This is a gentle rant on behalf of the Gurkhas. By Gurkhas, I mean of course those brave and indomitable soldiers from the hills of Nepal who since 1815 have served the British Crown.
And the reasons I'm having this rant are fourfold: because once again the Gurkhas are under the Government's knife for cuts, along with other units in the British Army's Order of Battle; because Gurkhas are probably the most cost-effective units within the British Army so it makes no sense; because they are the most disciplined troops in any army, which makes them the best possible soldiers; and because I once was a British Officer in a Gurkha regiment so feel the proposed cuts in a personal way.
I was with some of the Gurkha and British officers from 1st Royal Gurkha Rifles (1 RGR) the other night in The Sherlock Holmes pub close to Northumberland Avenue. It was the "Gurkhas in London" gathering. Of the four Gurkha regiments (and eight battalions) that survived the Partition of India in 1947, there remains only one today, The Royal Gurkha Rifles and this has only two battalions. The RGR are the last vessel of the accumulated history of Gurkha service to the Crown. It was the officers of 1 RGR who were there last night since the train ride from Shorncliffe is relatively simple and since 2 RGR is back in Brunei after yet another tour in Afghanistan; but I learned last night that 1 RGR is about to start training to go back to Afghanistan once more in October. This will be the RGR's eleventh deployment to Afghanistan.
So, the British Army is overstretched yet the Government is cutting its Order of Battle. I shall not try to untangle the illogical thought processes that drive the policy branches of the MOD to such pronouncements, which within months often have to be countermanded because our Government has yet again committed our forces to overseas military action and there aren't enough troops to go round! But the cuts are going ahead and the Gurkhas must take their share. This, many would argue, is only fair. I agree with this because I am a dedicated believer in the need to retain the regimental structure of the British Army, but I disagree with it on the grounds of value-for-money within the Defence Budget and the wider issues of employability of military ground forces.
In all the Defence cuts I've been involved in, one of the key issues has been the sustainability of the regiments or units under the knife, and by sustainability I mean effective manning levels and the ability to recruit and train new soldiers against the actual (and often alarming) wastage rates. Some British regiments and units cannot recruit or keep their soldiers. It is an inescapable fact. During training the wastage is high. Once trained, the struggle is on to retain soldiers in service against the temptations of outside "civilian" society, the thought of repeated operational tours and the "pull" of family to leave. The Army's manpower drains away at alarming statistical rates. The regiments and units are still great and their men and women superb at their jobs and brave as anything. But their sustainability is always a struggle, which is why few today have escaped amalgamation.
In the case of the Gurkhas amalgamation has always been forced on them. Gurkha units can recruit and retain their men. For every place on a Gurkha recruit training intake at the Depot in Pokhara, Western Nepal, there are many hundreds of applicants. In my day these young men could not read or write and some had never seen a football! Today these young Gurkhas are educated, have taught themselves some English and are familiar with rudimentary IT skills. More importantly they have the essential DNA that makes Gurkhas such great soldiers: the will to learn, discipline and the fear of failure. Once in service, Gurkhas will almost always serve the full term of their engagement. When Northern Ireland was the main draw on the British Army's manpower, Gurkhas could not serve there. Today, HMG's foreign policy is such that Gurkhas can serve everywhere - and they want to. They adapt quickly, accept the conditions, want for little, do not complain and fight ferociously. Most importantly of all, they never want to leave the British Army. They quite literally have to be retired when their due date arrives. Finally, they cost less than the comparable British soldier.
There should be more Gurkhas in the British Army, not less.
Chris Darnell has written about the Gurkhas in "So You Want To Be A Gurkha", published by Endeavour Press. Chris Darnell served as a Gurkha until 1979, when he transferred to The King's Own Scottish Borderers.