Diary of a Nepali soldier in France

Writings and a khukri of an unknown World War I Gurkha soldier surface in Germany after 107 years surface in Germany after 107 years

Shree Bhakta Khanal, November 28, 2020, Nepali Times

Gurkhas in the trenches of France during World War I. More than 20,000 Nepali soldiers were killed fighting for the Allied Forces between 1914-1918. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Books have been written about the legendary bravery and sacrifice of Nepal’s Gurkha soldiers. Officers have extolled their obedience and cheerfulness despite hardships and danger. The world has an image of Nepali soldiers in the battlefield: fierce but always smiling. 

But historians have pored through letters and diaries written by Gurkha soldiers from the two World Wars to paint a slightly different picture — Nepalis in the trenches of Flanders Field or below the cliffs at Gallipoli, homesick, terrified, cold and miserable. Many of these letters home were held by military censors, and are archived.

Now, a diary written by a Gurkha sergeant in the British Army during the battle of La Bassée in northern France during World War I in 1914, and retrieved by a German officer, have revealed a whole new side to the Gurkha legend, one that confirms the traditional bravery, but also their human side. 

Two unnamed Gurkha prisoners of war in a German camp in Münster in 1916. Courtesy: Sir Kukri & Co
Gurkha prisoners of war in a German camp. Some of their voices recorded in song and stories are now in the Humboldt Museum archives. Courtesy: Sir Kukri & Co

Lieutenant Alexander Pfeifer was with the Kurhessische Jäger-Bataillon Nr. 11 and found the diary of a Nepali soldier in La Bassée on 20 December 1914 after a fierce battle against Allied forces of the British and French Armies. The battle had lasted from 12 October till the end of December. The name of the Nepali soldier, and whether he died in the battlefield or as a prisoner of war, are not known. 

Lt Alexander Pfeifer, the German officer among whose papers was the diary of the Gurkha soldier, and was recently retrieved by his great-grandson, Philip Cross.

Lt Pfeiffer’s great-grandson Philip Cross found the documents and the khukri while going through his family effects. He is in the process of translating his great grandfather’s diary into English, and also getting the diary of the dead Gurkha sergeant translated into English and German.

Lt Pfeiffer writes in his diary about the fearsome reputation of the Gurkhas among the German troops: ‘I found quite a few letters written in Indian script. They are fierce warriors. We are afraid of them. They use their knives to cut up the enemy,’ he writes in one entry.

It appears that Lt Pfeifer’s job was to go through the bodies of dead enemy soldiers to find out if he could find any intelligence of what the Allied forces were up to. That appears to be how he got hold of the diary, photographs and even the khukri.

The first page of the diary of the unknown Nepali solider is in verse with numbered lines. It lists the names of the writers’ young friends who were killed or taken prisoner, the hardships they endured. From the penmanship and vocabulary and the use of numbered verse, the soldier appears to have learnt his Nepali probably from a village priest who used to be the only literate person in the villages in Nepal in those days. 

यो कठै बरा…जोबन सबै शत्रुका हातबाट गयो ।।२०।। पल्टनको माया मोह नेपालमै रह्यो जिउँदै मरी कैलाशमा गयो। सुवेदार भीमसिं भँडारी भयो ।।२१।। हर्के थापा जसराजा धर्म खत्री कम्यान्डर प्रजीतन नैनसिं खत्री सरुप कुँवर प्रतिमन थापा

Pages from the diary of an unknown Nepali soldier with a verse, and a list of names, possibly of prisoners of war. Courtesy: Philip Cross

Translated, the lines read: 

‘Poor fellows, their youth was taken away by the enemy’s hands (20)

The love of the military was left behind in Nepal

We are the living dead who have gone to heaven

Subedar Bhimsi Bhandari (21) Harke Thapa Jasraja Dharma Khatri Commander Pasitan Nainsingh Khatri Swarup Kunwar Pratiman Thapa’ 

The same names in the Nepali soldier’s diary also appear in the diary of Lt Alexander Pfeifer,
The grave of Haribal Thapa, a Gurkha prisoner of war who died in captivity in Germany 24 January 1915, and is buried at a military cemetery outside Berlin. Courtesy: Sir Kukri & Co

Lt Pfeiffer’s note in his own diary entry reads as follows: 

Found with a Gurkha sergeant major. The content of the notice page no. 1 says: The soldiers of the section (Battalion) should be treated with love, friendliness and kindness. Every person, who carries out the rules of his religion, according to law and order, receives his payment (will be happy). The orders of the commanding officer should be carried out precisely and immediately. The content of the notice paper no.2 is as follows. Names of the Gurkhas: 

  1. Thuparau Gurun
  2. Chandrabir Thapa 
  3. Akalbir Gurun
  4. Manbahadur Gurun
  5. Amarsing Gurun
  6. Udjersingh Gharti
  7. Imansing Gurun
  8. Manbir Thapa
  9. Chhabilal Rana
  10. Akatbir Thapa
  11. Narbahadur Thapa
  12. Schatasin Gurun

On investigating some of these names, British Army records show that Chandrabir Thapa was a rifleman in the Second King Edward VII’s Own Gurkha Rifles (Sirmur Rifles). Manbir Thapa was a sergeant in the First Battalion of the First King George V’s Own Gurkha Rifles (Malaun Regiment), and his service number was 1896 and he was killed in action on 20 December 1914 in La Bassée. We even know Manbir’s father’s name was Parasram Thapa and lived in Dohadi village in western Nepal.

Chhabilal Rana’s service number was 2114 and he was a rifleman with the Second King Edward VII’s Own Gurkha Rifles Second Battalion (Sirmur Rifles) and he was also killed in action on 20 December.

Records at La Bassée show that there were other Gurkha soldiers killed in the battlefield or taken prisoner who are not on Lt Pfeiffer’s diary list. One of them is Haribal Thapa who, according to the Sir Kukri & Co blog was a rifleman in the First King George V’s Own Gurkha Rifles (First Gurkha Regiment).

His service number was 2952 and he died on 24 January 1915 while he was a prisoner of war in a German camp after being captured in La Bassée. His grave can still be found at a military cemetery outside Berlin. Haribal Thapa’s documents show that his father was Dal Kishore who lived in Perung in today’s Majhkot of Tanahu district.

Lieutenant Alexander Pfeifer’s diary, as translated by his great-grandson, has many references to the Gurkhas who were their enemies and served in the British Army. Among them are entries dated 20 December 1914, the day of the fierce battle during which the 12 Gurkhas listed above by the unknown Nepali soldier were probably taken prisoner:

The grave of Haribal Thapa, a Gurkha prisoner of war who died in captivity in Germany 24 January 1915, and is buried at a military cemetery outside Berlin. Courtesy: Sir Kukri & Co

  • I was woken up at 5:30am on 20 December 1914 by the sound of cannons and gunfire. Someone opened the door to the room where I was sleeping. He was the uberjäger from our machine-gun company. He was so frightened he could not even speak properly. Our machine-gun company had been over-run by the enemy. He said they (the Gurkhas) used their curved knife to cut the throats of our comrades, and killed everyone they could find. I woke up the others and related this news to them.
  • After the end of the battle, I witnessed a horrific sight. The dead and wounded covered the ground. There were some British and Indian (Gurkha) soldiers, who were in eternal sleep next to our artillery position. Some were headless, others did not have limbs. We took what we could from the dead. I got one of those curved knives, tobacco, food in tiffin boxes. 
  • We were fighting these Indians (Gurkhas) who had their heads shaven. They were short and stocky, and very agile. One of them who was a prisoner of war said that the Gurkhas were terrified of the cold. They were afraid of the snow and freezing weather. They will soon bite the dust.
  • The Gurkhas have a reputation for being brutal, aggressive and fearless, but in their hearts they are kind, peace-loving and spiritual people. 

Among Lt Alexander Pfeifer’s effects was this khukri possibly taken from the same Gurkha soldier who wrote the diary. Photo: Philip Cross

The Nepali soldier’s diary, written by hand 107 years ago, says a lot about the war and the warriors from Nepal. The soldier was writing about fellow Nepalis in his own, and possibly other units, listing carefully the names of the dead and those taken prisoner. The names in the poem are probably of those who were killed in battle, but we cannot be sure. The other list, because of its similarity to the list in Lt Pfeifer’s list in German, could be of those who were taken prisoner on 20 December.

But that opens up a puzzle. How come the list of dead soldiers in Nepali soldier’s diary is in the same order as the list of prisoners in German in Lt Pfeifer’s diary? Nepali writer Satis Shroff who lives in the southwest German town of Freiburg has read Lt Pfeifer’s notes, and deduces that the list contains names of Gurkha POWs and the commanding-officer is instructing his subordinates to treat the soldiers well and to allow them to practice their religious rites as they are used to. Shroff infers that the Gurkha who wrote the list of names is dead because there is no mention of a handing-over of the diary.

It is not clear if Lt Pfeifer is just translating the Nepali soldier’s diary, or if those are his own instructions. The German officer’s own diary was ultimately found more than a century later by his great-grandson. We do not know what the Gurkha’s name was, where in Nepal he was from, and what happened to him. 

To add to the puzzle, Manbir Thapa, whose name is among the 12 listed in the German and Nepali soldiers’ diaries, is also on the FindGrave.com list of those killed in action on 20 December 1914 in the battle of La Bassée and buried at Indian Cemetery in La Rochelle in France. Here is a partial reproduction of the list of those killed from the First King George V’s Gurkha Rifles (Malaun Regiment) on that day with their father’s name and hometown:

Rifleman Buddhiman Thapa 

Father’s name and address: Sukhbhar Thapa, Lamjung

Lance Corporal Kharak Bahadur Gurung

Father’s name and address: Jasbir Thapa, Lamjung

Rifleman Bahadur Gurung

Father’s name and address: Asu Bahadur Gurung, Lamjung

Rifleman Rana Bahadur Rana

Father’s name and address: Kulman Singh, Serung

Rifleman Pritman Thapa

Father’s name and address: Sarbajit Thapa, Graham

Rifleman Ransur Thapa

Father’s name and address: Purnabir Thapa, Bhirkot

Rifleman Haribaran Thapa

Father’s name and address: Pratiman Thapa, Bhirkot

Lance Corporal Lal Bahadur Gurung

Father’s name and address: Sriman Gurung, Gorkha

Besides the uncertainty of war, the Gurkhas who sailed across the oceans to a completely new country, climate and food must have suffered badly from culture shock. Many had boarded troop ships from Calcutta or Bombay and arrived in Europe at the beginning of winter in 1914. Their main hardship was caused by the extreme cold because they did not have enough warm clothes while in the wet trenches. Many wore military trousers on top of their suruwal.

They had never been trained in trench warfare, and did not know how to dig them. They were not used to fighting in such cold. The Germans found out from the Gurkha prisoners of war that the Nepalis feared the cold more than the enemy they were fighting, according to Alexander Pfeifer’s diary.

Most of the fighting men from Nepal could not read or write, and no one ever wrote their stories for them, so there is very little written documentation of what they went through. There must be so many hidden stories of unknown soldiers that we will never get to hear about. Yet, they are a part of our people’s history, and a forgotten chapter in the history of Nepal.

Those who returned alive from the front, used to dock in Bombay and take the train via Banaras, where they all bought copies of the Nepali Ramayana translated by Bhanubhakta Acharya. One of the major ways in which the holy book got to the far corners of Nepal was through these demobilised Gurkhas returning home.

The Battle of La Bassée lasted three months with the Germans first gaining the upper hand, and then being repulsed by British Army reinforcements from the Lahore Division and Gurkhas. The British suffered more than 20,000 casualties, of which 1,600 were from the Indian Corps, including Gurkhas. The Germans recorded 6,000 killed. 

Contemporary map of La Bassée in France, which was captured by the Germans during 1914.

Many of the Gurkhas captured in France and Belgium were transported to prisoner of war camps in Germany. There, some of the prisoners had their voices and songs preserved in early recording machines that had just come into use. 

Nepali professor Alaka Atreya Chudal of Vienna University has been translating from Nepali into German some of these testimonies recorded between 1914-1918 in a prisoner of war camp of Halbmondlager in Wünsdorf 40km away from Berlin. 

The 100 or so recordings contain Nepali folk tales, songs, poetry, and folk riddles that have immense linguistic and cultural value because they are preserved in audio from more than a century ago. The recordings are now in the archives of Humboldt-Universität in Berlin.  

Says Prof Atreya: “These folk material bring out the sorrow, prayers, suffering, longing for home and family of the Gurkha prisoners from long ago.”

Shree Bhakta Khanal is an investigative journalist and author of An Arduous Path.

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