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Gurkhas: Some of the world's toughest soldiers based in Kent


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Known for their stoic charm, it is easy to overlook the Gurkhas as fierce fighters.

But they are some of the world’s most powerful warriors, cherry-picked from the thin air and mountainous terrain of Nepal, home of Everest.

Gurkha home coming parade from a tour of duty in Afghanistan at the Invicta Barracks in Maidstone. Picture: Matthew Reading
Gurkha home coming parade from a tour of duty in Afghanistan at the Invicta Barracks in Maidstone. Picture: Matthew Reading

Their motto “Better to die than live a coward” rings out across battlefields, with the regiment earning 13 Victoria Crosses, Britain’s highest accolade for bravery.

But why do these Nepalese soldiers, known to swiftly paralyse armies while outnumbered, fight for the UK? And why does their community flourish here in Kent?

If the British East India Company’s invasion of Nepal 200 years ago proved one thing, it was the awesomeness of the Gurkha army.

Britain had ambitious plans to expand to the north of the Indian subcontinent, but these hopes never came close to materialising.

Depleted by desperation, malaria and exhaustion, the army was abruptly crushed by the Gurkhas, experts of their land and front-line warfare.

By the time the dust settled it was agreed a “perpetual peace” should exist between the two sides, as a result Nepal is Britain’s oldest Asian ally.

Since then, the Gurkhas have loyally fought for the British all over the world.

“I never saw more steadiness or bravery exhibited in my life.

“Run they would not, and of death they seemed to have no fear,” a British soldier is reported to have said, following the Anglo-Nepalese War.

Maidstone Civic Parade, Gurkha's from 36 Engineer regiment march down the High Street. Picture Matthew Walker
Maidstone Civic Parade, Gurkha's from 36 Engineer regiment march down the High Street. Picture Matthew Walker

Accounts like this are common.

There is the testimony about Dipprasad Pun, a Gurkha in Afghanistan who single-handedly held post against 30 Taliban fighters.

Surrounded, Sergeant Pun, of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, famously pulled his machine off its tripod and tore through his enemies until ammo ran dry.

He tossed 17 grenades and a landmine then, as one Taliban soldier rushed his guard-post, Pun’s rifle jammed.

He grabbed the tripod of his machine gun and hurled it at the Taliban’s face, knocking him off the building’s roof.

In another Afghani conflict, while staring down a hail of bullets, three men from the Rifles located the body of their fallen comrade Yubraj Rai, and carried it 100m across open ground, as bullets danced at their feet.

The platoon had been ambushed by the Taliban in the Helmand region.

Dhan Gurung used Yubraj’s rifle, as well as his own, to help clear a path to safety.

Soldiers from Folkestone based Royal Gurkha Rifles win in brigade shooting competition held in Essex 2017. Credit: Cpl Darren Legg RLC / MoD
Soldiers from Folkestone based Royal Gurkha Rifles win in brigade shooting competition held in Essex 2017. Credit: Cpl Darren Legg RLC / MoD

Nabin Siwa, a Sandgate councillor who served for 24-years in Brunei, Hong Kong, the Falklands and UK, said Gurkhas are naturally conditioned to be tough.

“Throughout the years these young men came from the hillsides in Nepal.

“Here life is very tough, they have to walk a long way to school, do very hard work in extremely harsh weather - they are conditioned to be tough before they even get into the army.”

Another soldier named Dahn Gurung, a fourth generation fighter, was the first Gurkha to be elected as a councillor in England when he won a seat on Folkestone Town Council in 2011.

“For us, it is all about loyalty. If you are not being loyal you can’t fight,” he said.

“For many of us, our blood comes from many generations of fathers who have served in the army.”

Not all the young Nepalese hopefuls who apply to join the British army are successful.

Some 10,000 youths, largely from the Nepalese hills each year battle over just 200 places, in what is known as one of the most fiercely contested selection processes in the world.

Soldiers from Folkestone based Royal Gurkha Rifles win in brigade shooting competition held in Essex in 2017. Credit Cpl Darren Legg RLC / MoD:
Soldiers from Folkestone based Royal Gurkha Rifles win in brigade shooting competition held in Essex in 2017. Credit Cpl Darren Legg RLC / MoD:

But first they must be under 21, qualified in the Nepalese equivalent of GCSE and A-Levels, have no more than four teeth faults or any physical abnormalities - hyper-extended elbows are an automatic failure.

It’s not all set-backs and discomfort though.

Those who endure the first two rounds of the contest must run up a mountain in the Himalayan foothills for 40 minutes, carrying a wicker basket strapped to their head, filled with 70lbs of sand in the Dhoku Race.

“Luckily, those years ago, when I did my training we didn’t have to do the Dhoku race,” added Mr Siwa.

The fittest Gurkhas will then swear allegiance to queen and country and be presented the kukri, a blade which achieved fame during the Great Wars, more widely known today as “The Gurkha Knife,” which they still carry into battle.

Mainly serving in infantry, significant numbers work as engineers and in logistics.

Their name "Gurkha" comes from the town of Gorkha, from which the Nepalese kingdom arose. It means 'defender of cows.'

In the past, their ranks have been dominated by four ethnic groups, each from poor farming backgrounds living in the foothills - the Limbus and Rais in the east and Magars and Gurungs from the centre.

Gurkhas from Shorncliffe in Folkestone on tour in Afghanistan 2016. Credit: British Army/Royal Gurkha Rifles
Gurkhas from Shorncliffe in Folkestone on tour in Afghanistan 2016. Credit: British Army/Royal Gurkha Rifles

But following a modernised recruitment drive members from the other 120 ethnics groups can apply.

Since the relationship began more than 200,000 fought in the two world wars, and in the past 50 years they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the two world wars 43,000 men lost their lives.

Gurkhas in 2009 won the right to settle in the UK following a pressurised campaign led by Joanna Lumley, whose father served with the 6th Gurkha Rifles, and the Gurkha Justice Campaign group.

Previously, fighters who had served their time in the British Army were discharged back to Nepal.

But the change meant veterans of four years or more could apply to live in Britain, alongside their wives and children.

More recently, as army numbers have been slashed so too have the number of Gurkhas - they were cut from 13,000 in 1995 to just a few thousand today.

Even so they are not given equal pension rights, the high cost of living in the UK means they often struggle to stay afloat.

Credit: British Army/Royal Gurkha Rifles: Gurkhas from Shorncliffe in Folkestone on tour in Afghanistan 2016
Credit: British Army/Royal Gurkha Rifles: Gurkhas from Shorncliffe in Folkestone on tour in Afghanistan 2016

One former soldier of 18 years told KentOnline: “Where we have been able to stay our pensions have not been increased to afford to live here in the UK.

“I get one third of a retired British soldier, it’s absolutely not fair considering the work, often dangerous work, we have carried out for the country.”

The Ministry of Defence said it "greatly values" Gurkhas' contribution to the British Army.

A spokesman said the department ensures Gurkhas are supported with a "generous pension and medical care" when they leave.

“We greatly value the huge contribution Gurkhas make to the British Army and ensure they are supported with a generous pension and medical care during retirement in Nepal.

"We are committed to ensuring the Gurkha Pension Scheme is sustainable and fair alongside other UK public sector pensions,” they said.

Their community in Kent continues to swell.

The Nepalese settled in Folkestone after the Royal Ghurkha Rifles moved from Hampshire to Shorncliffe Barracks in 2001.

Now, there are roughly 20,000 Gurkhas living in Kent, with large communities in Folkestone, Dover, Ashford and Maidstone, 4,500 miles from their native land.

Clutches of Nepalese can often be seen gathered chatting in Kent’s towns.

Gurkhas from Shorncliffe in Folkestone on tour in Afghanistan. Credit: British Army/Royal Gurkha Rifles
Gurkhas from Shorncliffe in Folkestone on tour in Afghanistan. Credit: British Army/Royal Gurkha Rifles

All of these towns have benefited from new business, especially specialist food shops, restaurants and greengrocers.

Heavily influenced by Indian cuisine, a cacophony of unique curries feature on family menus, typically milder than your average madras, with emphasis on freshness.

Dozens of restaurants still stand firm after weathering Covid-19, including Folkestone’s coveted Annapurna, named after one of Nepal’s deadliest mountains.

The Folkestone School for Girls, a short walk from Shorncliffe Barracks, has a rich Nepalese population.

Headteacher Mark Lester told KentOnline: "We have established very close links with our Gurkha community and, in fact, they have shaped a central part of our International School work, as we sought to partner with schools in Nepal.

"This has resulted in reciprocal teacher visits and we are in the midst of planning for a student visit, once Covid restrictions permit.

"We were keen for all of our students to be aware of the long history between our two nations and to celebrate to contributions that these links have made to our school, our local community and our country."

Ama Dablam Peak - view from Cho La pass, Sagarmatha National park, Everest region, Nepal
Ama Dablam Peak - view from Cho La pass, Sagarmatha National park, Everest region, Nepal

A life-size statue stands in Folkestone to commemorate service and sacrifice given by Gurkha soldiers.

Alongside the Gurkha Memorial Fund, Dhan Gurung helped raise £60,000 to pay for the statue by sculptor Rebecca Hawkins. Joanna Lumley unveiled it in the Folkestone Memorial Garden in 2015.

"It is there as a reminder of what the Nepalese have done (for the country).

"It contains names of Gurkha soldiers who lost their lives in conflict," Mr Gurung added.

Joanna Lumley at the Gurkha Memorial Statue in Folkestone. Picture: Tony Flashman
Joanna Lumley at the Gurkha Memorial Statue in Folkestone. Picture: Tony Flashman
Garden of Remembrance, Folkestone. The Gurkha Memorial Statue. Picture: Tony Flashman
Garden of Remembrance, Folkestone. The Gurkha Memorial Statue. Picture: Tony Flashman

To read about the Armed Forces and how they have served Kent and beyond, click here.

To read more of our in-depth features click here.

There are two petitions calling on the government to help Nepal during the Covid-19 crisis, click here or visit this link

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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