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Britain’s legendary Gurkhas join quake rescue effort in Nepalese homeland

Prakash Matema, AFP | Gurkha band members mark 200 years of service in the British Army in Kathmandu on March 26, 2015
3 min

The British Army’s legendary Nepalese battalion has been deployed to Kathmandu to help recovery efforts after the devastating earthquake that has wrecked their homeland.

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A military transport plane laden with supplies and dozens of Gurkha soldiers took off from a British air base on Monday headed for their homeland. The Boeing C-17 transport plane carried more than 1,100 shelter kits, including plastic sheeting and rope, and 1,700 solar lanterns.

The Gurkhas are soldiers from Nepal who serve in the British Army. They are renowned for their ferocity, loyalty and razor-sharp fighting knives, known as kukris. Their historic homeland, Nepal’s Gorkha district, is among the areas worst hit by the devastating earthquake that officials say may have killed up to 10,000 people.

Army sources said the troops from the Kent-based Queen’s Gurkha Engineers would join other service members permanently based at the brigade’s HQ in Kathmandu. "They speak the lingo and they have everything they need, from infantry to engineers, within the brigade," a Defence Ministry source told the Daily Telegraph.

Another Gurkha detachment was on Mount Everest when the earthquake struck and has been helping recovery efforts on the mountain, where quake-triggered avalanches killed at least 18 climbers and left dozens more stranded. The Gurkhas were hoping to reach the summit to mark the 200th anniversary of their unit's service in the British Army.

200 years serving the British Crown

Britain’s association with the fearless Nepalese warriors goes back to the 1814-6 Gorkha War, which pitted the British East India Company against Nepal’s Gorkha kingdom. The British were so impressed with the Gorkhali soldiers, whom they called Gurkhas, that they decided to recruit them.

Victorian Britain regarded the Gurkhas as a martial race, naturally warlike and possessed of courage, loyalty and resilience. To this day, they are a source of pride in their home country. Each year, some 28,000 Nepali youths take part in a grueling selection process. Only 200 make it into the unit.

The Gurkhas fought in all theatres of World War I, including Gallipoli, Persia and the campaigns of Lawrence of Arabia. They played an even larger role in the following war, fighting in Syria, North Africa, Italy, Greece, Burma and Singapore. The Nepalese fighters excelled in jungle warfare against the Japanese, earning 2,734 bravery awards and suffering around 32,000 casualties.

Today, Gurkhas serving in the British army number just 3,500. Their fate after retirement has been the subject of controversy in recent years. In the past, those who served a maximum of 30 years in the army were discharged back to Nepal. But after a high-profile campaign in 2013 they won the right to stay in the UK and enjoy equal pension rights with other army personnel.

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