WARRIORS AND GENTLEMEN
They are called the bravest of the brave. Gurkhas! For 200 years these Nepalese elite soldiers have been fighting for the British Crown. Photographer Alex Schlacher accompanied these silent warriors for two and a half years. By Urs Gehriger (text) and Alex Schlacher (pictures).
They are short and lean in stature, barely twenty years old, they have jet black hair, a dignified presence and skin the tone of pale golden rum. Just a few weeks ago, they were living in the mountains and valleys of Nepal with their families, who are sometimes so poor they can barely make a living. Now they are lined up in the barracks courtyard at Catterick, North England, dressed in white tae kwon do uniforms, letting out martial screams while they kick their right legs upwards towards an overcast sky.
Each one of these 127 (sic!) recruits has prevailed against 10.000 applicants in the toughest military recruitment event in the world.
They have completed five weeks of training, 34 are still to go before they are officially proud members of the world’s most legendary elite unit.
Inconspicuous among the recruits is Alex, dressed in black, carrying a heavy backpack, camera in hand. The slender photographer with a man’s name is the only woman in the courtyard. She slips in and out of the rows of soldiers like a cat, aims her camera, focuses, repositions herself, attentive, discreet, always in the background, always with her finger on the shutter.
Alex Schlacher has been running with the Gurkhas for two and a half years, traveling from Nepal to Catterick, to Afghanistan, Australia and Kenia, among others. She has visited every regiment of the Brigade as well as veterans and medical discharges. She has taken hundreds of portraits and has written down their stories, which she has now compiled into a book. It’s called “Arc of the Gurkha” and it is published and available to buy at the end of the year, right on time for the Gurkha’s 200-year service anniversary in the British Army.
A vast number of magazine articles and books have been written about the heroic deeds and death-defying courage of these mysterious warriors, but none of them come as close to the truth of their phenomenon as Alex Schlacher’s documentary book.
Never before did a civilian, let alone a woman, get as much access to the Gurkhas.
With patience and sensitivity, the Austrian photographer has managed to gain the trust of a group of warriors who only rarely reveal details about their work and their lives.
Schlacher says: “I want to show the human face behind the myth of the fierce warrior”.
Since 1815, the Gurkhas have counted as among the most brilliant fighters in the British Army. Almost half a million of them fought in the two World Wars alone, charged the rocks of Gallipoli and the fortress of Tobruk and made it up the Monte Cassino incline.
To this day, their reputation makes their enemies’ blood run cold. And there is scarcely a weapon surrounded by so many legends as the khukri – part knife, part machete – that Gurkhas were said to use to cut their adversaries’ heads off.
The British-Nepalese alliance found its beginnings after the British offensive on India at the beginning of the 19th century. Soldiers of the British East-India Company were pushing north through the entire Indian subcontinent. As they approached the Himalayas, it looked like the conquest of the kingdom of Gorkha (which was spread out across the area that is Nepal today) was going to be a walk in the park. They were wrong. The British didn’t understand that the warriors from the mountains considered combat to be a kind of sport.
“I’ve never experienced a more reliable and courageous spirit in my life”, wrote a British Officer involved in the battles in his diary. “Not one of them tried to flee and they did not seem to be afraid of dying at all despite their colleagues falling all around them.” The admiration was mutual. “The British fought like lions”, said the then commander of the Nepalese, “they are almost as good as us”.
The British paid for the victory at the battle of Khalanga (1815) with blood, but they gained an ally whose competence is invaluable.
The first time Alex Schlacher met the Gurkhas was in 2011, in Helmand Province, south Afghanistan. Initially embedded with US Marines, she was immediately impressed by the culture and dignity of the Nepalese elite soldiers. To her surprise, the commander of the Gurkhas’ 2nd infantry battalion spontaneously invited her to accompany his troops on patrols and checkpoint visits. “The Gurkhas took me in like a lost child”, she says.
Schlacher remained with the Gurkhas for the remainder of her stay in Afghanistan. They have been her entire life since.
A rare photograph shows her clad in uniform, wearing camouflage, in the Brunei jungle (see table of contents page 3). “When you overnight on the ground with them and are dirty and smelly together, it’s definitely a bonding experience.” Schlacher participated in the exercises, carried her own backpack, shared the Gurkhas’ food and slept among them in the jungle. Since then, they’ve been calling her “Didi” – big sister in Nepali – a sign of respect and affection.
Alex Schlacher’s photographic arc of a Gurkha life starts where each Gurkha career begins: with the recruitment. Boys who want to join the British Army’s elite unit have to overcome a number of tests. For example 70 sit-ups inside of 2 minutes, pull-ups as well as an 800 meter sprint, which for some recruits proves to be a bit of a challenge. A number of applicants, raised in very mountainous territory, are on record admitting to having a hard time running on even ground. The hardest test of the recruitment period however is a 5k-run called the Doko race, carrying 25 kilograms of sand in a basket on one’s back and running up a steep hill. The weight is the rough equivalent of what a Gurkha infantry soldier might have to carry in combat. The Doko race is called the mother of all fitness tests.
The Gurkhas are very far away from being infantry cannon fodder. Only the brightest of the candidates make it into the elite brigade. Advanced knowledge of maths are part of the exam requirements as well as a good working knowledge of English. The applicants even have to write an essay. At the recruitment event last December, the subject was: “Describe the political problems in Nepal”.
Some of those who don’t make it into the British Army, and that is 99% of all applicants, are hesitant to return to their homes, too embarrassed and disappointed to face their families. There are even stories of boys committing suicide, too desperate to go on living with their failure. The ones that are accepted do not see their families again for up to three years.
A Gurkha’s farewell from his home is as important an event to a family as a wedding or a funeral. Now the new recruits board an airplane, some for the first time, and are flown to Catterick, UK for their basic training.
“A Gurkha isn’t born a Gurkha”, says the OC Gurkha Company, Major Rupert Anderson, responsible for basic training. “This place is a factory. Here, Nepali boys are turned into Gurkhas.” Due to the differences in language and culture, their basic training is longer than a typical British soldier’s. Conversely the Gurkhas are fitter and need less vocal reinforcement and imposed motivation than any soldier in the world. The Gurkha section commanders barely raise their voices to the recruits. Nepalese people are very sensitive to yelling and harsh words. A simple, quietly spoken order is enough and the recruits scatter in all directions like sparks from an exploding star.
Alex Schlacher has gauged from countless conversations that most of those feared warriors have a soft core. She has talked to them about their families and also about combat trauma – something the traditionally taciturn Gurkhas rarely speak of. Time and again she heard stories that left her speechless. “The father of one of the recruits had three families. Instead of caring for them, he married a fourth wife. With his starting salary of only 900 British Pounds per month, this baby Gurkha is now trying to support his entire family.
For civilians, the biggest mystery is how these sensitive, friendly people turn into formidable and feared warriors. “The Gurkhas are a strange bunch”, says a former British Officer in Command in the Gurkhas. “They are relaxed, happy and easygoing, but in the blink of an eye, these men turn into the most dangerous, awesome fighters in the world.”
One of the reasons for their hard and persistent nature is their geographical origin. Nepal is spectacularly beautiful but extremely poor. With an average income of 692 dollars per person per year, Nepal is among the 20 poorest countries in the world. Here, earthquakes, landslides, hail storms and floods can ruin an entire existence and there is no welfare state stepping up to save them. This produces a fatalistic people.
An additional reason for their toughness is the Nepalese tradition. Gurkhas stem from a hierarchical society, where the respect for elders is key. “We inherit our ancestor’s courage, we are rarely ever afraid and are driven by a belief in being able to accomplish everything” says Captain Kamal Khapung, Training Officer in Catterick. “A Gurkha will rather die in battle than live a coward.”
Asked how Alex Schlacher managed to gain the Gurkhas’ trust, Captain Khapung says: “We accept Alex as one of us because she does her absolute best for the Gurkhas. The fact that she is a woman isn’t a problem.” But Schlacher knows that it’s also not commonplace. “I’m living among them, I’m over 40, unmarried with no children. That’s very strange to a traditional Nepalese.” She was even more surprised at the soldiers’ attitude of composed acceptance. “In Vienna, I’ve had to justify myself to cab drivers in matters of relationships, family and children.The Gurkhas however ask a lot of questions and are very interested, but don’t judge.”
It’s this noble kind of openness and pragmatism that makes Gurkha soldiers very popular allies and successful warriors. No matter where they are in the world, Gurkhas start building friendships immediately. In the Balkans, so the lore goes, they were playing chess with the local population half an hour after their arrival.
Despite staying very true to their traditions, Gurkhas respond to foreign cultures akin to an unfamiliar terrain or climate – interesting but not hostile new aspects of the same world.
“Arc of the Gurkha” is Alex Schlacher’s tribute to these noble Himalayan warriors. Prince Charles himself will pen the foreword. The last chapter of the book features veterans. “Retirement is the end of the arc, the last stage of a Gurkha career.”
Some of the retired soldiers remain in the UK, others return to Nepal and, through their experience, try to give back to the society they’ve sprung from. It’s the culmination of a fulfilled life. This is why she chose as her cover picture not the image of a martial warrior but the weather-beaten face of 94 year-old Lieutenant Manjung Gurung. He joined the Gurkhas in 1938, fought Communist guerillas for ten years in the jungles of Malaya and killed two of their leaders with his bare hands. He is almost blind, but his moustache is perfectly trimmed. “That’s typical Gurkha.” says Schlacher. They will always take care to keep up their poise and dignity. A Gurkha will remain a soldier and gentlemen to his last day.
CONTENT PAGE INTRO
In war, dignity and noble demeanor don’t automatically fall by the wayside. The Gurkhas are living proof of this. The Nepalese elite soldiers, fighting for the British Crown for 200 years, are feared and revered. Austrian photographer Alex Schlacher lived with them for 2 ½ years and grants WELTWOCHE Magazine an exclusive glimpse of her photographic documentary. “I want to show the human face behind the fearsome legend”, she says. Her book “Arc of the Gurkha”, with a foreword by His Royal Highness Prince Charles is a document of singular precision and intimacy. It will be available to buy in December 2014.