In Collaboration With Charles Griffin

The soldiers of the Gurkha regiments come from the Himalayan country of Nepal, situated on the northern edge of the Indian subcontinent. It is roughly rectangular, 540 miles long and 100 miles wide. Within this small area the country contains tropical forest in the low lying area to the south, and some of the highest mountains in the world, including Everest, to the north. Somwhere in between is the capital, Khatmandu on a flat plateau in the foothills. This plateau is regarded by the people of the country as Nepal, everywhere else is Pahar (the hill districts) or Mades (the plains).

According to an agreement between the Nepalese and the British, recruitment for the Gurkha regiments is restricted to Pahar where the various tribes inhabit the higher altitudes. The racial origins of the people are diverse. Basically there are Mongolians and Indo-Aryans. The royal family and the majority of the inhabitants of Khatmandu are descended from Thakurs and Rajputs from India while the Gurkha tribes are of Mongolian descent.

The use of the word Gurkha to describe the hill men comes from a place of that name that was ruled, in the mid-18th century by Prithi Narayan Sah. Impressed by the British military conquest of Mogul India, he thought he would try the same against his neighbours. These Gurkhas were quite ruthless and successful so that the expansion of the Gurkha empire carried on after the death of Prithi Narayan Sah until the early 19th century. At this point the British decided to put a stop to the empire-building activities of this truculent people.

War was declared in November 1814. A force of 22,000 was sent and the first action was a seige at Kalunga, garrisoned by 600 Gurkhas. The Britsh suffered severe losses including a Major-General and began to wonder how they were ever going to subdue these tough little men. Of all the generals, only one man had the determination to press on, Sir David Ochterlony. He fought several battles against the enemy who were commanded by Umur Sing. On 15th April 1815 a hard fought battle at Deothul peak resulted in the retreat of the Gurkhas. Even after this they refused to surrender and a further campaign in January 1816 had to be waged to final bring an end to the war.

The story of Britain's struggle for the control of India has several examples of enemies becoming firm allies. The two most notable being the Sikhs and the Gurkhas. Both very warlike groups and both forming loyal and very effective regiments in the British army. The first three Gurkha regiments were raised in 1815, before the final surrender of the the King of Nepal. In fact, Ochterlony had recommended the recruitment of Gurkhas as early as 1814.

Raising of the Sirmoor Battalion
Lieutenant Frederick Young is regarded as the father of the 2nd Gurkhas. In 1814 a force of about 4000 irregular troops were raised from the hillmen who included 'Nasiri' Gurkhas, half of whom were under Young's command. When they were attacked by 200 Gurkhas, the hillmen fled leaving Young and a few British officers to face the enemy alone. "Why don't you run away like your men?" asked the Gurkhas. "I haven't come all the way here just to run away." was Young's reply. This answer pleased them. "We could serve under men like you." So saying they entertained Young and his officers and began to teach them their language. By the following year Young had recruited 3000 Gurkhas in Sirmoor which is in Garhwal, 150 miles beyond Nepal's western border. It was called the Sirmoor Battalion. The regiment was run by British officers and senior NCOs with native officers holding the rank of Subadar-Major (Captain), Subadar (Lieutenant) and Jemadar (Ensign or Sub-Lieutenant). Non-commisioned ranks were Havildar (Sergeant), Naik (Corporal) and Sepoy (Private). As time went on the British senior NCOs were replaced by Havildar-Majors.

The Simoor battalion was the first Gurkha regiment to fight. They saw action in the 3rd Mahratta War of 1817. Their uniform at this time was a green tight-fitting jacket with pale blue baggy trousers. They had black belts crossed on their chest for ammunition pouch and bayonet and at first a low cap with pagri (turban) wrapped around it. From the start, they carried their traditional kukri knife tucked into the front of their waistband.

The first battle honour achieved by the regiment was Bhurtpore in 1825/6. By this time they had, in 1823, been re-named the 8th (Sirmoor) Local Battalion. The word 'local' meaning 'irregular' in this case. Lord Combermere led a force of 21,000 men and 100 guns, British and Indian troops together with the 8th Sirmoors. The heavily fortified town was besieged and mined with the loss of 600 of Combermere's men, but the wall was breached and the Gurkhas cut their way though alongside their British comrades. Their bravery impressed the British and it was reciprocated, "The English are as brave as lions. They are splendid sepoys and very nearly equal to us!" The following year, they were renumbered as the 6th (Sirmoor) Local Battalion.
The Sikh Wars
The 1st Sikh War took place in 1845 when the Sikhs crossed the Sutlej river into British controlled territory. They were present at the battles of Bhudaiwal and Sobraon. After a tough forced march under Sir Harry Smith, the Sirmoors relieved Ludhiana. This was followed by the battle at Aliwal where they lost 145 killed and wounded. They carried colours at the time, and the flagpole was broken by cannon fire. The colour itself was siezed by the Sikhs but reclaimed by a small party of Gurkhas led by a Havildar who chopped their way into the densely packed enemy lines.
The Indian Mutiny
Hindoo Rao's House
The Indian Mutiny broke out on 11th May 1857 at Meerut. This was a revolt of some of the Indians serving in the British-led Indian regiments. Unrest had been building for some time but the spark that lit the gunpowder was the new issue of Enfield rifles with their contraversial cartridges. These required the paper end to be torn off with the teeth. The problem was that the paper, to protect it in wet contidions, was greased with what the agitators claimed was the fat from cows and pigs. Hindus would never allow produce from a cow to pass their lips and the same for Moslems with pig produce.

In some cases whole Bengal regiments mutinied, but many remained loyal to the British, including the Gurkhas. In fact two more Gurkha regiments were raised during the course of the mutiny. The mutineers gravitated towards Delhi until 20,000 garrisoned the city. The Sirmoor Battalion, as it was now called, (the number 6 had been dropped in 1850) under it's commanding officer Major Charles Reid, set out from it's base at Dehra Dun. They made forced marches and travelled by boat up the Ganges Canal to Delhi. They stopped to rest at one point and were approached by some Indian sappers who tried to convince the Gurkhas that bullocks bones had been ground up and mixed with their flour. But they jeered at the sappers and enjoyed a hearty meal of chappatis and dhal.

Post-Indian Mutiny
One of the most famous battles fought by the 2nd Gurkhas was the defence of Hindu Rao's house just outside Delhi. For this action, they fought alongside the 60th Rifles and the Corps of Guides Infantry.

When they arrived at Delhi one eye-witness noted that 'The Gurkhas were so delighted at the chance of getting a fight that they threw somersaults and cut capers.' On the 10th June a force of 500 mutineers came out of the city towards their position. Major Reid led seven companies of his Sirmoors, two companies of the 60th Rifles and 150 Guides together with two artillery pieces to meet them. The British at this time were jittery about the loyalty of all the native troops but the Gurkhas were to prove their loyalty in spectacular fashion.

As they approached, the mutineers called out to the Gurkhas. "We expect the Gurkhas to join us, we won't fire." "Oh yes, we're coming to join you now." shouted the Gurkhas. they approached, smiling, to within 20 paces and opened fire, killing 20-30 mutineers.

The loyalty of the Gurkhas was never again questioned. They were under constant fire for more than 3 months and defeated 26 seperate attacks from the city. Out of 9 officers only one survived. They lost 327 men out of 490. It is worth quoting the account of Captain Griffiths of the 61st to appreciate the quality of the Gurkhas:

'In battle they seem in their proper element, fierce and courageous, shrinking from no danger. As soldiers they are second to none, amenable to discipline and docile, but very tigers when roused. They fought with unflinching spirit during the Mutiny......No assault, however strong and determined, made any impression on the men of these gallant regiments.'

The Indian Mutiny was a watershed in the development of the army in India. Nearly all the native regiments were re-numbered to fill in the gaps left by disbanded regiments but the greatest change was the transfer of the whole Indian Army from being administered by the Honourable East India Company to the Crown. The change affected the Sirmoors in that they were given the honour of becoming a Rifle regiment. From 1858 they were the Sirmoor Rifle Regiment and the men were no longer sepoys but riflemen. They were also required to relinquish their colours as Rifle regiments do not carry them. They were compensated for this in 1863 when the Queen granted them the special honour of carrying their famous ceremonial truncheon on parade.

This was also the post-Crimean period that saw great changes in uniform throughout the army. At the time of the Mutiny, the Sirmoors were still wearing tight fitting short jackets. These were to be replaced by tunics which were more comfortable. The dark green tunic had red facings in recognition of their close association with the 60th Rifles who fought alongside them at Delhi. The cap, called a Kilmarnock had been adorned with the red and black diced headband for some years. It's origins are somewhat obscure but are thought to have been introduced by a Scottish commanding officer. At the time of the Mutiny the Kilmarnock was quite tall, about 6ins, but reduced in hieght over the years to about 2.5ins.

Dehra Dun
For many years a problem had existed with retired Gurkhas. They were usually not willing to return to Nepal after so many years away from their native country. Also there needed to be a place for the soldiers' families to settle. To resolve this problem permanent depots were established for the Gurkha Regiments, the 2nd were based, from 1864, at Dehra Dun in the foothills of the Himalayas, 160 miles west of Nepal and 25 miles from Sirmoor. The regiment had briefly been titled 17th Bengal Native Infantry in 1861 but a few months later it was decided to number the first 5 Gurkha regiments seperately and they were titled 2nd Gurkha (The Sirmoor Rifle) Regiment.
Mary Winchester
In 1868 the 2nd were in action on the North-West Frontier against the tribes of the Black Mountain in Hazara, but in 1871 they were at the other extreme of India in the east. The area of Assam was attracting British tea planters, but the local tribes, the Nagas and the Lushais resisted their settlement. One planter couple, named Winchester, from Elgin in Scotland, were killed and their daughter, Mary, kidnapped by the Lushais.

An expedition under the command of Brigadier-General Brownlow set out in the autumn of 1871. The aim was to supress the troublesome tribes and rescue Mary Winchester. The terrain was difficult, moutainous and covered in thick jungle. The first major battle was at Lal Gnoora, a stockaded Lushai village. The tribemen had brought in everyone from the village within the bamboo stockade, 2.7 metres high, and set fire to buildings to provide a smoke screen. The day was won due to the bravery of two of the men of the 2nd Gurkhas. Major Donald Macintyre and Rifleman Inderjit Thapa scaled the stockade and fought their way through the desperate tribesmen before they were joined by the rest of the Gurkhas. Macintyre received the VC and Thapa the Indian Order of Merit 3rd Class. This was the highest award for bravery available to native Indians. To achieve IOM 1st Class, a soldier had to perform 3 acts of bravery. Only six men ever achieved this in the 74 years that the medal existed. This iniquity was abolished in 1911 when Indians and Gurkhas were awarded the VC.

As for Mary Winchester, she was found alive and unharmed. The Lushai doted on her. She was nearly seven and had been with the Lushai for over a year. She spoke their language, smoked a pipe and behaved quite precociously. When she returned to her grandparents in Scotland she had short hair, the tribes people had cut her long hair to keep as a souvenier.

Kabul to Kandahar
In 1876 the 2nd Gurkhas, who had come to the attention of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) were given the title 2nd (Prince of Wales's Own) Gurkha Regiment (The Sirmoor Rifles).

In September 1879, the British Resident in Kabul was killed and his escort of Guides wiped out after a brave last stand. A punitive force under the command of Major-General Sir Frederick Roberts VC ('Little Bobs') was sent to Kabul. Having fought his way there, he rebuilt the fortifications and defended the city against a seige of Afghans. He was supported in this by 3 Gurkha regiments including the 2nd. Meanwhile the British at Kandahar, to the south, were under threat from Ayub Khan and his army of tribesmen following a disaster at nearby Maiwand. Roberts needed to relieve Kandahar so he set off from Kabul on his famous march covering 320 miles in 22 days, in August 1880. Temperatures ranged from 110 degrees by day to freezing at night. The 2nd Gurkhas along with 10,000 from other units, and 8000 followers survived these conditions as well as the bullets from hilltop snipers.

On reaching Kandahar, Roberts set about attacking the Afghan fortified positions. The 2nd Gurkhas and the Gordon Highlanders charged an artillery position at Gandi Mulla. Both regiments impressed each other with their daring behaviour and so started the long-standing mutual admiration of the two famous regiments. On reaching the guns, one gurkha took of his cap and forced it down the muzzle of a gun to stake the 2nd's claim.

2nd Battalion
The regiment spent some time in Malta in 1878. They were the only Gurkha regiment to garrison the Medterranean during the Russo-Turkish War. In 1886 a second battalion was raised for the regiment and fought in North Burma in 1888-90. And it was this unit that went to the North-West Frontier in 1897 to fight once more alongside the Gordon Highlanders at Dargai. The Tirah Expeditionary force was launched to regain control of the Khyber Pass.
Twentieth Century
No major engagements took place until World War 1. The uniform of the gurkhas had been easily identifiable by the famous Kilmarnock cap. This remains so to this day, in full dress, but the other hat for which they are now well known came into being in 1901. The 1st Battalion in Waziristan were the first Gurkhas to be issued with the Australian slouch hat turned up on one side. This gave much better protection from the sun and was adopted by all the other Gurkha regiments. During World War 1 the hat brim was straightened out and later, the custom of two hats being forced into each other to make one stiff hat was established. These hats are called 'Hats-Felt-Gurkha' and are worn at an angle, tilted to the right.

The 2nd Battalion served in Flanders in the Gurkha Brigade along with all the other Gurkha regiments but moved to Egypt in 1915 and India in 1916. The 1st battalion went to Persia and Mesopatamia in 1916 and helped in the fall of Baghdad. An extra battalion was raised for the duration of the war.

In the Second World War the 1st battalion were in Cyprus then went with 7th Brigade to Egypt and fought at El Alemein. They then went to Italy and distinguished themselves at Monte Cassino. The 3rd battalion fought with the Chindits while the 2nd battalion, after fighting in Malaya, were captured and spent 3 years as prisoners of the Japanese.

At the partition of India into the two new countries of Pakistan and India in 1947, the British-led Indian Army came under the control of each of them. Basically those consisting of mainly Muslim soldiers went to Pakistan and those of mainly Hindus went to India. The Gurkhas, however were divided between India and Britain. The 2nd, along with the 6th 7th and 10th were retained by the British, while the 1st 3rd 4th 5th 8th and 9th went to the new Indian Army.

On 1st July 1994, the four British Gurkha regiments amalgamated to form The Royal Gurkha Rifles. Originally 3 battalions, it later reduced to two.

Tribal Areas
Post Mutiny
Principal Campaigns and Battles
1878 - 80 Afghanistan
1879 Kabul
1880 Kandahar
Punjab Frontier
Predecessor Units
Sirmoor Battalion
(1815 - 1823)
8th (Sirmoor) Battalion
(1823 - 1826)
6th (Sirmoor) Battalion
(1826 - 1850)
Sirmoor Battalion
(1850 - 1858)
Sirmoor Rifle Regiment
(1858 - 1861)
17th Bengal Native Infantry
(1861 - 1864)
2nd Gurkha (Sirmoor Rifle) Regiment
(1864 - 1876)
2nd (Prince of Wales's Own) Gurkha Regiment (The Sirmoor Rifles)
(1876 - 1906)
2nd King Edward's Own Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Regiment
(1901 - 1903)
Successor Units
King Edward VII's Own Gurkha Rifles
(1936 - 1947)
Post-Independence Fate
To Britain
Suggested Reading
India's Army
by Donovan Jackson

Regiments and Corps of the British Army:
A Critical Bibliography

by Roger Perkins

Sons of John Company
by John Gaylor

Armies of India
Painted by Lovett, Text by Macmunn

The Indian Army
by Boris Mollo

Forces of the British Empire
by E. Nevins and B. Chandler

Indian Army Uniforms - Infantry
by W. Y. Carman

| Uniforms | Campaigns | Armaments | Units |

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe