom (pp. 205–36). She also trawled the archives of the Imperial War
Museum, the Royal Marines and the Mill Hill Missionaries. Telling use is made
of her own family’s papers: her parents-in-law were Richard and Dorothy Morris,
an Australian in the British Colonial Service and his wife, who were taken
hostage by rebels in Sarawak in 1962. They were released unharmed following
military action by a vastly outnumbered detachment of Royal Marines. Five commandos
were killed and six wounded during the engagement.

Captain Richard Holywell Morris OBE SMB (1915–2000), an only child
of Anglo-Welsh heritage, with but a “patchy education” (p. 28), arrived in Borneo
in 1945 with the Australian Imperial Force. After the war he was appointed to
the Sarawak Civil Service, in which he served until his retirement in 1964. By
November 1962, when he took up his appointment as Resident (administrator)
of the Limbang District, he had worked in all five administrative divisions of
the crown colony, in addition to a long spell (1954–8) in neighbouring Brunei.
The author remembers him as “a naturally gracious man with a cheerful and
caring disposition”. Dorothy Morris (died 2002), daughter of a bank manager,
was reared in country towns in New South Wales (p. 28). Blessed with a “sunny
personality”, she organized social events for the benefit of the Red Cross, for
which she was a life-long volunteer, a matter of some importance during the
ordeal she was to undergo in December 1962. The Morrises were both fluent in
Malay and Iban; Richard was also competent in Cantonese and written Arabic,
while Dorothy was a “ready listener and inveterate letter-writer”.

The main body of the book (Chapters 2–8) delivers a blow-by-blow account
of the uprising, with each chapter devoted to one day, starting on Friday, 7 December
and ending on Thursday, 13 December 1962. The Morrises were taken
prisoner at the outset (p. 51); the book portrays their “highs and lows” before
their “knights in shining armour” duly arrived five long days later. Similarly, the
emotions of the marines, their fear and tension before going into battle (many
for the first time), are excellently captured by Chanin. The assault force suffered
from many handicaps: a lack of information about the movements of the enemy,
no adequate maps, poor equipment, and deficiencies in transport. Owing to their
excellent training, the marines were able to overcome all of these problems.
Sheikh Ahmad Azahari (1928–2002), the leader of the Brunei revolt, does
not get a “good press” here.

The most interesting insurgent is perhaps Salleh bin
Sambas, known as Salleh Jangut, the bearded one, who was 30 years old in
1962. A former member of the Sarawak Field Force, he was a master of the
Bren gun. Leading the assault on Limbang, he saw himself as a freedom fighter,
like Rosli bin Dobhi (assassin of Governor Stewart in 1949). After the Royal
Marines recaptured Limbang, Salleh, though wounded in the arm and chest,
escaped on a bicycle. He lay low for a lengthy period and was eventually captured
near Serdang by Gurkhas acting on information from a food carrier. He was subsequently
sentenced to 15 years in gaol. Released after only a decade, Salleh
later became a penghulu and a village hero in Limbang (pp. 31–2, 163, 173–4,
196, 203, 223).

The rebellion certainly revealed to the colonial regime its own unpopularity.
“It now seems fairly certain”, Morris himself stated shortly after the trouble had
subsided, “that virtually all Malays and Kedayans in Limbang district had a
foreknowledge of the intended rebellion. This knowledge in some cases appears
to have been quite detailed. Despite this, no information was passed either to
the Police or to myself” (p. 175). For Dorothy, things could never be the same
again: “Our dear friendly Sarawak” had suddenly become hostile; “those long
stretches of river where we always waved to fellow voyagers”, she added, “I’m
sure I could never travel happily on those again; where any bend could produce
some snipers” (p. 149).

Mention must be made here of the Limbang postmaster, Abang Omar bin
Abang Samaudin, who ministered to the captives as a Red Cross volunteer, surreptitiously
giving them the latest news and keeping up their morale. He was
awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct and died in 1992
(pp. 36, 73–4, 110–14, 183, 200, 203).

There are a few factual errors: Duncan Stewart (p. 18) was never awarded
a knighthood; the Governor of Sarawak was “High Commissioner” rather than
“Governor” (p. 15) of Brunei in 1948–59; to describe Morris as “Minister of
Economic Development” (p. 16) is rather grandiose, given that the sultanate did
not have a cabinet in 1958; finally, the Brunei honour “SMB” awarded to Morris
appears to have been gazetted originally in 1966, not 1970 (p. 201, see Brunei
Government Gazette, 5 November 1966: 260). But these are quibbles.

Overall, Limbang Rebellion. Seven Days in December 1962 sets the benchmark
for any future study of the Brunei Revolt and its spillover effects elsewhere
in Borneo. Eileen Chanin is a very careful historian; and she has produced an
exemplary narrative. The strength of the monograph is its first-hand testimony,
produced here for the first time; its glaring deficiency is the lack of original
documentation reflecting the rebel perspective. Given that the outcome is known
in advance, some narrative tension is lost; even so, the interest of the reader is
retained from first to last.

(Review by Anthony V.M. Horton).

 

Comments by Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell:

I fear that my cursory acknowledgement of your [Major John Harrop’s] note about the DSM awarded to Petty Officer Kirwin RN for the part he  played in 42 Commando RM’s assault on Limbang on 12 December 1962 did not do justice to the memories it awakened for this old soldier and no doubt for the 150 young Riflemen who had arrived in the Battalion from recruit training only a few days before our deployment from Singapore on 8 December.

The Brunei operation, nearly sixty years ago, was a modest imperial campaign in which the First Battalion played a leading role. No doubt as December and the anniversary of the operation approaches more will be heard about this campaign to contain and supress a rebellion within a British protectorate in South East Asia – an unexpected uprising against a benign ruling Sultan .  It was an insurgency that took the region’s political and military leadership – and the First Battalion –  almost totally by surprise. In the great sum of things it was no more than a minor fragment of military history even if for me and some of our younger soldiers it was certainly a military rite of passage. It was to lead to a much more serious and demanding three year campaign in Borneo a few months later for which as a result of our Brunei experience we were much better prepared.

The First Battalion, the Queen’s Own Highlanders and 42 Commando did all the heavy lifting and most dangerous matters were pretty well concluded in the first ten days or so of the campaign albeit at some cost, particularly to ourselves and 42 Commando. War stories will no doubt emerge in more detail as the anniversary approaches – and our regimental history tells our tale – but the Limbang assault on 12 December by L Company 42 Commando – led by Captain Jeremy Moore who later was to enter military folklore as the ‘man of the match’ in the Falklands campaign – was a courageous raid on a rebel-held hotspot at Limbang where several officials including the British Resident had been taken hostage and threatened with execution.

Using commandeered cargo lighters identified in Brunei harbour and organised by Lieutenant Jeremy Black RN who was also to achieve fame as the commander of HMS Invincible during the Falklands campaign  (‘there and back with Jeremy Black’) –  and with some rapidly assembled armour plating attached to the Lighters’ sides, the Marines approached the town sailing up the Limbang River and successfully conducted an opposed landing, recapturing Limbang and releasing the hostages. Five Marines were killed and eight wounded in the assault and the follow-up operation. During the engagement 15 rebels were also killed and 24 captured although the rebel leader – Salleh bin Sambas – managed to slip the net and was only captured several weeks later. Together with the Commandos success, our own early operations in Brunei Town, Tutong and Kuala Belait and the Highlanders achievements in the oil fields of Seria, the major thrust of the rebellion was quickly contained.

Historically it was the role played by the First Battalion that ensured a continuing Gurkha presence in Brunei to this day and helped to cement our place in the British Army. L Company is still titled the Limbang Company to mark the Marines and Royal Navy heroism on that single day in the Brunei campaign as exemplified by the DSM won by Petty Officer Kirwin RN and several other awards to those who took part in that gallant raid.

Limbang 8 Limbang 7 Salleh bin hambas wanted poster Limbang 3 Limbang4 Limbang 2 Limbang 1

Article from the Nepali Times, 28th November 2020:

Diary of a Nepali soldier in France

Writings and a khukri of an unknown World War I Gurkha soldier surface in Germany after 107 years

By Shree Bhakta Khanal, an investigative journalist and author of An Arduous Path.

Gurkhas in the trenches of France during World War I. More than 20,000 Nepali soldiers were killed fighting for the Allied Forces between 1914-1918. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Books have been written about the legendary bravery and sacrifice of Nepal’s Gurkha soldiers. Officers have extolled their obedience and cheerfulness despite hardships and danger. The world has an image of Nepali soldiers in the battlefield: fierce but always smiling.

But historians have pored through letters and diaries written by Gurkha soldiers from the two World Wars to paint a slightly different picture — Nepalis in the trenches of Flanders Field or below the cliffs at Gallipoli, homesick, terrified, cold and miserable. Many of these letters home were held by military censors, and are archived.

Now, a diary written by a Gurkha sergeant in the British Army during the battle of La Bassée in northern France during World War I in 1914, and retrieved by a German officer, have revealed a whole new side to the Gurkha legend, one that confirms the traditional bravery, but also their human side.

Two unnamed Gurkha prisoners of war in a German camp in Münster in 1916. Courtesy: Sir Kukri & Co

Gurkha prisoners of war in a German camp. Some of their voices recorded in song and stories are now in the Humboldt Museum archives. Courtesy: Sir Kukri & Co

Lieutenant Alexander Pfeifer was with the Kurhessische Jäger-Bataillon Nr. 11 and found the diary of a Nepali solider in La Bassée on 20 December 1914 after a fierce battle against Allied forces of the British and French Armies. The battle had lasted from 12 October till the end of December. The name of the Nepali soldier, and whether he died in the battlefield or as a prisoner of war, are not known.

Lt Pfeiffer’s great-grandson Philip Cross found the documents and the khukri while going through his family effects. He is in the process of translating his great grandfather’s diary into English, and also getting the diary of the dead Gurkha sergeant translated into English and German.

British Army officers with Gurkhas of the ‘Indian Corps’ at La Bassée at the beginning of the war.

Lt Pfeiffer writes in his diary about the fearsome reputation of the Gurkhas among the German troops: ‘I found quite a few letters written in Indian script. They are fierce warriors. We are afraid of them. They use their knives to cut up the enemy,’ he writes in one entry.

It appears that Lt Pfeifer’s job was to go through the bodies of dead enemy soldiers to find out if he could find any intelligence of what the Allied forces were up to. That appears to be how he got hold of the diary, photographs and even the khukri.

The first page of the diary of the unknown Nepali solider is in verse with numbered lines. It lists the names of the writers’ young friends who were killed or taken prisoner, the hardships they endured. From the penmanship and vocabulary and the use of numbered verse, the soldier appears to have learnt his Nepali probably from a village priest who used to be the only literate person in the villages in Nepal in those days.

यो कठै बरा…जोबन सबै शत्रुका हातबाट गयो ।।२०।। पल्टनको माया मोह नेपालमै रह्यो जिउँदै मरी कैलाशमा गयो। सुवेदार भीमसिं भँडारी भयो ।।२१।। हर्के थापा जसराजा धर्म खत्री कम्यान्डर प्रजीतन नैनसिं खत्री सरुप कुँवर प्रतिमन थापा

Lt Alexander Pfeifer, the German officer among whose papers was the diary of the Gurkha soldier, and was recently retrieved by his great-grandson, Philip Cross.

Pages from the diary of an unknown Nepali soldier with a verse, and a list of names, possibly of prisoners of war. Courtesy: Philip Cross. Translated, the lines read:

‘Poor fellows, their youth was taken away by the enemy’s hands (20)

The love of the military was left behind in Nepal

We are the living dead who have gone to heaven

Subedar Bhimsi Bhandari (21) Harke Thapa Jasraja Dharma Khatri Commander Pasitan Nainsingh Khatri Swarup Kunwar Pratiman Thapa’

The same names in the Nepali soldier’s diary also appear in the diary of Lt Alexander Pfeifer, and in the same order. It appears to be a translation of the Gurkha diary. Courtesy: Philip Cross

The second page of the Nepali soldier’s diary (above) has the names of Gurkhas which, interestingly, are the same names found in the same order in the papers of Lt Pfeifer in which he lists the names of Gurkhas taken prisoner (left). The German phonetics also closely resemble the way the unknown soldier has written the names in Nepali, for example, by spelling Gurung as गुरुं (Gurun).

Lt Pfeiffer’s note in his own diary entry reads as follows:

Found with a Gurkha sergeant major. The content of the notice page no. 1 says: The soldiers of the section (Battalion) should be treated with love, friendliness and kindness. Every person, who carries out the rules of his religion, according to law and order, receives his payment (will be happy). The orders of the commanding officer should be carried out precisely and immediately. The content of the notice paper no.2 is as follows. Names of the Gurkhas:

  1. Thuparau Gurun
  2. Chandrabir Thapa
  3. Akalbir Gurun
  4. Manbahadur Gurun
  5. Amarsing Gurun
  6. Udjersingh Gharti
  7. Imansing Gurun
  8. Manbir Thapa
  9. Chhabilal Rana
  10. Akatbir Thapa
  11. Narbahadur Thapa
  12. Schatasin Gurun

On investigating some of these names, British Army records show that Chandrabir Thapa was a rifleman in the Second King Edward VII’s Own Gurkha Rifles (Sirmur Rifles). Manbir Thapa was a sergeant in the First Battalion of the First King George V’s Own Gurkha Rifles (Malaun Regiment), and his service number was 1896 and he was killed in action on 20 December 1914 in La Bassée. We even know Manbir’s father’s name was Parasram Thapa and lived in Dohadi village in western Nepal.

Chhabilal Rana’s service number was 2114 and he was a rifleman with the Second King Edward VII’s Own Gurkha Rifles Second Battalion (Sirmur Rifles) and he was also killed in action on 20 December.

Records at La Bassée show that there were other Gurkha soldiers killed in the battlefield or taken prisoner who are not on Lt Pfeiffer’s diary list. One of them is Haribal Thapa who, according to the Sir Kukri & Co blog was a rifleman in the First King George V’s Own Gurkha Rifles (First Gurkha Regiment).

His service number was 2952 and he died on 24 January 1915 while he was a prisoner of war in a German camp after being captured in La Bassée. His grave can still be found at a military cemetery outside Berlin. Haribal Thapa’s documents show that his father was Dal Kishore who lived in Perung in today’s Majhkot of Tanahu district.

The grave of Haribal Thapa, a Gurkha prisoner of war who died in captivity in Germany 24 January 1915, and is buried at a military cemetery outside Berlin. Courtesy: Sir Kukri & Co

Lieutenant Alexander Pfeifer’s diary, as translated by his great-grandson, has many references to the Gurkhas who were their enemies and served in the British Army. Among them are entries dated 20 December 1914, the day of the fierce battle during which the 12 Gurkhas listed above by the unknown Nepali soldier were probably taken prisoner:

  • I was woken up at 5:30am on 20 December 1914 by the sound of cannons and gunfire. Someone opened the door to the room where I was sleeping. He was the uberjäger from our machine-gun company. He was so frightened he could not even speak properly. Our machine-gun company had been over-run by the enemy. He said they (the Gurkhas) used their curved knife to cut the throats of our comrades, and killed everyone they could find. I woke up the others and related this news to them.
  • After the end of the battle, I witnessed a horrific sight. The dead and wounded covered the ground. There were some British and Indian (Gurkha) soldiers, who were in eternal sleep next to our artillery position. Some were headless, others did not have limbs. We took what we could from the dead. I got one of those curved knives, tobacco, food in tiffin boxes.
  • We were fighting these Indians (Gurkhas) who had their heads shaven. They were short and stocky, and very agile. One of them who was a prisoner of war said that the Gurkhas were terrified of the cold. They were afraid of the snow and freezing weather. They will soon bite the dust.
  • The Gurkhas have a reputation for being brutal, aggressive and fearless, but in their hearts they are kind, peace-loving and spiritual people.

Among Lt Alexander Pfeifer’s effects was this khukri possibly taken from the same Gurkha soldier who wrote the diary. Photo: Philip Cross

The Nepali soldier’s diary, written by hand 107 years ago, says a lot about the war and the warriors from Nepal. The soldier was writing about fellow Nepalis in his own, and possibly other units, listing carefully the names of the dead and those taken prisoner. The names in the poem are probably of those who were killed in battle, but we cannot be sure. The other list, because of its similarity to the list in Lt Pfeifer’s list in German, could be of those who were taken prisoner on 20 December.

But that opens up a puzzle. How come the list of dead soldiers in Nepali soldier’s diary is in the same order as the list of prisoners in German in Lt Pfeifer’s diary? Nepali writer Satis Shroff who lives in the southwest German town of Freiburg has read Lt Pfeifer’s notes, and deduces that the list contains names of Gurkha POWs and the commanding-officer is instructing his subordinates to treat the soldiers well and to allow them to practice their religious rites as they are used to. Shroff infers that the Gurkha who wrote the list of names is dead because there is no mention of a handing-over of the diary.

It is not clear if Lt Pfeifer is just translating the Nepali soldier’s diary, or if those are his own instructions. The German officer’s own diary was ultimately found more than a century later by his great-grandson. We do not know what the Gurkha’s name was, where in Nepal he was from, and what happened to him.

To add to the puzzle, Manbir Thapa, whose name is among the 12 listed in the German and Nepali soldiers’ diaries, is also on the FindGrave.com list of those killed in action on 20 December 1914 in the battle of La Bassée and buried at Indian Cemetery in La Rochelle in France. Here is a partial reproduction of the list of those killed from the First King George V’s Gurkha Rifles (Malaun Regiment) on that day with their father’s name and hometown:

Rifleman Buddhiman Thapa

Father’s name and address: Sukhbhar Thapa, Lamjung

Lance Corporal Kharak Bahadur Gurung

Father’s name and address: Jasbir Thapa, Lamjung

Rifleman Bahadur Gurung

Father’s name and address: Asu Bahadur Gurung, Lamjung

Rifleman Rana Bahadur Rana

Father’s name and address: Kulman Singh, Serung

Rifleman Pritman Thapa

Father’s name and address: Sarbajit Thapa, Graham

Rifleman Ransur Thapa

Father’s name and address: Purnabir Thapa, Bhirkot

Rifleman Haribaran Thapa

Father’s name and address: Pratiman Thapa, Bhirkot

Lance Corporal Lal Bahadur Gurung

Father’s name and address: Sriman Gurung, Gorkha

Besides the uncertainty of war, the Gurkhas who sailed across the oceans to a completely new country, climate and food must have suffered badly from culture shock. Many had boarded troop ships from Calcutta or Bombay and arrived in Europe at the beginning of winter in 1914. Their main hardship was caused by the extreme cold because they did not have enough warm clothes while in the wet trenches. Many wore military trousers on top of their suruwal.

They had never been trained in trench warfare, and did not know how to dig them. They were not used to fighting in such cold. The Germans found out from the Gurkha prisoners of war that the Nepalis feared the cold more than the enemy they were fighting, according to Alexander Pfeifer’s diary.

Most of the fighting men from Nepal could not read or write, and no one ever wrote their stories for them, so there is very little written documentation of what they went through. There must be so many hidden stories of unknown soldiers that we will never get to hear about. Yet, they are a part of our people’s history, and a forgotten chapter in the history of Nepal.

Those who returned alive from the front, used to dock in Bombay and take the train via Banaras, where they all bought copies of the Nepali Ramayana translated by Bhanubhakta Acharya. One of the major ways in which the holy book got to the far corners of Nepal was through these demobilised Gurkhas returning home.

The Battle of La Bassée lasted three months with the Germans first gaining the upper hand, and then being repulsed by British Army reinforcements from the Lahore Division and Gurkhas. The British suffered more than 20,000 casualties, of which 1,600 were from the Indian Corps, including Gurkhas. The Germans recorded 6,000 killed.

Contemporary map of La Bassée in France, which was captured by the Germans during 1914.

Many of the Gurkhas captured in France and Belgium were transported to prisoner of war camps in Germany. There, some of the prisoners had their voices and songs preserved in early recording machines that had just come into use.

Nepali professor Alaka Atreya Chudal of Vienna University has been translating from Nepali into German some of these testimonies recorded between 1914-1918 in a prisoner of war camp of Halbmondlager in Wünsdorf 40km away from Berlin.

The 100 or so recordings contain Nepali folk tales, songs, poetry, and folk riddles that have immense linguistic and cultural value because they are preserved in audio from more than a century ago. The recordings are now in the archives of Humboldt-Universität in Berlin.

Says Prof Atreya: “These folk material bring out the sorrow, prayers, suffering, longing for home and family of the Gurkha prisoners from long ago.”