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Notes on visiting Gurkhas

Having spent the past 18 months doing research on Commonwealth soldiers in the army, I thought it was time to try and explain what I’ve been up to. It’s been a strange and haunting journey involving many train rides, the odd plane, and countless lifts from army drivers who have been instructed to pick me up at stations and take me into the guarded enclaves of different bases.

These are some extracts from my notes after visiting a Gurkha regiment in Folkestone at the end of November this year. I have been investigating their processes of recruitment and training in order to find out how their experiences contrast with what happens to soldiers recruited from Commonwealth countries straight into the British Army. The main difference is that the Gurkha recruits (230 a year) are selected in Nepal each year, brought to the garrison town of Catterick in Yorkshire, and trained over nine months in separate quarters. They don’t mix with the infantry recruits at the Infantry Training Centre which is on the same premises. I had been there earlier in the year and interviewed young men (women can’t join the infantry – yet) from St Vincent, Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, New Zealand, South Africa and Fiji, all of whom are totally integrated into the normal British Army and live and train alongside UK counterparts.

One of my missions on this trip to the regimental HQ was to talk to a young Gurkha recruit (18) whom I had met in August. I also wanted to see how the Nepalese community operated in Folkestone, and what the liaison was like between the army welfare and the families – again for the purposes of comparison.

So these are just some notes – I’ve picked out some observations on the way the army views ‘culture’ and how it is mobilised in military terms.

I was dropped off at the Adjt’s office where I found Cpt A. (British – as are the higher echelons). I was made to feel more like a Visitor than anywhere else I’d been. He explained that they were desperately busy, getting ready to deploy in a few months time. Lots of people were on training exercises. I asked what they did to prepare and he said ‘basically learning the culture and how to shoot straight.’ So they would be ready to hit the ground running (so that’s where that comes from) when they arrived. The training was so hectic it was a relief when they actually set off.

I asked him how long he had been in the army and why he had chosen the Gurkhas. He was prob in his 30s. He had decided to be a Gurkha officer when he was 17, having won an army scholarship to Sandhurst. As soon as he met them he made up his mind: ‘I had found the soldiers I wanted to command’ he told me.

What makes Gurkhas Gurkhas, he said, is that they maintain their cultural identity. We find it important to making them as good as they are, their strengths inherent from Nepal. We appreciate and respect their cultural sensibilities. For example  - he reached for a publication which has a section on cultural guidelines – their family background helps them grieve appropriately.  The eldest son has to go back to Nepal – he points to a list of do’s and don’t’s. I notice that whistling indoors is forbidden in Nepalese culture as it is a way of calling ghosts. 

He comes back to this point again: What makes Gurkhas strong and the cohesion work is the fact that we want them to maintain their cultural links back to Nepal. We don’t want to turn them into British individuals!

The army really isn’t a reflection of society. The 3000 Gurkhas are not a reflection of society in Nepal. They are handpicked, 230 out of 17,000, each year.

Cpt D (who was Nepalese) was hovering as he was going to escort me for a while until he had to drive up to Yorkshire. His phone kept going, and he would answer in Nepalese although he would switch to English at certain points in the conversation. He explained to me that English is used to discuss rules and regulations as they don’t have the same terms in Nepalese. ‘You have to use English for official things or people will say they haven’t understood’. The regiment had recently moved from Brunei so there were many issues to do with families and relocation. Some of the boys are tricky, he said, shaking his head.

D takes me to the Gurkha wives coffee morning, held in a community centre in one of five housing estates designated as married service accommodation. On the way we talk about many things and I ask him whether the families have much interaction with Brits. There is some, he says, and since the two Gurkha regiments move between Brunei and Folkestone every three years, many of them have friends and contacts in both places. There’s also a big retired community in Kent.

‘We are from a Third World country,’ he says. ‘We always have had disasters and we are used to helping each other through difficult times.’ The implication being that the people of Folkestone didn’t have the same understanding of community as nothing bad really happens to them.

The coffee morning is really well attended, and at least ten women come to sit with me, including the Gurkha Major’s wife who is the most senior. The room is full of women and small children, and they explain that a lot of other wives are working: teaching assistants, carers, nurses, housekeepers, secretaries…later I see several working in the cookhouse where the soldiers eat. D tells me that the women without kids are encouraged to work as the soldiers’ pay isn’t that much – although they have the same terms and conditions as British soldiers.

The women emphasise all the time how strong their bond is between them, and how they look after each other, especially when the men are away. ‘Our community is very strong. As long as we are in the army we have no serious problems’

It’s the first time I’ve been to an army wives coffee morning attended by more than 5 people. I try to find out more about their disco nights and whether they do army fitness exercises like the wives I met in the Irish Guards.

It’s still only 11.30 and its time to move on. I meet the Pandit, the Hindu spiritual adviser who is trying to organise Nepalese writing and reading classes for the kids.

D again stresses how community becomes strong, how important this is on operations. This connects very strongly with things I had encountered talking to Commonwealth soldiers. Ie the situation for families was really important in making soldiers able to concentrate when they were at work. I kept thinking about the young Gambian woman I had met in Windsor who sits indoors all the time waiting for her visa to be changed to allow her to work. She has been in the UK since Feb, but doesn’t have any friends or do anything outside the house other than take her 5yr-old son to school 2 minutes away. Her husband brings his friends over, all Commonwealth, but she won’t attend any of the classes or socialise with other wives on the estate – most of whom are British or Irish.

At the end of my visit, four hours later, I get to see the recruit I had met a few weeks earlier. He is attending a first aid lesson and seems happy to slip out to talk to me. There is not a whole lot to talk about as he is so new, and his English is not that strong. That’s not surprising as he doesn’t get much chance to practice. He has booked his ticket to go home over Christmas (they have 2 weeks leave) and then in April it’s off to Afghanistan. He last saw his family a year ago. He’s not enjoying the single accommodation very much as he feels lonely. As a recruit it was 10 to a room.

Later the NCO looking after me explains that they have to act as parents to the young soldiers. Even if they were married, they couldn’t bring their families over for three years. He also says that things have changed a lot since he first joined. The younger ones have the same terms and conditions as Brits now, so although they are not supposed to drink they are allowed into the town at weekends (in the day time) and don’t have to go to bed early.

Alcohol is a huge issue in distancing British from Commonwealth soldiers. Not just creating divisions between those who drink and those who don’t, but ways of drinking and behaviour when drunk.

We drive back to the station passing shops called Pokhara Travel, Everest cash and carry, Gurkha Convenience Store.