Gurkhas will open their ranks to women for the first time

Better to die than be a coward’ is the motto of the fearsome Nepalese Gurkha soldiers.

They were first recruited by Britain in 1815 to ensure that they did not fight for Nepal, with which the British East India Company was then at war.

A hasty peace deal had just been signed after the Company suffered heavy casualties during the invasion of Nepal. This allowed it to recruit from the ranks of the former enemy.

When the East India Company’s forces mutinied in 1857 the loyalty of the Gurkhas made them central to British rule. They policed India’s northern hills with their tactical skills and were expected to continue serving for India when the country secured its independence in 1947.

It made religious sense because Nepal was officially Hindu and would also have allowed Nepalis to easily return home on leave.

However, following the partition of India, an agreement between Nepal, India and Britain meant four Gurkha regiments from the Indian army were transferred to the British Army, eventually becoming the Gurkha Brigade.  

The name ‘Gurkha’ comes from the hill town of Gorkha from which the Nepalese kingdom had expanded.

The brigade has always been dominated by four ethnic groups – the Gurungs and Magars from central Nepal, the Rais from the north-east and Limbus from the east. The latter live in villages of impoverished hill farmers.

More than 200,000 Gurkha soldiers went on to serve in the British Army in the two world wars – with 43,000 losing their lives.

Over the past 50 years they have served in Malaysia and Borneo – from 1948 to 1967 – Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo and Hong Kong.

More recently, Gurkhas have served in Iraq and Afghanistan – including serving with Prince Harry, who worked as a forward air controller with the Royal Gurkha rifles in 2007-8.