THE GURKHAS by Byron Farwell


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Readers who have never quite fathomed who or what the Gurkhas were or are--except incomparable infantrymen--will learn from Farwell's factual roundup that they are Nepalese mercenaries, whom the British gained the right to recruit as part of their hard-won victory over Nepal in 1816; and whose regiments, split between the Indian and British armies at Independence, still preserve their trophies and traditions. But the book is apt to disappoint both those who know Farwell's previous work (Queen Victoria's Little Wars, Mr. Kipling's Army) and those who know something of the subject. Chiefly for lack of Gurkha sources, it's a topical and chronological assemblage without a cote: Farwell doesn't pretend to understand the Gurkhas' legendary integrity and loyalty (none deserted--or, in WW II, defected), their good cheer in adversity or sheer pleasure in soldiering. More surprisingly, he doesn't spell out the concrete anomalies he refers to: how their training, and leadership-in-battle, differed from that of other troops in the British Indian Army; why British troops mingled with them, and not with Sikhs or other Indian soldiers. The single most impressive evidence of the Gurkhas' standing turns out to be the competition among promising British and Commonwealth officers to serve with them. (In the interwar years, a successful candidate had first to serve with a British regiment in India for a year, learning Urdu or Hindustani among other things; then, to be personally vetted by a Gurkha battalion and, within a set time, to toaster Gurkhali.) Some readers will also regret that there is not more sustained narrative, especially of the Gurkhas in combat. But there is more than enough here--in anecdotes of Gurkha tenacity, from the Northwest Frontier to the Falklands; in detail of festivals and regimental settlements--to pique some interests and reward others. And there is, finally, a story: they did better by the British than the British did by them. Gurkhas were misused, Farwell says firmly, on the Western Front. Their valor in Burma--and their abuse by Orde Wingate (the one officer ever to disparage them)--have not been properly appreciated. At Independence, they were left dangling--between the Indians, whom they had always scorned, and the British, who were pulling out. Their British regiments have since been reduced to a token force. The reader, at once involved and distanced, wishes for a few minutes direct contact with those Gurkhas in the Falklands, or a few words of their experience--but in eliciting that wish, Farwell cannot be said to have failed.

Pub Date: Jan. 16th, 1983
ISBN: 039330714X
Publisher: Norton