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Return of the Gurkhas

Iraq is nothing new for one of Britain's most feared brigades.

11:00 AM, Apr 8, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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YOU WOULDN'T WANT to be a defender of Saddam's regime right about now. Not only is the country teeming with coalition regulars, but also a vast and deadly array of the world's elite special forces. We're not just talking about the Green Berets. There's the Delta Force, Navy SEALs, and the Nightstalkers. And don't forget Australia's Tactical Assault Group (TAG), Poland's GROM, and of course the British SAS and the Gurkhas.

For some, like the GROM ("thunder" in Polish) commandos, it is history in the making. This is their first time in Iraq and thus far they have helped secure Umm Qasr and are advancing towards Baghdad (if not there already). Yet for others, it is a matter of "been there, done that." Such is the case for the Gurkhas, those Nepalese warriors who have been serving with the British military since 1815 and whose glorious past I've covered before.

This time, elements of the Royal Gurkha Rifles took part in Operation Telic--the British military buildup in the Middle East. Gurkhas are now guarding the port at Umm Qasr, armed with rifles and 13-inch kukri knives--a blade supposedly sharp enough to decapitate you in a single swipe. Meanwhile, Laurie Goering, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, spotted 92 Gurkhas "busy wielding circular saws, turning plywood and two-by-fours into latrine shelters."

Clearly, no job is too small for them. Or too big. One Gurkha company is attached to the 1st Royal Irish regiment currently in Basra, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins. (Collins is fast becoming a modern-day Patton. In a recent speech to his troops he said, "If someone surrenders to you, remember they have the right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family. The ones who wish to fight, we aim to please." As a Gurkha commander, Collins also gets to carry the kukri knife.)

ALMOST 90 YEARS AGO, the Gurkhas were marching in the very same deserts as they are in today (Iraq was still called Mesopotamia). It was the height of World War I and the Gurkhas were fighting on the side of the British Empire against the Ottomans. Though the Middle East theater of operations was not quite as important as the European one, it was still of strategic importance. Fearing a Turkish advance that would disrupt the oil flow from the Gulf (though oil wouldn't be discovered in Iraq itself until 1927), Britain sent an army to secure the southern city of Basra.

Basra fell in November 1914 and the 2/7th Gurkha Rifles, under the command of Major-General Charles Townshend, helped capture more than 2,000 Turks in 4 days--despite being vastly outnumbered. But the British feared a counter-offensive and sent the 2/7th up the Euphrates to Nasiriyah. According to E.D. Smith's "Valour: A History of the Gurkhas," the 2/7th "looked forward to the approaching battle; we were confident. . . . With drawn kukris the Gurkhas leapt the parapet into the trench. . . . An eyewitness wrote that 'the appearance of the men was striking; they looked conquerors every inch, ready for everything.'" The 2/7th were victorious--marking the first major battle honor for the Gurkha Rifles, commemorated as a regimental holiday called Nasiriyah Day.

But Britain's War Cabinet, confident in its army's superiority, ordered Townshend to proceed towards Baghdad despite overextended supply lines. Disaster struck on November 21, 1915, as General Townshend led an assault with a force of 13,000 men against 18,000 enemy troops. Near the ancient Arch of Ctesiphon, some 400 Gurkhas held off thousands of Turks for hours before falling back on the orders of Townshend, whose other units were being obliterated. In eight days, the British retreated a distance of 80 miles--regarded by many as one of the most grueling retreats in the Empire's history. The British soldiers eventually settled in Kut, a town, according to E.D. Smith, that "had little or no sanitation and was filthy beyond description."

Another relief force was sent to rescue Townshend's 10,000 men holed-up in Kut, but they were repelled by a larger number of defending Turks. The British suffered more than 20,000 additional casualties in this futile rescue attempt. On April 29, 1916, Townshend could no longer hold off the enemy and was forced to surrender. The Gurkhas were sent to POW camps and, according to Smith, "won the respect of the Turks and the Germans because, although separated from their officers, the NCOs ran the battalion on normal regimental lines and thus discipline was maintained." Smith also goes on to say "the Turks were not cruel by deliberate intent but showed a complete lack of interest in the fate of their captives, and such an attitude was to cause thousands of deaths."