Tales of courage and suffering

For over two centuries now, Nepal’s real 'frontline workers’ have been its soldiers who fought and sacrificed their lives in foreign soil for countries other than their own. 

The tradition continues, and is upheld by the Gurkha reputation for courage and ability to survive any hardship that is promoted in literature and art. 

Till the Malla period, it was unheard of for Nepalis to fight in foreign armies. In fact, it was the other way around: Kathmandu’s kings 300 years ago used to recruit soldiers from Telangana in South India and Afghanistan.

It was only during the Anglo-Nepal war (1814-1816) that Nepalis started fighting beyond the country’s borders. Balbhadra Kunwar, who famously thwarted the siege of Nalapani Fort, joined the army of the Sikh maharaja Ranjit Singh. 

Even before the Sugauli Treaty ended the war, the British were already recruiting Nepali soldiers for the ‘Nasiri Paltan’ to fight against defending fellow-Nepalis. This went on to become the first-ever Gurkha brigade. Then on, ‘Gurkha’ soldiers have been fighting in many wars in different parts of the world to this day.

Gurkha valour has always been interwoven with pain and death. But we do not hear much of that because most Nepali soldiers in those days could not write, and there are few testimonies of what they went through. 

It is only recently that censored letters by Nepali soldiers archived in Europe have thrown light on the pain and suffering in the trench warfare of France and Belgium, and prisoner of war camps in Germany, during World War I.

A diary written by a Gurkha sergeant during the battle of La Bassée in northern France in 1914, and retrieved from his body by a German officer, Lt Alexander Pfeifer, has recently come to light.

Just within the first five days of the start of World War I in July 1914, more than 15,000 British soldiers had been killed. Reinforcements arrived from British India, and among them were about 20,000 Gurkhas. Six hundred Nepali men were killed on a single day on 30 October 1914 in La Bassée.

Many of the censored letters and diaries of Gurkha soldiers at the British Library and Museum give us an indication of their suffering in the battlefield. Because they did not fit the narrative of Gurkha ‘bravery’ and would have affected morale, the letters were censored and never received by their families in Nepal.

These testimonies were a part of the dissertation of Nepali historian Pratyoush Onta, who painstakingly transcribed the letters in the 1990s. They describe the incredible courage, but also the pain, homesickness, and the insufferable wet cold of the trenches during the European winter.

Selected excerpts:

Worry about me.This war is fierce. Five of my friends from the Fourth Double Company have been killed. From the Second Company, one-third of the soldiers have lost their lives. The Gurkha Regiment has suffered a huge loss. And for those of us who are still alive, the chances of survival look slim. 

• • •

 On 19 May 1914 at five in the morning, our Fourth Double Company was attacked. We were 400 feet away from the German trench. We loaded our rifles with bullets, and stuck khukris in our mouths and went over the top.  Of all the wars that I have ever fought in, this is the most ferocious. Many from my company were killed, but we were able to capture the German trench. Because I was shot in my right elbow, I couldn’t move ahead with my company. By god’s grace the bullet didn’t pierce my bones. I am now in London and recovering. I will soon return to France and fight a good war with those Germans and kill them, because they aren’t human. They use poison gas to win a war. 

• • •

 You have been asking me about this place. This is like the fire and the frying pan. When I return home, we can talk about this. I will give you all the details, but I cannot promise you if that day will ever come. 

I could have written about the conditions here, but we are not allowed to share details. Many of our letters are opened and are censored. If we write anything against the orders given, the one who has written the letter will be punished severely. Dear brother, you must be going through a difficult time in your battlefield, but I understand. We are also suffering the same anguish. Brother, it rains a lot here and it is muddy. It is extremely cold, too. 

• • •

I took part in an attack on a German trench in August. I was injured and had little sense of what was happening. I was taken prisoner by the Germans and sent off to their country. They cut my leg in the prisoners’ camp. I was then hospitalised for two months in Germany and later sent to Britain. They have now received orders to send me to India.

• • •

This is your brother Bahadur Pun, sending you my greetings. If you have three or four rupees, please send it to me. Along with that, if possible, please send some food, something to drink and some clothes. Dhaniram Pun and I are now prisoners of war in Germany.

• • •

My mother often said, ‘Leave your job, son, and come back home. Work in your own country, or you will suffer’. I wish I had listened to her. Now when I think of it, my heart fills with regret.

सिपाहीको दु:ख, episode 1 of the tv magazine program Saglo Samaj

When the Germans realised that the British POWs spoke so many languages, they took this as an opportunity for linguistic research. They recorded the experiences of the Gurkha prisoners through their songs and folklore. 

Nepali researcher Alka Atreya Chudal at Vienna University has been given access to some of this material that includes early sound recordings of the Gurkha prisoners in Germany. Going through the archives at Berlin’s Humboldt Museum, Chudal found songs by Gurkha POW Jas Bahadur Rai that were recorded in 1915. 

Rai died seven months later, and his gravestone in a cemetery outside Berlin preserves the date: 3 January 1917. Although this was a model prison that the Germans used to show international inspectors, many Nepali prisoners succumbed to tuberculosis in winter.  

“Jas Bahadur missed home, his songs and writings are a testimony to that, and more than 100 years later they have inspired me to do further research on the Gurkhas and their never-told tales of suffering,” Chudal says.

There is a possibility that the writings and items belonging to Nepal’s soldiers recovered from Europe’s battlefields will finally be returned to their homeland. With them, we will learn about the other side of the Gurkha saga — the stories of yearning, pain beyond measure, of loves and lives lost.  

Based on the first episode of Saglo Samaj, a tv magazine program produced by Himalmedia which is broadcast every Monday, at 8:30 pm on Dish Home Channel 130.