“Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu’s heart pounding account of active service is filled with honesty and humanity. ”
Genre: Biography & True Stories / Biography: General. 5th May 2016. Price: £19.99. ISBN-13: 9781405535892. https://www.littlebrown.co.uk/titles/kailash-limbu/gurkha/9781405535892/
A Gurkha Story.
This book is neither an autobiography, nor is it the personal record of a campaign. It is about leadership, comradeship, war, courage, ethos and belonging. In addition it is a very specific sort of memoir (if that is the right word) because this is a Gurkha memoir.
I am always struck by the strong sense of continuity that links all the Gurkha memoirs I’ve ever read. Wether it is the journals and letters of Major Reid who defended Hindu Rao House on Delhi Ridge in 1857, the similar testimonies of officer’s who served at Gallipoli, or the more traditional single volume memoirs like that written by Patrick Davis who served in the 4/8th Gurkhas in Burma during WW2, the tone and spirit of each is recognisably that of one who has served in a Gurkha regiment.
Each new account maintains a recognisable flavour that was noticeable in the last, the strong bonds of attachment to the Brigade is always there, an Arthurian dedication to the traditions of both Brigade, regiment and battalion is as plain as a Kukri in each one. A strong familial loyalty and affection between officer’s and men, quite above what one normally expects in regimental remembrances, and robustly marked no matter the generation, is the subject is interlaced into each narrative.
When you read how the author of this book would rarely leave HQ at Now Zad (Nawzad) without making sure his commanding officer was being taken care of, and ordering a cup of tea to be sent in, it makes me feel that in all meaningful ways if a Sirmoor of 1857 was to suddenly drop into a sangar position at Now Zad with Kailash Limbu and his Riflemen, he would fit into the rhythm of regimental life so naturally that within a week the only way you’d be able to tell which one had travelled into the future and vice versa would be by the ability to speak English.
This book is notable as it is the first official record of active service, told by a Nepalese soldier in the British Army. The majority of first hand material on the Gurkhas comes from their British officers and from the outset I was intrigued to know if the great respect and affection the ‘sahebs’ have always felt for their men over two centuries was as reciprocal as it seemed. I was also curious to see if the view from the ranks was the same in terms of the fearless and invincible reputation the Brigade fosters.
An Ordinary Rifleman.
As he points out at the beginning, Kailash Limbu is very much a ‘typical’ rifleman. Firstly he represents the traditional recruiting base, drawn from the castes of the middle hills of Nepal, familiar to Gurkha recruiters since the 19th century. He did not, in his opinion, do anything out of the ordinary during his deployments in Afghanistan, he did not hold off dozens of insurgents single handed until his ammunition ran out and then charge the enemy armed only with his Kukri, he was mentioned in dispatches, but on the whole the author declares he merely did his duty the way only a Gurkha can; celer et audax.
This sense of regimental individualism, constantly alluded to by Kailash Limbu, of being a British Army Gurkha, is a pleasing reminder of how the pre 2006 British Army used to see itself. As a large machine of unique and individual parts, each with it’s own special legacy to uphold, now many of the most famous, due to budgetary and political necessity, have been amalgamated into ‘super Regiments’ like so much newspaper papier-mâché in a collage.
As yet the Royal Gurkha Rifles, which they have been called since their own amalgamation in 1993, retain this fiercely independent spirit, due to some adroit and surgical adjustments by the Brigade when the fate of all the Gurkhas hung in the balance, being able to point back through their own for the most part individual histories as a way of establishing their unique esprit de Corps.
The colour sergeant’s claim to being an average rifleman certainly rings true, the book is less about heroics as it is grit, routine and professionalism. The fact that an ‘average rifleman’ equates to something bordering on superhuman to civilians like me is beside the point that this story is authentic in it’s unvarnished portrayal of being trapped in an isolated Afghan village called Now Zad during active operations in what some senior officers are now calling the Fourth Afghan War.
Rarely will Gurkha memoirs dwell on the inner emotions of the Riflemen, the typical, joking stoicism of the lower ranks of the Brigade is almost as difficult to pierce as one of their picquet lines, yet Kailash Limbu’s section is a collection of human beings. They fear, they hope, they bleed and they depend on each other as a tight knit family with almost all the attendant quirks that goes along with it.
The author is fearlessly honest about combat and the Gurkha attitude to the enemy. There is nothing terribly glorious in the firefights that take place, which run from the perilous to the macabrely absurd. Kailash Limbu is gifted with a sharp, matter-of-fact, yet highly visual style of writing that sucks the reader into a very alien and frightening world that he and his men had to operate in for about a month under near constant attack and hostile observation.
It offers a piercing glimpse into what Colour Sergeant Limbu calls, in the spare terminology of army vernacular, ‘Contact.’ The intricacies and procedures of modern warfare and one can readily appreciate how disciplined a soldier’s mind must be in order to function effectively under fire. The Taliban tested the strength and resilience of the Gurkhas repeatedly, but, as the author proudly declared on a few occasions, no matter how hard they pushed, the outnumbered Gurkhas pushed back a little harder. As far as he is concerned the Gurkha is a human being but a well trained one, and as a soldier, imbued with a purpose to overcome challenges without regard to danger and who, no matter what he is against, will win in the end.
Tactically the modern soldier has the advantage of being able to rely on technology to offset numerical inferiority. Increasingly since the 1960’s the Air Force has been the ‘force multiplier’ to the infantryman that the Navy had been to their predecessors, and in Afghanistan especially this means combat helicopters as much as altitude fighters. Some reading this might recall articles reporting that serving officer’s pleaded for more attack helicopters during the height of the fighting in Helmand, and this book offers practical scenarios as to why. Even his Riflemen, CS Limbu States, who after so many long range contacts wanted nothing more than to fight hand to hand with the enemy, were cheered to know air support was on it’s way.
In the quiet moments between contacts when they are mostly preparing for the next one, the Gurkhas chat and play games to pass the time, sharing stories and generally keeping each other’s spirits up. Though the CS makes it clear home life needed to be kept separate in order to focus properly on the endless routine of preparing for the next emergency, his own personal story of how he became a Gurkha is revealed through many conversations with the gallant Gaz, a fine soldier, with an unconquerable good humour and a useful competitive streak. Through Gaz’ curiosity and admiration of Kailash Limbu we get to know our author and the rigours of Gurkha selection and motivation a little better.
Simple things stand out, the first being how vital it is for combat and field efficiency that there are enough experienced NCO’s, such as the author, at a basic level. The Colour Sergeant’s ability to keep everyone on their game in and out of contact, delivering enough of the personal touch to keep spirits high, unit bonds strong, and offer enough examples of leadership while always ensuring discipline is taken seriously, cannot be praised too highly.
The generous Kailash praises not only the men of his section, support services and the ever ready airforce but his senior officer’s as well, who he describes as fine and caring commanders. He is gracious enough to leave the names of those he gently critiques; anonymous, and as all good soldiers do, he praises the courage of his enemy.
Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu’s heart pounding account of active service is filled with honesty and humanity. It is that of a capable regular modern soldier, proud of his regiment and the men he has served alongside, confident in his and their own abilities to take on whatever challenge might occur not just because of their training, or weaponry but because they wear the same badge. It leaves a reader doubly glad and deeply humbled that the Gurkhas, for whatever reason, choose to come so far and overcome so much to serve in the British Army.
*Note. Author, Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu is currently listed on Army websites with the rank WO2 and was of a lower rank during the incident he describes.