The Gurkhas: Special Force

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am


The Gurkhas: Special Force
by Chris Bellamy
John Murray

The list of books covering the Gurkhas published in recent decades is even longer than the list of places in which these soldiers have served. The latter includes: Gallipoli in the first world war; Burma in the second world war; Malaya (present-day Malaysia) during the 'Emergency'; Cyprus; our own Hong Kong (they used to guard the border); the Falklands; Kosovo; Iraq; and now, Afghanistan.

Evidently, the anomalous fighting force from the hills and valleys of Nepal has proved a captivating topic for writers and readers alike. And now Professor Chris Bellamy has taken on this beguiling narrative. Bellamy's last book was 2007's terrific Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War, so expectations were high for this tome. For the most part, the eminent military historian at the University of Greenwich has met them.

The Gurkhas have fought alongside British forces (and also, since 1947, with the Indian army) for nearly two centuries. This book describes their story in great detail, affirming that their reputation as ferocious, brave and resilient fighters is overwhelmingly more fact than mythology.

But whence came they? Bellamy explains the circumstances in which the British began to recruit them, and their rapid rise as a distinctive and revered military elite since.

Here is an engaging blend of history, anthropology and lore, which emanates from the misty foothills of the Himalayas, and goes on to cover the many campaigns and battles in which the Gurkhas have fought. From the time the East India Company locked horns with the Gurkhas, to the lingering nightmare of Afghanistan, Bellamy digs deep.

The Gurkhas' loyalty to a small but powerful nation off the coast of Europe is a recurring motif. In its final chapter, this updated book explores their uncertain future at a time of military cutbacks imposed by the British government, and pleads for the force to be spared.

The Gurkhas: Special Force reads like a definitive work, and indeed presents all the hallmarks of one. In addition to its 12 chronologically ordered chapters, it includes a preface, 36 black-and-white photos, detailed maps, graphics and illustrations, 47 pages of notes, a glossary, and a voluminous bibliography that not only cites books, print-media articles, and governmental websites, but also primary-source interviews, archives, documents, reports, private memoirs and diaries.

Additionally there's a prologue, penned to enrapture the reader. And it scores a direct hit. This cinematic vignette features Gurkhas very recently in combat in Helmand Province, and enables Bellamy to make the point that the Gurkhas are now embroiled in their fourth Afghan war since 1840.

A few head-scratchers crop up here and there, notably when Bellamy - twice - notes that Nepal's crown prince Dipendra committed suicide on June 1, 2001, without mentioning that, minutes earlier, he had also shot to death his father (the king), his mother (the queen) and much of the rest of his family, effectively destroying the Himalayan nation's monarchy.

Nevertheless, Bellamy has, by and large, done justice to the story of the Gurkhas, a saga that has particular resonance in this corner of the former British empire - one that is today home to a large number of the men whose bravery and loyalty form a central theme of this excellent book.