The political, socio-economic, military and demographic impact of Gurkha recruitment in World War I on Nepal, 100 years on
November 9, 2018
Nepali soldiers and porters assemble in Tundikhel in 1915 before marching down to India to join the Allied forces in Europe, Turkey and West Asia. Of the 200,000 people conscripted, about 20,000 were killed.
The centennial of the Armistice this week is an occasion to gauge the scale and significance of Nepal’s involvement in World War I. Politically, it cemented the long-standing subordinate semi-colonial relationship that locked Nepal into British Imperialism, but it also consolidated Nepal’s formal independence and the legitimacy of the Rana regime.
It led directly to the Anglo-Nepal Treaty of 1923 in which the very first article read: ‘The two Governments agree mutually to acknowledge and respect each other’s independence, both internal and external’. There was the additional benefit for Prime Minister Chandra Shumshere Rana of an annual payment by the British of a million rupees.
The War also served to underline the divisions of class, caste and ethnicity within Nepali society because the majority of soldiers who went to fight were not only from specific regions but from particular ethnic groups and rarely from the dominant castes or ruling classes. It also contributed to the distinctive political ideology of Nepali nationalism as a bir (brave) nation. For, as historian Pratyoush Onta has noted, the Kathmandu ruling class legitimised ‘the soldier’s pain in the battlefield … as part of one’s necessarily sacred duty to the Nepali nation’. That pain (dukha) was very real.
Read also: They shall not grow old, Sewa Bhattarai Gurkhas storming a German trench at Neuve-Chappelle in France during World War One. PHOTO: IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM
Militarily, Nepal made a real contribution with the deployment of soldiers in support of the Allies, not only of the Gurkha regiments of the British Indian Army on the Western Front, in North Africa and in the Middle East, but also of Nepal Army forces in India to relieve British troops while the Indian Army was serving overseas and helped in campaigns, including in Waziristan on the North West Frontier, to maintain British control across the subcontinent.
Historians say more than 200,000 Gurkha recruits were put at the disposal of the Indian Army, which represented a quarter of the total male population of the ethnic groups involved. These Nepali troops were deployed as part of the Indian Army in many of the most difficult of operations and at the forefront of the battle and, as a result, suffered disproportionally high casualties.
Whether freezing in the cold and rainy weather in the trenches on the Western Front, or in the hot dry conditions of North Africa and West Asia, the Gurkhas, Sikhs and other regiments of the Indian Army suffered not only from enemy fire and bombardment but also from sickness, cold, heat and neglect.
Gurkha soldiers in the battle of Gallipoli. they were the first to arrive and the last to leave, and suffered at least 1,000 dead and 4,000 wounded. A part of the battlefield in Turkey is still called Gurkha Bluff. PHOTO: IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM
There are first-hand accounts of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign and of the various battles in Palestine and Mesopotamia, and particularly of the defeat of British and Indian forces at Kut, and the long march afterwards to concentration camps in central Anatolia, where the Ottoman Turks fighting on the German side incarcerated thousands, including Gurkhas.
The Gurkha regiments officially suffered over 20,000 casualties, and together with the influenza epidemic of 1917 led to the apparent decline in the population of Nepal between 1911-1920 from 5.6 million to 5.5 million. Even though 10% of the recruits were casualties, there has been no detailed study of the social impact at the local level in those communities from which the majority of troops were recruited.
Already suffering from the absence of their husbands, brothers, sons and fathers for years on end, those who remained ‘to keep the home fires burning’ (the women, the children and the elderly) also had to cope with the fact that many failed to return, and many more came home with debilitating and disabling injuries or conditions.
Names of Gurkha soldiers who died while fighting in France and whose bodies were never found are among 4,700 soldiers from the British Indian Army commemorated in the Neuve-Chappelle Memorial. PHOTO: NEUVE-CHAPPELLE MEMORIAL
There was little in the way of public ‘welfare assistance’ for these casualties of war and for their families who were obliged to look after them, and also ensure their livelihoods when men were physically unable to work. There was little or no recognition of what today is referred to as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, and only the loving care of family members of affected individuals.
The economic impact of the war must also have been considerable. Thousands of able-bodied men were taken away not only from their families but also from fields, leaving those left behind to cope with the demands of farming and with a reduced labour force, and one which relied more heavily than ever on women, children and the elderly.
The cost in terms of loss of production as well as loss of income at the local level as a result of the absence of so many men for four years is incalculable, but was undoubtedly felt acutely by those affected. There must have been serious additional costs of supporting those who returned home unable to work because of physical or mental trauma.
British Officers performing a kit inspection of a Gurkha unit in France in 1915.
But men returned to Nepal with much personal suffering and the loss of comrades. But they also came back with experience of mixing with soldiers from other cultures and backgrounds, facing daily challenges, travelling and visiting places in far-off countries across the sea. All this had a dramatic impact on social and cultural awareness in the local communities to which they returned.
Ultimately, this greater consciousness was to play a part in a growing dissatisfaction with the poverty and underdevelopment of Nepal, and to increasing demands for social, economic and political change in the 1920s and 1930s.
Dr David Seddon is Director of Critical Faculty, author/co-author of many publications on Nepal, and currently writing a three-part book on ‘Nepal and the Great War’.
11 AM, 11/11/1918
As the world commemorates Armistice Day on 11 November to mark the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front, there does not appear to be much being done in Nepal to remember a war in which so many Nepali soldiers were killed, and one that had such a historic impact on the country’s political, socio-economic and cultural life.
The Armistice took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918) and initially expired after 36 days. A formal peace agreement was only reached when the Treaty of Versailles was signed the following year. In other theatres of the War, including the Middle East, fighting continued.
The date is a national holiday in France, Belgium, and in many Allied nations. In some countries, Armistice Day coincides with Remembrance Day and Veterans Day, and other public holidays. In Italy the end of World War I is commemorated on 4 November, the day of the Armistice of Villa Giusti. Armistice Day has been a statutory holiday in Serbia since 2012, and Poland celebrates National Independence Day on 11 November to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty in 1918 from the German, Austrian and Russian Empires.
A German national day of mourning, Volkstrauertag has, since 1952, been observed on the Sunday closest to 16 November. In Denmark, Netherlands and Norway, the end of World War I is not commemorated as the three countries remained neutral. Denmark instead observes Flag Day on 5 September in commemoration of both living and dead soldiers who served in any conflict. In the Netherlands, 4 May is Remembrance Day.
In India there is no official Armistice Day, but the day has been marked by tributes and ceremonies in army cantonments and by memorial services in some churches. Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, marked the day in Mumbai‘s St John the Evangelist Church. Services of remembrance supported by the Indian Army have been observed at Kohima and Imphal War Cemeteries and at the Delhi War Cemetery.
Because the two ‘World Wars’ were fought while India was part of the British Empire, the idea of ‘commemoration’ was largely dismissed as an unwanted colonial relic. In July 2016, however, a campaign called India Remembers was launched to commemorate the sacrifice of Indian soldiers in various conflicts, including the First World War, with a proposal that the marigold join the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.
The day chosen for the official day of remembrance was 7 December, to commemorate the centenary of a historic cavalry charge led by Indian horsemen on the German trenches on the Somme. The horses and their riders did not fare well against German machine guns, but their sacrifice was something that those who launched the campaign wished to remember as the epitome of ‘the human spirit in the face of war’.
The contradictions between the focus on ‘valour’ on the one hand, and the reality of pain, suffering, injury and death in appalling conditions, on the other, are acute. One strategy that recognises this, at least in part, is to emphasise the importance of commemoration for peace and reconciliation.
This year, the British and German governments are encouraging other countries to ring bells at the same time in the same way, expressing the reconciliation of former enemies in sound.