The legendary Gurkha units of the British Army have centuries of history as premier warfighters, earning top awards for individual and unit valor in combat from the Indian Mutiny in 1857, through both World Wars, Iraq, and Afghanistan. On March 11, Great Britain announced that it will be creating a new Gurkha rifle battalion, the infantry forces of the Gurkhas.
The history of the Gurkhas in 3 minutes
Gurkha warriors fought British Dutch East India Company soldiers in the early 1800s and did so much damage to the company military that its leaders tried to buy some of the Gurkhas over to their side, and they were successful.
(While many Gurkha histories, including the quick summary embedded above, gloss over this part of the timeline and make it sound like the Gurkha warriors were recruited after the war, the first units were recruited while the company was still fighting Gurkha forces. And yes, some Gurkha tribes fought directly against their brethren on behalf of the company. But these tribes had fought each other for years, so it’s not as shocking as you might think.)
The Gurkha units in the company military were immediately successful, and they proved deep loyalties during the Indian Mutiny in 1857-1858, saving British forces and government leaders that were nearly overrun during mass uprisings against British rule. The Gurkhas were so successful in these early decades working for the company that the British absorbed them into the Indian Army, part of the forces that fought for the British Crown.
Colour Sgt. Dhan Prasad Ghale, a Gurkha assigned to the British Army’s 2nd Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles, follows a Malawi Defense Force soldier as he crawls towards an objective at Machinga Hills Training Area in Zomba, Malawi, May 30, 2018.
(U.S. Army Sgt. Asa Bingham)
Five Gurkha rifle regiments were originally absorbed into the Indian Army, and another three were transferred from the Bengal Army soon after. These rifle regiments served around the world in the Great War and World War II. When India gained its independence after World War II, these regiments were split between the Indian Army and the British Army.
The British Army units were organized into the British Brigade of Gurkhas with four rifle regiments as well as transportation, engineer, and signal units. But another reorganization in the 1990s trimmed the size of the Gurkha infantry down to two battalions.
When Prince Harry deployed to Afghanistan as a forward air controller, he did so with a Gurkha infantry battalion, partially because they are seen as some of the best in the world and could help keep him safe even during fierce frontline fighting.
But Britain announced March 11 that they would create another Gurkha infantry battalion, the 3rd Battalion, Specialist Infantry. Specialized infantry units are part of Britain’s new Specialised Infantry Group (British spelling), an infantry force that focuses on working with Britain’s allies, analogous to America’s new security force assistance brigades.
And the new Gurkha battalion is expected to be especially valuable in this role. The Gurkha units are still recruited from Nepal, and all of its members beef up on English when they are selected to serve in the British Army. That’s because the Nepalese people grow up speaking a caste language as well as Nepalese, and many speak Hindi. So, by the time they are trained by Britain for service in its army, most Gurkha warriors can speak four languages.
So, the new Gurkha specialized infantry will be filled with some of the world’s most elite and respected infantrymen who can speak four languages and teach their skills to most of Britain’s allies. It’s hard to imagine a force that would be better suited to the mission.