The Memorial to the Brigade of Gurkhas, London
Photo: Flickr / Angel Xavier Viera-Vargas
The Memorial to the Brigade of Gurkhas, London Photo: Flickr / Angel Xavier Viera-Vargas

Dukha during the world war

Letters from the battlefield, intercepted and filed away by wartime censors, provide a window into the pain of the Gurkha.

Laxuman Gurung was awarded the Victoria Cross for his performance in the Burma Front in 1945. He lost his right arm and much of his hearing during the medal-winning action. In 1993, he was asked by Gorkha Sainik Awaj, a magazine representing the interests of former and serving soldiers, how many people he had recommended for the army. The pensioner replied: "I joined a foreign army; was involved in a war and lost my arm. I could have died but with luck I lived. Many of my friends died in the war, some froze to death, many were blinded when engaged in war in the high Himalaya. Anybody who sends an able young person to the army to experience all that dukha is guilty of paap. I cannot do such paap. I cannot recommend anybody to join the army."

Dukha – bodily pain, mental suffering, extreme hardship and death – has been real in the life of Laxuman Gurung. And yet, as a subject of reportage and scholarship, the Gurkha's dukha has remained virtually unexplored. Celebratory accounts over the course of the century have glorified the dogged courage and loyalty of the men from Nepal's hills, and the vicarious honour they bring their country while fighting the Empire's war. Gurkhas emerged from the two world wars as icons of superhuman bravery, and were in a class apart when it came to enduring the pain and suffering of battle.

The genre of celebratory writing is exemplified by B M Niven's 1987 coffee-table book. The Mountain Kingdom: Portraits of Nepal and the Gurkhas. Niven, himself a Gurkha officer, wrote: "Even terribly wounded [Gurkhas] cling on and their tough bodies and harsh upbringing enable them to endure. The job in hand and the name of the regiment are everything… Death and the threat of it, they are used to by their very upbringing and so they do not hold back at the prospect of death or of danger that may precede death. Discomfort, they are inured to from childhood and so at war the prospect of being out in, and at the mercy of, the elements, does not in any way inhibit them."

The Gurkha's stoicism, accounted for by 'harsh upbringing', is invariably linked to his proverbial loyalty to the saheb commanding officer. There is, for example, the lore reported by the writer Edmund Candler in his 1919 book, The Sepoy: in France, a British officer is knocked out by shell-shock. He opens his eyes to find his orderly kneeling over him fanning the flies off his face, tears streaming down his cheeks.

"Why are you crying, Tegh Bahadur?" he said; "I am not badly hit."
"I am crying, Sahib," he said, "because my arm is gone, and I am no more able to fight."
With a nod, Tegh Bahadur indicates the wound. The shell that had stunned the saheb had carried off the orderly´s forearm at the elbow.

More than 60 years later, Byron Farwell wrote in his popular book. The Gurkhas (1984), "The stoicism of wounded Gurkhas impressed all who witnessed their sufferings. Often enough their first question on reaching the field dressing station was, 'How soon can I get back?'"

Professional historians have been equally adept at ignoring the suffering of the Gurkha, focusing as they have on matters of high diplomacy, geopolitics and Gurkha romance. Most historians have relied on written sources of British India (now housed in various archives in India and the United Kingdom), which were created in the process of acquiring information on the localities from where the "raw materials" that could be turned into the "Gurkhas" could be found. Diplomatic negotiations between the British and Nepali rulers regarding the recruitment of Gurkhas also gave birth to voluminous writings. Gurkha historians who have thus side-stepped the entire question of dukha include Asad Husain, Kanchanmoy Mojumdar, and Sushila Tyagi.

Among Nepali historians, the book The Gurkha Connection (1994) by historian Purushottam Banskota recognises the heavy casualties suffered by the Gurkha regiments during the two world wars. But even he prefers to analyse the impact of Gurkha recruitment more in terms of Nepal's prestige in the world, modernisation of its army, enlightenment of Nepalis through experience abroad, and benefit to the economy.

Only Prem Uprety's Nepal: A Small Nation in the Vortex of International Conflicts 1900-1950 (1984) contains a brief but useful discussion of the "physical impact of war". The faces of many Gurkhas who had been wounded in World War I, he writes, were disfigured due to the loss of noses and eyeballs; in one case the forehead had been damaged so badly that "both the eyeballs were protruding out like that of an unearthly creature". General Babar Shumsher, son of Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher, after an inspection tour of the wounded wrote "how could life linger on in such desperate souls?" According to Uprety, arrangements were made so that fresh recruits did not come across the demobilised soldiers, who bore the scars of the battlefield.

Memorialising mass death
The Gurkhas who arrived at the recruitment centres of the Raj mainly came from four ethnic groups of Nepal: Magar, Gurung, Rai and Limbu. During the early years of the 20th century, none of these groups were represented in Kathmandu's intellectual class that sustained itself by chakari – sycophantic attendance to the Rana court. This class, with Bahuns and Chhetris dominant, seem to have been vaguely aware that huge numbers of Nepali hillmen had been sucked into British Gurkha regiments. It would have been too much to expect them to show concern for the recruits' war-induced hardships.

In an account that describes Nepal's participation in World War I, mahila guruju Hemraj Pandey, who headed the Rana office of military supplies during the war years, fully supports his master Chandra's decision to help the British. Without understanding the apocalyptic nature of WW I, he wrote, it was not possible to understand the crisis that had beset the British Empire and the world, nor appreciate the importance of Nepal's help to its British friend. In risking their lives in the battlefield, soldiers from Nepal had enhanced the country´s and the jaati's glory.

In Purano Samjhana (1972), a selected compilation of journal entries of Rammani A D, a member of Chandra Shumsher's court, we find out that he was aware that many "sons of Nepal" had "sacrificed themselves" during the First World War. The Tribhuvan-Chandra Military Hospital in the capital was apparently made to honour these brave sons who gave up their lives to increase, in the words of Chandra Shumsher, "the glory of their motherland and to ameliorate the pain of their (wounded) colleague-soldiers".

Kedarmani A D, Rammani's son, recalls in his autobiography Aaphnai Kura how as a student in Calcutta he read news about the war in English newspapers but he does not mention Nepal's connection to it. The versatile litterateur Balkrishna Sama, who was in his early teens when the war began, remembers the war years in his autobiography, Mem Kabitako Aaradhan, writing that, "After reading the English newspaper, Statesman, my grandfather used to describe the war to my grandmother and say 'In the end, the English will win, will win.' The Nepalis serving in the Gurkha regiments had already reached Europe for the war…. The photograph (in The Illustrated London News) of Nepali Gurkhas crossing a river with their khukuris held in their mouths boosted my morale. Thereafter, whenever we played, I felt like playing war games. I kept thinking that I too should participate in a war and die fighting."

Kathmandu's intellectual class thus responded to the Gurkha participation in the First World War by cheering from a distance, memorialising mass death as if it were blood sacrifice to add glory to the motherland. They sanitised the suffering and death of the Gurkha soldier as a moment of national celebration. The soldier's pain in the battlefield was legitimised as part of one's necessarily sacred duty to the Nepali nation. Of course, no one asked why it was always other Nepalis who had to die to enhance the name of their motherland.

The mother's instinct
Before World War I, there was hardly any administrative structure for Gurkha recruitment within Nepal, The approximately 2000 Gurkha recruits a year that were necessary to keep the 20 Gurkha Rifle battalions at full strength were rounded up by labour contractors in central and east Nepal and taken to Gorakhpur, India. But when the British required larger number of recruits in the fall of 1914, Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher of Nepal put to work a whole new internal mobilisation scheme. Chandra ordered his district governors to ensure that the supply of "raw materials" was up. Although it was emphasised that only volunteers were to be taken, there seems to have been considerable forced recruitment. Incentives of various kinds were given both to recruiters and those being recruited. Chandra also allowed the opening of several recruitment centres on the Nepal frontier and recruiting agents were allowed into previously prohibited areas in the hinterland. Between 1914 and 1919, over 60,000 Gurkhas were recruited into the combat regiments, and about twice that number were taken into supporting non-combative roles in units like the Army Bearer Corps and Labour Battalions.

According to estimates, over 20,000 Gurkha soldiers were killed during the course of the war. However, even until today we have very little knowledge of those who perished, and we do not know the names of the families, villages and communities that suffered the most losses.

When anthropologist Mary Des Chene was researching Gurkha recruitment in Kota, a village in central Nepal, one Gurung woman, born in 1898, recalled the First World War in the following words: "Now it is different, but in my time everyone who left was lost. They walked out of our Gurung country and got lost. They died there or they got lost. My father, I never knew him. He was coming home, we heard, but then he died, too. My elder brother, my younger brother, my father's sister's son. All died. Many, many others too. So many!"

The number of soldiers that were seriously wounded and disabled for life is not known but it certainly ran into tens of thousands. And we can only guess the number of soldiers shell-shocked or mentally affected for life after seeing and experiencing the hardships of the First World War. Many of the disabled were returned to Nepal during the war itself. They were met by Nepali frontier officials, and occasionally assisted to their individual homes in the hills.

There is nothing to be said for the dead, but the wounded and disabled retired as unreported and isolated individuals who returned to the hinterland villages from where they emerged to be recruited. Other than the odd mountain minstrel who would sing ballads of the trauma, there were no Nepali reporters, writers and chroniclers in the early decades of the century to bring the suffering to notice. Besides, it was hardly in the wartime interest of the British or Chandra to highlight the dukha.

In terms of casualties, the Second World War is thought to have been a repeat performance of the earlier conflagration. The devastation of the First World War was still fresh in the memory of families across the Nepali hills when the Second began. In her 1991 Stanford University dissertation, Des Chene writes that when the gatlawata (recruiter) arrived at Kota at the start of World War II, mothers who were teenagers or young wives during 1914-18 uniformly resisted the enlistment of their sons, "going to great lengths to hide them from recruiters and pleading with them not to go."

These women, a few of whom were still alive in the mid-1980s, feared "that their own sons were being 'grabbed' in the same way that their fathers, brothers and sometimes their husbands had been." For these mothers and grandmothers, the lands beyond the Modi valley were, in the main, "a source of sorrow" – lands where their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons had died or disappeared.

The dukha theme
Gurkha dukha, of course, does not begin in this century and is not limited only to the battlefield. The cases of desertion sporadically reported in the 19th century sources indicate that Gurkha soldiers were prepared to go to considerable personal risk in abandoning the army. Separation of families, additional burdens imposed on wives whose husbands are away in service, anxieties caused by broken lines of communication, and forced recruitment during the two world wars are some other examples of hardships induced by this long-distance form of labour. But it is the dukha of the battlefield that is most physical, most obvious, and the least recorded and reported.

During the course of the First World War, the Gurkha soldiers saw action in various fronts in Europe, West Asia and Africa. A wartime censor's office was located at Boulogne, France to keep track of mail sent and received by troops from the Subcontinent in France and England. It was the responsibility of this office to seize letters containing 'sensitive' information about the war fronts and conditions back at home. The censor officers prepared frequent reports which sometimes included lengthy extracts from letters they read.

Letters written by Gurkha soldiers during World War I provide the most direct written evidence found thus far for an examination of the psychology, if you will, of Nepal's soldiers on the battlefield. The letters, which are excerpted in this article, are from the stacks at the India Office Collection of the British Library in London. In the more than 20 volumes of censors' reports, each consisting of more than 200 folios, one can find only about 50 letters from Gurkha soldiers.

More often than not, the exact names of the sender and receiver were deleted from these reports, and the identification went something like "from a Gurkha wounded in France to his friend in India". The language in which the letters were written is identified as 'Gurkhali' or Hindi and the extracts given are in English translation.

It is obvious that in a war where thousands of Gurkha soldiers participated, these letters come from only a very small percentage of them. Those who could write, like the writers of these letters, must have learnt to do so in the army. It also seems reasonable to assume that most of the soldiers did not know how to read and write, and their experiences are lost forever.

No other written evidence originating from common Gurkha soldiers in World War I have been found, although it is likely that letters and diaries do exist, undiscovered in archives or attics.
Even though these are translated and extracted versions of the original letters, they remain useful in weaving the dukha theme into the Gurkha history of the First World War. It is sobering to note that these letters, and their messages of dukha, never got through to their addressees and have only now been discovered for historical analysis.

These censored letters give us some preliminary insights into the consciousness of the Gurkha warriors, as they tried to make sense of the unbelievable horrors experienced on the front. They also provide a glimpse of the disastrous early phase of the world war from the point of view of the Gurkha soldiers. We hear about the deaths of friends and fellow fighters, of amputations, personal regrets, and the terror of earthshaking explosions. We learn that the hospitals in England are full of the wounded. We read about prisoners of war begging for a few rupees worth of supplies.

The censor's trove
After the British Expeditionary Force sustained severe losses (as much as 15,000 men in five days) in the early phases of the war in France, a decision to reinforce it with Indian Army troops was made in August end, 1914. Corps of the Indian Army, with Gurkhas as part, had reached France by early October and seen action by the end of the month.

All accounts suggest that the Indian Army soldiers were poorly equipped and ill-prepared for the war in Europe. By early November, the Indian battalions had seen heavy fighting and sustained severe losses, resulting in the serious reduction of average battalion troop strengths. According to military historian Jeffrey Greenhut, on 30 October alone the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Gurkhas lost more than 600 men in an assault by the Germans. Those who survived "straggled to the rear in confusion".

The morale plummeted in these battalions which bore the first shocks and, as Greenhut has reported, many men seemed to be "shooting themselves in order to be taken out of the line" – there was an unusually high incidence of wounds in the left hand. There were court-martials to improve troop discipline, and a much-needed rest was given to the soldiers of the Indian Corps in early January, which seems to have boosted morale a bit. Yet in February, E M Howell, a mail censor officer, reported that "a breaking strain was near".

A letter written in January 1915 by a wounded Gurkha in England to his friend serving in an India-based regiment: "Be anxious for me. For the war is like a huge mutiny. The Indian troops have suffered terrible losses. In my double company, the 4th, five men have been killed; and in the 2nd, one-third of the total have been killed… Our Gurkha regiments have suffered great losses… for the remainder to survive is difficult." A letter written in March 1915: "And the firing of bullets goes on, and sister, I would like to see it. Several hundreds of thousand of men have been killed and there is no hope of survival. The water (in the trenches) is up to the knees. Ishwar (God) is ruler. What can one do? Do not worry about me." Another letter written during the same month from a hospital: "It is not a war but the divine wrath of God (Parmeshwar). In a few days hundreds of men have been destroyed. The shells of the cannon have been flying about like rain in the rainy season… The men who survive and go back to India should consider it as a new life. The whole world is being destroyed."

"Perhaps the Germans will be beaten. They attacked in three lines. Two lines were blown away… When the Brigade attacks, the Gurkhas and Sikhs go first and the white troops are put in the second line. No one asks about the dead," wrote one soldier. A Gurkha convalescing in England wrote to another Gurkha also in England: "At first the fire of the cannon was just like an earthquake… The piles of the killed on both sides were like heaps of slaughtered goats. I am sorry that my company lost so much." In other letters we come across lines like "it is said that all (regiments) are being finished. Here wounded men come sometimes 200, sometimes 300, and all the hospitals in England are full." A man being treated in a hospital in Brighton wrote in May 1915: "I am wounded. What can I do. Just as on parade we used to practice the position for musketry firing, so in the war we lie down. O God, O God, when can I see my elder brother?" Another letter from hospital: "I am in the Milford Depot and am now ready for the firing line. The people who are returned to India are those whose heads, eyes, feet or hands have been rendered useless."

Death seemed impossible to escape, hence there is repeated reference to those who have returned to India as lucky ones who have been given a new life. A soldier at the front wrote to his brother in Dehradun, "About the state of affairs here I tell you that both sides are using machine guns and cannon. Rifles are not much used. Consider yourself very lucky that you have returned to India."

Some of the correspondents were clearly aware that the letters were checked, and there is often guarded reference to "I will tell you later." Wrote one Gurkha: "You asked me about the state of affairs here. It is like being between the devil and deep sea. When I come back to India then I will sit beside you and tell you everything, but I do not know when that will be." Another wrote: "I would write fully about the affairs here but I am sorry that the order is not to do so. Several of our letters are opened in the Post, and if anything is found written contrary to what is ordered the writer is punished. Brother, without doubt you also have a lot of hardships and work to do. But we also have more. Brother, here rain falls a lot, and it is very cold and there is lots of mud."

The Western Front
The reference to rain, water and mud in the trenches draws attention to the kind of warfare that these Gurkhas were engaged in, a mentally and physically excruciating variety of fighting known as trench warfare that was new even to the soldiers of Europe. Many Western historians have long argued that trench warfare determined not only the perception of the First World War among the soldiers who participated in it, but also how it was remembered and understood by future generations. That certainly could be said to apply to the Gurkhas as well.

By early 1915, a system of multiple trenches – roughly 475 miles long – that stretched from the North Sea through Belgium, Flanders, France to Switzerland had already been dug. In this so-called Western Front, the armies were in a stalemate, and movement was measured in yards, not miles. The trench criss-crossed the landscape, and, in the words of historian George L Mosse, "was more suggestive of the moon than the earth, as heavy shelling destroyed not only men but nature, a devastation that would haunt the imagination of those forced to live in the trenches."

In the trenches and hospital beds, the minds of soldiers travelled homewards. One Gurkha wrote; "Subedar Bahadurji… do not let my wife have any difficulty about living." A letter from a Brighton hospital bed dated 23 October 1915: "My mother used to tell me that if I did not give up my job and come and earn my living at home I should be sorry for it. I laughed at this and now I am repenting at my leisure. When I think of my mother I say to myself 'What can I do?' What was fated to happen has come to pass. We have been caught just as fish are caught in a net… My wound is paining me a good deal just now, but I hope that in a few days, it will be much better."

Some desperately hoped for a return to the village: "If there is any arrangement for making peace do… find out the true news and let me know." Another one put it in the following manner: "Up to date there (has) not been the slightest indication of the end of the war… The spring is now on and the buds appearing but we think of our own hot country." Another letter: "Since we are attached to our country when will that day appear when we will see our native land?"

There is also thanks-giving: "Now in my regiment all the sepoys are finished and I am left alive with a little to eat and drink, but Parmeshwar showed me great favour, on the day on which I was wounded my fellow bandsman was killed."

Naturally, the Gurkhas thought a lot about the enemy. One account recounts that, "On 9th day of May 1915 our Division was ordered to take German trenches at 5 a.m. Enemy trenches were 400 yards off from us. This trenches is near new Chaple (sic) we went with fix swords and khukries in mouths, this was the famous charge I have been through. We lost many men but we captured the enemies line, I could not follow my company owing to sharpnel bits struck on my right forearm but it missed the bone, by mercy of Almighty God. Now I am in England and getting much better and shortly I will be back to France again and kill some more bastered [bastard] German because they are not men because they use poisness (sic) gas."

Fokkers and Zeppelins
The major participation of the Indian Army Corps in the Western Front was limited to the first year of the war, after which they were transferred to more fighting in West Asia.

Among those who were left in Europe was one soldier with a keen eye and lucid pen. In May 1916, he wrote:

There is no official news about peace, but how long can the enemy continue such violence? The enemy are shut in all four sides, and nothing from outside can reach them. From this it appears likely that the war will end this year, but whatever seems best to God will happen. I have petitioned to be sent back to India, and I hope for favourable reply… This war is very terrible. There is no safety for a man on the earth, or under the earth, in the air, or on the sea. Strong fortresses are overturned like dust, what chance then has anything else? When the artillery fires continuously, hills are converted into dust heaps, and the same thing happens to ships on the sea. Under the sea, submarines go and fight. On land poisonous gases and liquid fire are used. Under the earth, mines are dug and exploded 200 or 300 yards away. In the air 'Aeroplane,' 'Zeppelin,' 'Fokker,' 'Aircraft,' etc. make war amongst themselves. All these things are employed for the destruction of men. Is this true warfare? All these means are not employed on one side only. No, no, the other side is equally pugnacious. The fighting is not confined to one locality. It is spread all over the world… From all this it would seem that God is displeased with the peoples of the world.

A soldier in an English hospital who had a limb amputated writes in February 1916 to a friend in Egypt with a matter-of-fact directness: "On the 25th of Asoj [mid-October] I was in the attack against the German trenches. I was wounded and left in the trench. I was taken prisoner into Germany and there they cut my foot off. I was two months in hospital there and was then sent to England, and I am now under orders to be sent back to India." And a request from a prisoner-of-war adds an entirely different perspective: "Your brother Bahadur Pun sends his blessing. If you have three or four rupees about you please send them, also things to eat and drink, and clothes should be put up in a parcel and sent. Dhani Ram Pun and I are prisoners of war in Germany."

Without a doubt, some of the fighting men thought of the World War I fronts as occasions to "prove the Gurkha name" – there is some evidence of this in a handful of the letters at the British Library. However, the more thoughtful among the letters indicate more of an effort by these men of Nepal to understand the scale of destruction around them. While some describe the war's great losses in a seemingly straightforward way ("The land was so full of the slain that it was difficult to set foot on the ground…"), others resorted to metaphors to convey what seemed beyond description. This accounts for the reference to divine wrath and the destruction of the whole world.

What these letters offer is an image of the Gurkha soldier entirely different from the standard battlefield image which pervades the public consciousness in the world and in Nepal, of the Gurkha – khukuri raised, charging the enemy with the battle cry, "Ayo Gorkhali!" This congealed image of the battle-hungry Gurkha – true to his salt, loyal to his commanding officer, bafadaar to his country – is the product of the saheb's imagination, later identified by sychophantic Nepali intellectuals as the embodiment of the most special quality, bravery, of all Nepalis.

The soldier from the hills of Nepal as he comes across in these letters is a different kind of Gurkha. He is a hero, but because he is sensitive, intelligent and human. He feels pain and does mourn the loss of a friend in the battlefield. He is afraid of death and is thankful when it spares him.

Dukha has been central to the lives of Gurkha soldiers throughout their history. It is time, though many decades late, that we begin to listen to the soldier's cry from the battlefield.

(Himal Southasian, November 1994)

~Pratyoush Onta is a historian and the chair of Martin Chautari, a research institute and public forum in Kathmandu. He is also the founding editor of the journals Studies in Nepali History and Society and Media Adhyayan.

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Himal Southasian