Honorary Captain Santbir Gurung, Sirdar Bahadur OBI IOM

The King’s Gurkha Orderly Officers in 1910.  Santbir Gurung is seated on the right (National Army Museum)

One of the Gurkha Officers who stood guard over King Edward VII’s catafalque was Subedar Major Santbir Gurung.  His examplary duty was immortalised in Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘In the Presence’.

He had enlisted c.1870 and taken part in several campaigns, winning the India Order of Merit in the Tirah campaign in 1897 for fighting off tribesmen attacking the Medical Officer who was attending to a wounded man.  He was Subedar Major of the 2nd Battalion from 1906 until 1910.  He was Aide-de-Camp to King George V during the royal visit to India in 1911-12 King’s Orderly Officer until he retired in 1913.

Santbir’s return to India after his service in England caused religious problems with the Nepalese Court, which took exception to the regimental ceremony for Hindus who had crossed the sea to regain caste.  This had worked satisfactorily until Santbir returned, presumably because the high profile of his appointment drew it to the attention of the Nepalese authorities.  Many months later, an agreement was reached whereby the Nepalese would provide a suitable pandit to conduct the ceremony properly and a depot would be established in Dehra Dun to which all Gurkhas who travelled overseas would have to go on return to be shriven in order to avoid arrest and imprisonment in Nepal.  This cumbersome and expensive arrangement continued for many years.  Even though it had been put in place Santbir was not restored to caste and country until the age of 83, it is thought because the then Prime Minister, Chandra Shamsher, had inherited the title of Maharajah of Kaski and wished to demonstrate his power over his Gurung subjects in that realm.  In spite of strong representations by King George V, Santbir was made the unfortunate test case.

Santbir died on 25 May 1939.  In a memorable tribute the then Colonel of the Regiment, General Sir Kenneth Wigram, said ‘What we as a Regiment owe him is difficult to put in words, for not only was he a first-class soldier but a true gentleman, straight, honest and with unique moral courage, ready always to speak the truth that was within him.  We have lost a wise and impartial counsellor, a sincere and true friend.  I find it difficult to picture the Regiment without Santbir’.

Santbir Gurung as King’s Orderly Officer, by AC Lovett

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