Gurkhas' uphill battle for British army places gets tougher

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 December, 2006, 12:00am

The rituals of Gurkha recruitment have changed only gradually over the years. But the nervous candidates competing for a place in the prestigious unit this week are likely to serve in a radically altered Brigade of Gurkhas.

British officers believe that a long awaited review of Gurkha terms of service, to be announced in the new year, may bring changes including the recruitment of women. Changes to the pay and pensions scheme for which ex-servicemen have campaigned are expected.

Potential recruits are unaware of and uninterested in such issues, and competition is intense.

Pravin Thapa, 19, hopes to become the third generation of his family to join the Gurkhas, and this is the second time he has applied. 'Everyone wants to join the British army, everyone wants to see the world,' he says.

Over 14,000 men applied this year for 230 places in the British army, plus 73 vacancies in the Singapore police, for whom the army provides recruitment services. By the time they reached the British camp at Pokhara for the final phase of selection, the candidates had been whittled down to 700.

In order to bring the numbers down, anyone with more than two fillings or less than perfect vision is sent home, and the physical tests are much more strenuous than anything British recruits have to face.

The main event of the week is a 4.8km run up hill carrying 25kg of sand in a basket by a strap across the forehead. The spectacular route, dominated by towering white Himalayan peaks, has recently been lengthened.

'We are not just looking for raw fitness and strength but for the mental determination to carry on,' explains Major Toby Jackman, himself the third generation of his family to serve in the Gurkhas.

Such is the hunger to join, recruiting officers have to contend with widespread attempts to cheat the process. Unofficial training schools have been discovered sending fake candidates to written exams to memorise questions for the benefit of later batches. The effort is futile because no question paper is set twice.

While a steady stream of failures leaves the camp throughout the 10-day process, successful candidates will not return to their homes before their first leave. After being issued their kit and parading before proud parents they will fly straight to Britain to begin basic training.

With the stakes so high, Major Jackman gives the candidates what he calls a 'realities lecture'. 'I tell them that they will be subject to military law,' he says. 'And while it is a good life, you might be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. Some of these guys haven't thought about that yet.'