Last Updated: 01 November, 2015
“Kaathar Hunnu Bhanda Marnu Ramro” (Nepali)
“Better to die than to be a coward”
Gurkhas have served in the British Army since the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-16 and are among the best-regarded infantry troops in the world.
Joining the Gurkhas brings rich rewards for young Nepalese men, but first they must pass a gruelling and physically challenging process.
This recruiting process is one of the toughest of any Army in the world and soldiers are selected from the many thousands of hopeful applicants.
The process begins in the hills of Nepal where retired Gurkha soldiers tour around remote villages conducting initial screening tests.
With the opportunity to “earn roughly four times the average Nepali annual salary in just one month” (Clapson, 2015, p.25), the economic incentive to compete for one of the few places each year is very high.
Although the process is conducted by the British Army, a number of the candidates will go to the Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force (GCSPF) rather the British Army.
1.1 Brief History
Nepal, officially the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, is a landlocked country located in the Himalayas, South Asia. It is bordered to the North by China and to the South, East and West by India. Nepal is separated from Bangladesh by the narrow Indian Siliguri Corridor and from Bhutan by the Indian state of Sikkim. Kathmandu is the nation’s capital city and largest metropolis.
With an area of 147,181 square kilometres (56,827 square miles) and a population of approximately 27 million (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2014), Nepal is the world’s 93rd largest country by area and the 41st most populous country.
A monarchy throughout most of its history, Nepal was ruled by the Shah dynasty of kings from 1768 (when Prithvi Narayan Shah unified its many small kingdoms) until 2008. The Gurkhas have been an integral part of the British Army since the invasion of Nepal in the early 1800s; fought ostensibly by Britain to curb Nepalese military power.
After suffering heavy casualties, the East India Company (an English company formed for the exploitation of trade with East and Southeast Asia and India (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015)) signed a peace deal in 1815. The British formed such a high opinion of these Nepalese fighters that they were allowed entry into the Army, although in their own units and keeping their own customs and beliefs. However, at least one commentator suggests recruitment aided in, again, curbing Nepalese military power (Rathaur, 2001).
The name ‘Gurkha’ comes from the hill town of Gorkha from which the Nepalese Kingdom expanded (BBC News, 2010) and have traditionally been dominated by four ethnic groups: the Gurungs and Magars from Central Nepal; and the Rais and Limbus from the East (BBC News, 2010).
“The Gurkhas, as part of the Indian Army, were not eligible to be awarded the Victoria Cross until 1911. Before then the Indian Army’s premier award for gallantry was the Indian Order of Merit, an award instituted in 1837. The first Gurkha to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Rifleman Kublir Thapa of 2nd Battalion 3rd QAO Gurkha Rifles, for conspicuous bravery on the Western Front in 1915.” (Parbate, 2015, p.23). Consequently, the Gurkhas have been awarded a total of 26 Victoria Crosses, 13 to Gurkha soldiers and 13 to their British officers.
During both world wars approximately 200,000 Gurkhas served with the British Army, with roughly 43,000 losing their lives across both conflicts. During World War Two, Gurkha numbers peaked at 112,000 personnel, although this has steadily decreased to approximately 3,500 by 2010 (BBC News, 2010).
Post WW2, the British reduced the Gurkhas to ten regiments, although after Indian independence this was reduced to four regiments (forming the Brigade of Gurkhas and based in Malaya from 1948), after a tripartite agreement between Nepal, India and Britain concluded in August 1947 (Rathaur, 2001; BBC News, 2010) which saw the other six Gurkha regiments remain with the Indian Army.
The tripartite agreement suggested that British Gurkha recruitment would be conducted at recruiting depots in India, however, the Indian government later imposed a ban on this (Rathaur, 2001). As a result, in 1953, the British government sought agreement with the Nepalese government to open recruiting depots at Dharan and Pakilawa, to which the Nepalese agreed (Rathaur, 2001). Also, the Brigade of Gurkhas was “made self-reliant by the addition of separate units of Gurkha Engineers, Gurkha Signals and Gurkha Transport Regiment.” (Rathaur, 2001, p.23).
2.0 Structure of the Gurkhas
The Gurkhas are a part of the British Army and are composed of a number of different units, with the Brigade of Gurkhas being the largest element, as illustrated in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1: Units of the Gurkhas
2.1 Commissioned Officers
All British officers are expected to speak Nepali and will attend a language course in Nepal to facilitate this requirement. Appointments for British officer in Nepal relating to the Gurkha recruitment and selection process include (Arney, 2014; Clapson, 2015):
Typically, officers of British nationality are direct entry officers whilst officers of Nepalese nationality are late entry officers (i.e. commissioned from the ranks). However, “on Friday 11 April 2014 history was made when Office[r] Cadet Subash Gurung was commissioned into the Royal Gurkha Rifles at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the first Gurkha soldier to be commissioned as a Direct Entry officer into the RGR.” (Parbate, 2014, p.17).
3.0 A General Outline of the Gurkha Recruitment and Selection Process
The recruitment and selection, and training, of Gurkhas can be simplified into five stages, as outlined in Table 2 below.
3.1 Competition for Places
The British Army suggests “There is about a 30-to-one chance of getting through selection…” (Clapson, 2015, p.25). Competition for places is very high as highlighted in Table 3.
3.2 Stage 1: Application and General Eligibility Criteria
All those individuals aspiring to be Gurkhas must meet certain basic standards of education, health and fitness.
Although individuals aspiring to join the Gurkhas must be physically fit, they must also be able to use their brains. As a result, all candidates must have passed the Nepalese School Leaving Certificate (roughly equivalent to between GCSEs and A-Levels within the UK education system).
In short, eligibility criteria include:
- Education: Minimum School Leaving Certificate 3rd Division or its equivalent.
- Age: Between 17½ -21 years on 01 January for intake year.
- Chest: Minimum 79cm.
- Height: Minimum 158cm (5ft 2in).
- Weight: Minimum 50Kg.
- Eyesight: Glasses/Contact Lenses/Laser eye surgery are not permitted.
- Teeth: Not more than 4 faults (fillings, gaps or false teeth).
- Physique: Physical abnormality will not be accepted.
- Passport: Must be in possession of valid Machine Readable Passport (MRP) to register.
If successful, individuals will be given a pass to attend the next stage, regional selection.
3.3 Stage 2: Village Visits
The purpose of village visits, usually conducted over a 6-week period in April and May (Arney, 2014), is to inform Gurkha aspirants and other stakeholders (e.g. head teachers, village elders and parents) of the opportunities within the British Army. Typical information includes (Arney, 2014):
- How many the British Army (and the GCSPF) will recruit;
- What the requirements are;
- Dates for selection; and
- Dispelling any myths about the recruitment and selection process.
Senior Recruiting Assistants (SRAs), formerly known as galah wallas (Arney, 2014), assist recruiting officers prior to and during the village visits.
As Major James Arney states (Clapson, 2015, p.25) “Most people in Nepal know about the Service but we have to explain to their faces what selection is like and details of the criteria.”
During August and September each year (Prater, 2014) candidates who meet the general eligibility criteria will be called forward to the next stage of the selection process, known as regional selection.
3.4 Stage 3: Regional Selection
Regional selection takes place in one of two camps, “one in Pokhara and one further east in Dharan.” (Clapson, 2015, p.26), and is typically 2-weeks in duration.
The candidates will undergo educational, medical and physical tests as outlined in Table 4.
From the candidates who attend regional selection, approximately 500 will be called forward to attend the next stage of the selection process, known as central selection (Clapson, 2015).
3.5 Stage 4: Central Selection
Central selection takes place at the British Gurkha camp in Pokhara, Western Nepal, and is the focal point for all recruiting activities in Nepal.
Central selection is 2-weeks in duration and occurs in December of each year (Prater, 2014), with candidates being put through a series of tests, assessments and exams as outlined in Table 5.
For candidates who are successful at the central selection process, the next element is attestation (i.e. swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen) and is the final stage of the recruitment and selection process.
3.6 Stage 5: Gurkha Phase 1 Initial Military Training
The successful candidates are now Gurkhas recruits, and within 2-weeks will travel to the Gurkha Training Company at the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick in the UK, to undergo their combined phase one and two training on the combat infantryman’s course (Clapson, 2015).
During their 8-months of training, Gurkha recruits will learn how to be soldiers as well as developing their English language skills, which is demonstrated through an English language exam.
4.0 Useful Links
Listed are some links which the reader may find useful:
- A very thorough document ‘Informed Choice? Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the United Kingdom’ written by David Gee in 2007 and available from: http://www.informedchoice.org.uk/informedchoice/informedchoiceweb.pdf.
- Official MoD website: http://www.gov.uk/organisations/ministry-of-defence.
- Official British Army website: http://www.army.mod.uk/.
- Official British Army Facebook website: https://www.facebook.com/armyjobs.
- Official British Army WordPress website: http://britisharmy.wordpress.com/.
- Information about Army 2020 can be found at: http://www.army.mod.uk/documents/general/A2020_update.pdf.
- A report by the MoD in July 2013 on the future of the Reserve Forces ‘Reserves in the Future Force 2020: Valuable and Valued’ available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/210470/Cm8655-web_FINAL.pdf.
- Capita Army Recruitment website: http://www.capitaarmyresourcing.co.uk/.
- ARRSE (ARmy Rumour SErvice): http//www.arrse.co.uk/join-army-military-recruitment-128.
- British Gurkha Recruitment Institute and Training Centre: http://www.bgrt.com.np/ and https://www.facebook.com/bgrtc.
- British Army Gurkha recruitment: http://www.army.mod.uk/gurkhas/27898/aspx
- Gurkha 200: http://www.gurkha200.co.uk/
- Gurkha Brigade Association. (2015) http://www.gurkhabde.com/category/bgn/
- Gurkha Welfare Trust: http://www.gwt.org.uk/
- Gurkha Run: http://www.gurkharun.com/gurkha-welfare-trust/
- The Gurkha Museum: http://www.thegurkhamuseum.co.uk/
4.1 Useful Documents
- British Gurkha Recruitment, A Historical Perspective (Rathaur, 2001)
- British Gurkha Recruitment & Higher Education of Gurung Young Men (Gurung, 2011)
- Gurkha (Singh, 2014)
- Gurkha Recruitment in British Army (Libcom, 2015)
- Race To Be A Gurkha, The (Blackhurst, 2014)
- Time to End Gurkha Recruitment in the British Army (Kissoon, 2015)
- Who are the Gurkhas (BBC News, 2010)
- Himalaya with Michael Palin (BBC, 2004), Episode 3: Annapurna to Everest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50pVKPRFWAE
5.0 References & Bibliography
Arney, J.E. (2014) Recruit Intake 15 – Advertising. Parbate: The Magazine for Gurkha Soldiers and their Families. April-May 2014. 66(1), pp.6.
BBC (2004) Himalaya with Michael Palin, Episode 3: Annapurna to Everest. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50pVKPRFWAE. [Accessed: 26 October, 2015].
BBC News (2010) Who Are The Gurkhas? Available from World Wide Web: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10782099. [Accessed: 01 October, 2015].
Blackhurst, R. (2014) The Race To Be A Gurkha. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/10677559/The-race-to-be-a-Gurkha.html. [Accessed: 01 October, 2015].
British Army (2015) Gurkhas. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.army.mod.uk/gurkhas/27898/aspx. [Accessed: 01 November, 2015].
Central Bureau of Statistics (2014) Population Atlas of Nepal, 2014: Chapter 2: Population Dynamics. Available from World Wide Web: http://cbs.gov.np/atlas/tables.html?chapter=2&table=2.1. [Accessed: 26 October, 2015].
Clapson, J. (2015) Doko to Drill Square. Soldier: Magazine of the British Army. February 2015, pp.24-28.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (2015) East India Company. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.britannica.com/topic/East-India-Company. [Accessed: 26 October, 2015].
Gee, D. (2007) Informed Choice? Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the United Kingdom. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.informedchoice.org.uk/informedchoice/informedchoiceweb.pdf. [Accessed: 04 January, 2014].
Kissoon, R. (2015) Time To End Gurkha Recruitment in the British Army. Available from World Wide Web: http://dissidentvoice.org/2015/07/time-to-end-gurkha-recruitment-in-the-british-army/. [Accessed: 01 October, 2015].
Parabte. (2014) The First Gurkha Soldier to be Commissioned as a Direct Entry Officer into the RGR. Parbate: The Magazine for Gurkha Soldiers and their Families. April-May 2014. 66(1), pp.17.
Parbate (2015) Did You Know? Parbate The Magazine for Gurkha Soldiers and their Families. Gurkha 200: Special Edition, pp.23.
Prater, C. (2014) Recruitment for the Brigade of Gurkhas. Available from World Wide Web: http://forces.tv/82383445. [Accessed: 30 October, 2015].
Rathaur, K.R.S. (2001) British Gurkha Recruitment: A Historical Perspective. Voice of History. December 2001. 16(2), pp.19-24.
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