At Large

Debt of Honor

What the British owe their most faithful soldiers.

By 5.15.09

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In a world of seemingly perpetual conflict to be able to depend on an unwavering ally is beyond value. This is the special bond between the British Crown and the Gurkhas. In a distinctly un-British manner, therefore, the UK's Home Office had ruled that only some of the retired members of the famed Gurkha Brigades could resettle in Britain.

The Home Secretary, while never using the word "mercenary," clearly implied that as loyal as these barely over five foot tall Nepalese soldiers had been for nearly 200 years, they nonetheless were not eligible for citizenship as were soldiers of the Commonwealth countries -- to say nothing of the millions of British citizens and residents who emigrated from former colonies.

The result has been, to use a British term, "a right cock-up." Joanna Lumley, the co-star of the television series,  Absolutely Fabulous, who was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, India while her father was a serving officer in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, has launched her not inconsiderable vigor into the campaign to challenge the government ruling. Joined by other notables including her fellow actor Virginia McKenna, whose late husband was a major in the 9th Gurkha Regiment, Ms. Lumley has charged in the best Gurkha style through Whitehall.

Wearing a pin symbolizing crossed khukuris, the massive curved knife of the Gurkhas that is their regimental cap badge, the dynamic Lumley, blond locks flying, sliced her way through Parliament. A successful motion in the House of Commons for equal right of residence for all Gurkha veterans and their families certainly was energized by her efforts. 

The problem was that the prime minister must sign off on this -- and so far he hadn't. Off marched the "daughter of the regiment" to confront PM Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street. The dour Scotsman obviously was outmatched by the wily Ms. Lumley and initially folded -- as any reasonably rational male would do. Unfortunately, after the Lumley assault squad had left, Brown immediately went back into hiding with the statement that he "had to consider the matter."

The "mercenary" aspect of these Gurkha forces that fight for "the Queen's shilling" is a circumstance not unknown to the U.S. government. After the Vietnam War Vietnamese veterans, well-connected civilians, Montagnard tribespeople of the Hmong, and other indigenous folk who had worked with American forces were shoe-horned into U.S. citizenship. Precedent had been established with veterans of the Philippine Scouts who had served as part of the U.S. Army during World War II.

It seems odd that the already weakened Labour government would allow itself to be dragged into a controversy involving such worthy servants of the Crown. It is understandable, though, that there would be an element of fear involved in opening the door for emigration of the "best and brightest" of the skill-short nation of Nepal. As Edward Vickers, the grandson of a Gurkha brigadier wrote, "…Inviting British (Army) Gurkhas to retire to the UK rather than returning home, therefore risks unpicking another piece of the extremely frayed fabric of Nepali society."

The fact is, however, that British-trained Gurkha troops repeatedly have participated in international peacekeeping at the British taxpayer's expense and to their honor. Everyone who has served in a combat area with these small, indefatigable soldiers has come away with a tale of special heroism. Perhaps one of the least known is the story told me by the late Donald Wise, war correspondent for London's Daily Mirror, himself a former officer in The Parachute Regiment, and survivor of a Japanese POW camp in Burma.

A Gurkha company had been attached to the United Nations in 1961 to assist in securing the province of Katanga that had broken away from the newly independent central government in Leopoldville, Congo. The Gurkhas, however, had been restricted to a non-combat role. They were specifically ordered not to fire their weapons. The Katangese forces led by European officers faced off against the Gurkha unit across what had been a golf course.

The Katangese started the conflict by lobbing mortar rounds into the Gurkha position. They wanted the Gurkhas to abandon what was a key control point. The Gurkhas did not budge. After a couple of hours and an accumulating number of casualties, the Gurkha commander demanded of his superiors the approval to return fire. He was simply reminded of his standing orders.

As his losses mounted, the Gurkha officer radioed directly to the UN command in Leopoldville. The UN military in Leo repeated the standing order, but said that they would query United Nations headquarters in New York City. Meanwhile, the men of the Gurkha company, many raw recruits in their first combat, hunkered down in their foxholes totally exposed to the intermittent but deadly Katangese bombardment. They fired not one shot in return.

At the end of nearly five hours of incoming fire the word finally came from the UN via New York and Leopoldvile that the Gurkhas had permission to return fire. The order to unsheath their khukuris was given; the Gurkha company charged across the golf course scattering Katangese in whole and in parts on the other side of the fairway. The Katangese scrambled away from their adversary that they had heavily outnumbered -- though the odds were considerably reduced by the time the Gurkhas regrouped.

The discipline and courage of the many scores of years of service was in their genes then, as it remains today. One of the two Gurkha battalions still in the British Army rotates with its brother battalion in Afghanistan today. These extraordinary soldiers, sons of those who have gone before and fathers of those who will follow, should not be forgotten by the government they so loyally serve.

In the First World War Sir Ralph Turner, MC, 3rd Queen Alexandria's Own Gurkha Rifles, said it best:

"… Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds, and at the last your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you."

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.