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10 things no one tells you before you join the British Gurkhas by Johnny Fenn

Last year, we celebrated two hundred years of Gurkha service to the British Crown. Serving loyally and bravely in many conflicts around the world, Gurkha soldiers are a key part of the British Army. And I should know, as I was one myself. I served with the Brigade of Gurkhas from 1998 to 2012, and my new book, Light & Life in the Middle Hills, documents the land, the lives and the experiences of Nepal's inhabitants through a lens. There is always more to be learned about the Gurkhas. Even now, when soldiers from 2nd Battalion, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, are on operational duty in Afghanistan, many don't know some of the most interesting facts about this incredible institution.

1.  We used to be Enemies

Until 200 years ago, the British were at war with Nepal in the Anglo-Nepal wars. However, we joined forces after being so impressed with the fighting spirit of Nepalese hill-soldiers of Nepal. All Gurkhas, to this day, live an incredibly austere life before they sign up. And this hardiness, from living in the Himalayan homelands, is key to what makes these soldiers key members of the British Army.

2.  You should never try to 'out-robust' a Gurkha

Gurkhas have grown up in an extremely difficult environment in the hills of Nepal and, as a result, their bodies are simply on a different plane to our own. There is an annual race across the South Downs called the Trailwalker 100km, and the quickest a British team can hope to complete it in is around 12 or 13 hours. Gurkhas, who win it every year, can do it in 8 and a half. As I said, robust.

3.  Gurkhas have Special Weaponry

We each get given a special type of knife, or 'Khukuri', when we join the Gurkhas. These knifes are incredibly sharp - and Gurkhas use them for everything. I first realised how handy my Khukuri was when I used it to hack through the jungles of Borneo - but most of the Nepalese Gurkhas have grown up sharpening sticks and killing animals with their Khukuris. Some of the hardest earned Gurkha Victoria Crosses (of which there are many!) could not have been won without the aid of the trusty Khukuri.  One thing's for sure, you don't want to be the enemy when the Khukuris are out of their sheaths!

4.  All Gurkhas can speak fluent Nepalese - even the Britons

Even as a junior officer, I spoke Nepalese - as the British recruits get sent on a three month course to learn the language. Due to the tribal nature of Nepal, Nepali is usually the second language of most Nepalese Gurkhas after their main caste language. But they can also speak English, and probably Hindi as well. So most Nepalese Gurkhas, as well as being extremely skilled in combat and survival techniques, are also fluent in at least four languages.

5.  Gurkhas are Incredible Hosts

As well as being fearsome fighters, Gurkhas are also incredible hosts. They really are desperate to make sure that you never, ever go without. It would be unusual for a British Gurkha Officer - who is also known as a Saheb - or another guest of the Nepalese soldiers to ever get to the bottom of their glass before it is refilled. Sometimes I didn't even notice my glass being topped up!

6.  There are Frequent Animal Sacrifices

As Gurkhas are usually Hindu, or Buddhist, or occasionally both, religion is very important. And, part of that religiosity is the sacrificing of animals. I was aware that this was going to happen, but the first time I saw a sacrifice I was a little shocked. We were all sitting in a line, both British and Nepalese Gurkhas, all wearing suits and all drinking beer out of silver goblets. Then, one of the junior Gurkha soldiers stood up, walked over to a post to which goats were tied, and cut off their heads with his Khukuri.  There was blood everywhere. And then he walked the head - which was still blinking - around the post three times to complete the ritual. It was, as you can imagine, a little surreal.

7.  The Queen has two personal Gurkha officers

There are two Gurkha officers who directly attend official state and key events with the Queen. They are called the Queen's Gurkha Orderly Officers, and they've been present at all state affairs since the Gurkha's introduction during Queen Victoria's reign. They are appointed as Members of the Royal Victorian Order, or MVO, on relinquishing the appointment - a little-known and very rare post-nominal abbreviation!

8. There are Gurkha Engineers and Logisticians

Although Gurkhas are most commonly associated with the Infantry, the British Army also has Gurkha Engineers, Signallers, and Logisticians. All Gurkhas train for 39 weeks after coming over from Nepal, so those who go into specialist trades have an extra 29 weeks under their belts than regular British specialists, who only do 10 weeks infantry training before specialising.  And this can come in very helpful. In 2003, I was in command of a Gurkha Logistics Regiment in Iraq. We finished the task we were deployed to do in six months but, because these men had done the full 39-week infantry training, we could stay on for an extra four months to quell the fuel riots in Basra. A British regiment couldn't have done that.

9.  Gurkhas can Eat a Huge amount of Rice

Most meals are still based on the Nepalese 'Dal Bhat' - a national rice and lentil soup - which is accompanied by intensely hot chillis which are eaten raw - the effects of which can be very amusing, if a little painful! The first time I was out in Brunei, we had just finished playing basketball with some locals and the Gurkhas started up a barbecue. I ate a huge amount of chicken legs and pork, and was stuffed, but then realised that the barbecue had only been the first course, and that there was a massive curry to come! But it would've been considered rude not to have seconds! Almost all Gurkhas are good butchers.  Do not befriend the goat that has been brought into the lines by one of the Gurkhas.  He is not - like the Royal Welch - the new mascot.  He is the accompaniment to the rice and chillis!

10.  Gurkha Selection is Tougher than Selection for British Soldiers

It is well known that selection for the Parachute Regiment or the Royal Marines is very tough but, if a Nepalese man wants to join the Gurkhas, they have to go through a process before they even get to come to Britain - and only 200 are selected at the end of each cycle. And this process is very tough, and it culminates in the fearful 'Doko race' - a 5 mile run, uphill, where the soldiers have to carry 25 kilograms in a basket on their backs that is attached only by a head-strap. So they must find basic training in Britain much easier than most of us! In fact, it is incredibly rare for a Gurkha to fail basic training in Britain, whereas a percentage of Britons fail every time. Five years ago, one Gurkha broke his leg, so he had to finish his training alongside the Coldstream Guards - and he ended up finishing top of that group. So let me finish with a quote from Sir Ralph Turner MC; a Gurkha Officer during the First World War:  “Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you.”

- Johnny Fenn & SOURCE
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