Pratap Chhetri talks about his research into Rana Jodha Jung Bahadur, the first Gurkha officer in the British Army during the Great War.
Dr Tom Thorpe [TT] : Welcome to ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ the podcast from the Western Front Association with me, Dr. Tom Thorpe. The WFA is the UK's largest Great War History Society. We are dedicated to furthering understanding of the Great War and have over 60 branches worldwide.
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It is the 8th of June 2020 and this is Episode 164. On today's podcast I talk to Pratap Chhetri about the first Gurkha officer to be given a King’s Commission in the British army. I spoke to Pratap over the interweb from his home in Mizoram Province in Northeast India. I started by asking Pratap about his interest in the Great War and then switched the microphone on.
Pratap Chhetri [PC] : You had me in an earlier episode and I talked to you about myself, but I think I'll just repeat that again. I'm a civil servant and have been working for the provincial government of Mizoram in the Union of India for the last 10 years specializing in media matters and public communication.
Ethnically, I am a Gurkha. My forefathers were the foot soldiers of various expeditions that colonised the north eastern part of India, which was known as the hills of Assam, which is the area today presently sandwiched by Bangladesh, Myanmar and China and is known in India as Northeast India.
I also have a family connection to the Great War. My maternal great-grandfather, Hanik Guuti was his name, was a Rifleman in the erstwhile Luchi Hills Military Police Battalion, which later became the 1st Battalion of India's oldest paramilitary force, the Assam Rifles whose origin dates back to I think 1835 or so. Now, during the war, men from his battalion and other police battalions, were drafted on a monthly basis and then attached to various Gurkha Regiments during the course of the war. He was also similarly drafted and attached to a Gurkha Rifles Battalion and saw action in France perhaps in 1916, I think … [though] I am yet to ascertain where exactly he fought … because the regimental papers - ... our family never preserved those papers and I think the regiment also didn't have his papers, so his regimental papers are literally untraceable - so that's a sad part.
About 20 years back, I had seen the participation medals of the First World War of my great-grandfather which was in the possession of his youngest son. Now then I didn't pay that much of attention, I just knew that they were all old medals, but in 2014 when the centennial celebrations of the First World War started the medals suddenly struck my mind and I went to my great-uncle's house and asked for him if I could again have a look at the medals. And when he brought them out I examined, and I looked, I again looked at them, and I could see on the rim his name inscribed and I had a good look at those two medals.
So that's how I realised that, yes, I do have a connection with the Great War. And since then I've also had an interest in the Labour Corps and was also very interested in finding out the contributions of my Gurkha brethren, in particular in the First World War, the Second World War - and the yearning to know more about their pain and suffering - because they suffered tremendous losses, in terms of men in terms of … I mean, the world turned upside down for them, but because they were an unlettered lot, a very few accounts of their suffering remain so they did the sufferings have all disappeared. I mean, there's hardly any writings about the pain and suffering, so that's how the interest really went on - and how it has remained.
TT: Now, we're going to talk about the first Gurkha officer in the British Army, or received his commission during the First World War. Now. I'm going to try and pronounce his name and then I'm probably going to get this completely wrong, but he's a gentleman known as: Rana Jodha Jung Bahadur. I don't know if that's the correct pronunciation?
PC: OK, it's Rana Jodha Jung Bahadur.
TT: And what would you call him for short?
PC: Jodha. Let's keep it simple and just refer to him as ‘Jodha’.
TT: Well, today we're going to talk about Rana Jodha Jung Bahadur who was the first Gurkha officer in the British Army who was commissioned during the First World War - the first Gurkha officer who was commissioned to the British Army - and obviously my pronunciation could be well off as I am not familiar with this gentleman.
PC: It's not a problem at all.
TT: So this is all new to me. And you know, this is the wonderful thing about doing things like this, we learn things every day.
TT: So before we get to his life and service in the British army. Can you tell us about Gurkha service in the colonial British army, or the British Indian army as it became in 1903, and the various different military forces, which existed in Imperial in the before the Great War.
PC: OK, before the Great War we had the regular British Indian army, then you had also something called the Imperial Service Troops. These were soldiers who were there for Imperial Defence provided by the princely states. In addition you also have the armies of the princely states.
Now, I'm just going to quickly go through the various overviews of the Gurkha service. That might be a little long. So please bear with me, because I just wanted to make things a little clearer here.
So, as we all know, the Gurkhas were first recruited in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer war of 1814-16 during the time of the British East India Company. Now, there were some deserters from the Nepalese Army who joined the army of the company during the course of this war. In some ways these few men were the nucleus of the Gurkha troops that have served the British Crown for over two centuries now.
Before the British Crown took over the administration of India from the British East India Company through the Government of India Act 1858, Gurkhas served as troops under contract to the East India Company. Now, they served in the Pindari War of 1817 in Bharatpur in 1826 and even the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars of 1846 and 1848. Now during the first part of the First War of Indian independence of 1857, which is also known as the Sepoy Mutiny. The Gurkhas fought on the British side and became a part of the British Indian Army on its formation. Now the Gurkhas battalions of the Indian Army were organized on a permanent and regimental basis only in 1861. Up to the end of the 1870s there were about five Gurkha Regiments each having a single Battalion talking of about 5,000 men. Now besides this there were also a large number of workers who were serving in the The 42nd and 44th native Infantry Regiment, which was later designated as the 8th and 10th Gurkha Rifles. More than 80% of the four Assam Police battalions to which my great-grandfather belonged and also two battalions of the Burma coolies comprised of Gurkhas and now between 1901 and 1906 the Gurkha regiments were numbered from the 1st to the 10th and redesignated as the Gurkha Rifles. Now, this is very important because before this you had just about five and even the 44 and 42nd native infantry, even though they were majority Gurkas. Not numerically numbers from 1 to 10 now during the period from 1901 to 1906, they were renumbered and that is how they got their present designation.
Now in this time the Brigade of Gurkhas as the Regiment was to become be collectively known, was expanded to 20 battalions within the 10 regiments and I think just before the start of the First World War the number of Gurkha men in these 20 battalions, I think, was about 55,000 men. And also from the end of the 1857 to the start of the first the First World War the the Gurkha regiments saw active service, whether it was in Burma, Afghanistan, the North East Frontier, the Northwest frontiers of India, Malta, which was the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, Cyprus, Malaya, also the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in China and even during the Younghusband Expedition of 1905 to Tibet - they were all a part of the the regular Indian Army.
Now, I'm coming to the Imperial Service troops.
Now the princely states were all quite rich in resources as well as fighting men, the British felt that they could be used to support the British Indian Army without becoming a threat. Now with this in mind, the British launched the Imperial Service Troop Scheme of 1885 which created a reserve force from various Princely States. This Reserve Force of approximately about 20,000 soldiers were recruited from the armies of the Native States. The British Indian Army provided training and equipment while the princely states paid for it and provided the men. Now, these were commanded by Indian officers, unlike at the British Indian Army, where all the companies, the regiments, were all officered by British officers. Now, the Imperial Service troops had Indian Officers, who commanded the men. Now this included the Infantry, the Cavalry, the artillery, sappers … as well as even transport battalions.
Now after the end of the First World War, in 1918, this Imperial Service troop was re-designated as something called the Indian State forces scheme of 1920. Here among the princely states the Maharaja of Jodhpur of Kashmir, he maintained a larger number of state forces, larger than any other ruler of an Indian State, under the British Raj. These forces were organized into the Jammu and Kashmir Brigade and if I'm not mistaken, they continue until India's Independence in 1947. And I think they were the only troops of a princely state to be integrated into the Indian Army.
Now apart from this, as I said, you also had the private armies of the Princely States and not much of Gurkhas served in there, but they were there were a large number of Gurkhas who served in the Imperial State Forces of the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, which was maintained by the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and these men also went the First World War not from the regular British Indian Army, but from the Imperial Service Troops serving under the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.
TT: All right, turning the main subject of today's podcast. Tell us about Rana Jodha Jung Bahadur family’s background, birth and early life and education. Now, I understand, his name can be shortened to Rana Jodha. So we'll use that to save me any embarrassment from massacring his name again.
PC: No problem. I believe in that even though I'm bad with names for the first time. So you're no exception. Don't feel bad about it, we all do that.
TT: So, tell us about his early life and where he came from.
PC: Rana Jodha was one of the several grandsons of Sir Jang Bahadur Rana who founded the Rana dynasty in Nepal. Now the Rana Dynasty was a system of hereditary Prime Ministership in Nepal which Sir Jang Bahadur established in I think 1847 and it went on until 1951.
So it's very interesting because I think a lot of our listeners would not be aware that even though Nepal was a monarchy - you had a double-tied monarchy - you had the King and you had the Prime Minister and the Prime Ministership was hereditary. So it's very interesting.
So Jodha Bahadur’s father was Padma Jung Bahadur Rana - one of the 13 sons of Sir Jung Bahadur Rana, the founder of the Rana Dynasty. Now, Rana Jodha himself was - it's very interesting, is one of the 14 sons of Padma Jung Bahadur Rana. They had a lot of women, most of these Ranas had about six or seven wives and they ended up having a lot of kids, you know.
So I think Ranna Jodha’s father was educated to some extent, because he wrote a book on the life of his father, the founder of the dynasty, called the life of Maharaja Jung Bahadur.
So Jang Bahadur Rana who founded the dynasty, were the first Nepalese Royals to take an extensive tour of Europe. Queen Victoria received him in London in 1850 and I think Prince Napoleon III also received him in Paris in 1851 and Rana Jodha’s father himself attended the First Imperial Durbar in 1877 in Delhi to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India.
Jodha's father fled to India in 1885 following an unsuccessful palace coup at Kathmandu. Now around that time some of the nephews of Sir John Bahadur wanted to take over the system of hereditary prime ministership so they went on a murder spree and killed the many uncles of Jodha. So Jodha’s father, maybe he feared for his life and fled with his family to India and I think he was given refuge in India in Allahabad.
It was in Allahabad where Jodha was born in 1890. Now Jodha had, I think, his early education in one of the four Chief schools, which was established to impart the British System of Education to the sons and members of the princely states and the aristocratic families.
So I think he must have gained admission to the Chief school by virtue of him being Nepalese royalty, because he was the grandson of the prime minister of Nepal, even though they had to flee to India.
It's very interesting because later on a lot of Nepalese princesses were married into the various princely states of India. So even now most of the descendants of today's India's princely states have some kind of connection to Nepal by virtue of their great grandmother or great-great-grandmother's being of Nepali royalty.
TT: So, how did Rana Jodha enter the military service of the British?
PC: Now before I go into how Jodha entered the military service of the British, I think I must bring into the picture a defunct system called the Imperial Cadet Corps (ICC), which was an exclusive preserve based in DehraDun in Mirat, which was established by Lord Curzon who was the Viceroy in 1902. The ICC was a limited and deliberate experiment by the British Raj to appease their Indian subjects - particularly, the rulers of the princely states who had military expectations of their wards or relatives being commissioned as officers in the regular British Indian army also known as the Majesty's Army.
So the ICC only admitted young men from aristocratic families of the princely states and then provided them military training for about three years. And then they were given a nominal form of commission, which was not exactly a King’s Commission. I don't know, because there's a lot of debate I had with some military scholars because they didn't want to say that Rana Jodha was one of the first King's Own Commissioned Indian officers, but the fact remains that he was commissioned into a body called His Majesty's Native Indian Land forces.
Now, even though the Corps was a failure of the Imperial Cadet Corps, in some way it paved the way for the establishment of the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College in 1922, which today is the Rashtriya Indian Military College and the Indian military Academy in 1932. Now these two institutions were pioneered and slow, but gradually the Indianization process of the army during the British rule.
Now one fact which pointed to the failure of the ICC was that, of the 68 graduates that the Imperial Cadet Corps produced, only eleven were granted commissions into the Native Indian Land Forces.
I think in 1910 Jodha gained admission into the Imperial Cadet Corps and after three years in 1913, he was given, as I said, a peculiar form of officer’s commission as a second Lieutenant into a nominal body, which I was which I just talked about called His Majesty's Native Indian Land Forces which in some ways was, as I talked about earlier, was the Imperial State Troop Scheme. Now officers in the Native Indian Land Forces, even though they received Army rank and pay, they did not have the power of command over Indian troops - I mean over combat troops. They usually had appointments in their home state or were in non-combat roles.
Now that all changed when officers from the Native Indian Land Forces [ ] as officers in the Imperial Service troops in the war [ ] proved their bravery - later on they were given the regular commission.
Now, coming back to Jodha, he had his initial training with the 3rd Gurkha Rifles and then the 1st King George's Own Sappers and Miners and in February 1914 he was appointed as a commandant of the Tehri-Garhwal State Sappers, which was an Imperial Service troop. Now Tehri-Garhwal was a princely state which today is in the northern state of Uttarakhand, very close to Himachal Pradesh, very close to the Himalayas. That is how he entered [ ] the service of the British. When he entered he did not enter their regular Indian army, he entered as an officer in the Imperial Service Troop or rather the Native Indian Land Forces.
TT: Now, he ends up from the Western Front during the Great War. Can you tell us how he got there and about what he did.
PC: At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. We all know that India was dragged into the war very unwillingly, but it's very interesting because Indian rulers of their own volition offered a lot of the troops for war service. Now, as the war progressed on the Western Front in France and Belgium the British forces, and specially the Indian Expeditionary Force, which consisted of Cavalry, Infantry and Imperial Service troops, suffered devastating losses. Now reinforcement drafts were urgently required. One such reinforcement draft was a contingent of 108 men of the Tehri Garhwal State Sappers which was commanded by the young Lieutenant Rana Jodha, which was sent to bolster the 39 Garhwal Rifles who had suffered heavy casualties on the front line.
They reached France in March of 1915, traveling via Egypt. It was in the Battle of Loos (I think I got the pronunciation right because, as you were struggling with Rana Jodha, I am also struggling with these words) - so first in the action at Pietra (sic), not far from Neuve Chapelle on September 25th, 1915 and second at La Bassé on October 13th, 1915 that the Bravery of Rana Jodha was noticed. Now during both these instances he was mentioned in dispatches. So in fact, he was mentioned in dispatches twice; now subsequently Jonah was awarded the Military Cross in November 1915 when he was just a 25 year old officer.
Now, on October 12 1915, I think, when he was in action at La Bassé not very far from Neuve Chapelle he was hit by a rifle bullet in the arm, but it luckily missed his bone. So he got the unit doctor to bind the wound and was ready for action the next day. However, whilst heavy fighting the next day, a bomb explosion wounded him on the neck and he lost consciousness and I think it was this instance which got him the award of the Military Cross.
And when he was recuperating in the hospital. There is, I found out that a reporter had a chance to interview him and was asking him about the - because the Gurkhas were known for their ‘feared Kukris’ ... so this reporter, when Rona Jodha was recuperating in a London Hospital now this report went to him as someone of Nepalese Royal Blood fighting as an officer, so maybe he heard about that and wanted to interview him.
So he went to this end and asked Jodha so he said, “Did you not get to use the kukri then?” The reporter asked. So to this Jodha said, “We do not get the chance of using them very often. When we get near the Germans hold up their hands. They had heard about our kukris. So they get terrified.”
So this was just a small newspaper report which I found out was filed by a reporter. I found this in an online archive from a New Zealand newspaper called, The Herald which was published in 1916 or something or other.
TT: So, Pratap, just for people who don't know, what is a kukri?
PC: The kukri is is that the knife by which could cause are known it's a little curved blade about about a foot long and it was with this kukri that the Gurkhas had a lot of hand to hand action, I mean, even they had a lot of hand-to-hand combat with these knives with the Germans and it's quite famous. We have this. It's a traditional curved blade knife, which is about a foot long and it's very sharp, very sharp.
TT: Is it a traditional agricultural Implement?
PC: Yes, I mean even ‘till today you have the Kukris used for ceremonial purposes in the British Indian army by the Brigade of Gurkhas, I think. It's still there. The tradition is still there, the Insignia of the different Gurkha Rifles, whether the Gurkha regiments in India, or even the Brigade of Gurkhas in Great Britain, or even the Nepalese Army. They have these insignias of kukris as they use it in their insignias whether it is the badges, the belts or things like that, you know.
Now before we just go to the next question, I think it is very interesting to again come back to Rana Jodha because Rana Jodha as I told you was sent to bolster the 39 Garhwal rifles who had lost a lot of men. Now Darwan Singh Negi, the second Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross and another Indian recipient of the Victoria Cross in 1915, Gabbar Singh Negi - they both belong incidentally to the 39 Garhwal Rifles. Now, it was this unit to which Jodha was attached as a young officer on the Western Front.
TT: In August 1917 Rana Jodha was among a number of Indian soldiers to be granted a King’s Commission. Could you tell us what the importance of this move was?
PC: The Imperial Cadet Corps, as I told you, was a kind of a training ground for the young men of the princely states to be commissioned as officers because the general Indian people, the Indian political leaders or even the rulers of the princely states had this ambition to see the Indians as officers in the British Indian Army.
Of course, through the ICC, this aspiration was met to a small extent because you had some commissions of the men of the graduates of the ICC being commissioned into the nominal body, which I just talked about, His Majesty's Native Indian Land Forces.
Now in August 1917, since there was already a huge demand by the Indian political leadership for changes to be brought into self-government. Now, one of the demands of the political leadership of that time was that Indians be commissioned as officers into the British Indian army. So in 1917 the War Cabinet deliberated on granting a King's commission to the Indians. After a lot of debate they accepted in principle the appointment of Indians to commissioned rank in His Majesty’s Army.
Now before they agreed, I think the members of the War Cabinet had a lengthy discussion, whether to allow Indians to do to be good to receive Indian Commission because this would mean that Indian officers would command British troops - and this was almost unthinkable, but I think the War Cabinet decided against all this, and they said, “it's time we granted King’s Commission to the natives of India”, because, maybe one another thing which promoted members of the cabinet was India's stellar contribution in the war, whether it was from princely states, the different regiments - the whole Indian subcontinent contributed immensely, and maybe this is why. It could be one of the reasons why the British War Cabinet decided that it's time to have Indians as King’s Commissioned officers.
Now the War Cabinet also agreed to grant the King’s Commission: seven Captaincies, two Lieutenants to nine Indian officers of the Native Indian Land Forces who had served with distinction in the Imperial Service during the war - immediately.
Rana Jodha was among the nine who were given the King’s Commission. Now a lot again, as I was telling you, some people refute saying that, “no, he was not given a King’s Commission”, but I went through the discussion of the War Cabinet on this - and specifically they referred to granting King’s Commission: seven Captaincies and two Lieutenancies to nine Indian Officers of the Native Indian Land forces.
Now, this singular move put the Indianisation of the officer cadre of the British Indian Army of the right track, which was also one of the long-standing demands of the Indian political leadership of that time. And of course, the aspiration of maybe thousands of Indians who wanted to join the Army and climbing through the ranks - because you had the system of officers who were called the Viceroy Commissioned Indian officer or VCI. You made it only to the VCI only towards the the fag end of your career and it … just ... didn't have the same kind of aura as the ‘King’s Commissioned Officer’.
So 1917 was a watershed moment in the military history of India, I think because that was the time when the British said “Yes, from now on we will allow Indians to be commissioned as officers by granting them King’s Commission”.
And subsequently the War Cabinet. I think decided that 10 places would be reserved for every year at Sandhurst for Indians, so that they could be commissioned into the army.
TT: What did Rana Jodha do for the rest of the war, once he received his commission?
PC: Once if you see this commission, I think he would though did the war was what was far from over so after his because he was wounded, and he was recuperating, and I think in 1916 he joined pack and he thereafter he was attached to the 3rd Brahmins and he served in Mesopotamia for a second circuit. I think, from September 1917 to October 1918.
Now again, it's very interesting here - for his service in Mesopotamia, he was made a Member of the British Empire ‘Military Division’ - so he had a decoration ‘MBE’ as well, way back in 1918. So perhaps he was the first Gurkha ever to be given this distinction - being made a Member of the British Empire the ‘Military Division’. Before him I think no one ever made it this far because the majority of them - all Gurkha’s of the First World War, all soldiers and even the officers, were what you call the Viceroy Commissioned Indian officer, or the ‘VCI’ as they were called.
Now, he was also appointed as an Honorary Aide-de-Camp to the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford from 1916 to 1920. I think. [ ] If we look at his service from the First World War he served in 1915 in France and Belgium - then in 1917 and 1918 in Mesopotamia. And so he had quite a lengthy service. [ ] It's interesting because he had the Mesopotamian Campaign, as well as the Western Front; he served both the theatres of water.
TT: And what did he do after the war ?
PC: After the First World War ? India was also fighting the Afghan War - the Waziristan campaign was still going on, so in 1919 Jodha was serving in the Afghan War - and later in the Waziristan campaign of 1919-1920 - and I think he served there until 1924. Thereafter, he was posted to a number of the Indian State forces, such as the 123rd Sikhs, 12th Bombay Pioneers and Madras Pioneers and retired as a major from the Indian army in 1933.
Now after his retirement, he served as a Commandant of the First Mysore Infantry from 1933 to 1936. And in 1936, he was appointed as Commandant on top of the Tripura State Forces. Now Tripura was a princely state … in British India, in the North East. In 1940 he was promoted to a Colonel and made the Commander-in-chief of the Tripura State Forces. And some of his, some of the sons of Rana Jodha, when they day they took part in the Second World War from the Tripura State forces he had some of his nephews also served as officers, as soldiers in the British Indian army during the Second World War.
TT: Is Rana Jodha still seen as an important figure among any Gurkha serving in our Armed Forces around the world for instance, in the United Kingdom forces or the Indian Armed Forces?
PC: Sadly and unfortunately a lot of serving Gurkhas have not heard about him and I think my article in 2014 on Rana Jodha was the first comprehensive article on him. And I did a lot of research and I got in touch through some people who had written something about him in some military journals. And even when I visited Sandhurst last year - and I met some of the serving Gurkhas there and I asked them, “Do you know about Rana Jodha?” They don't know about it.
So it's very important that serving Gurkhas whether it is in the Indian army, the British Army, or Singapore or Brunei - it's important that they know about this figure who was equal to a European, who was no less than a European who commanded a unit in the Western Front - was mentioned in dispatches twice, was awarded the Military Cross, was decorated with the Member of the British Empire the Military Division - and also commanded a number of the Indian State forces after the First World War. Now, despite being such a decorated and accomplished officer then sometimes wonder why he wasn't given more important appointments or greater responsibility than in the Regular Indian Army during the First War period. One of the reasons, I think, would be that because he didn't belong to the Sandhurst trained officer - because his commission was much, much earlier. He graduated from the Imperial Cadet Corps in 1913 and just before the start of the First World War was commissioned as an officer in the Native Indian Land Forces. This could be one of the reasons - and by his retirement in 1933 he had already served for about 20 years, so maybe he was also due for retirement from the normal course of service.
TT: And finally Pratap, where can people learn more about Rana Jodha?
PC: As I said, there's not much literature available on him - a little bit of Wikipedia entries. My article on him is there on the web - it's called “First among the Gurkhas”. It's not very comprehensive, but I made an attempt to tell his story because no one had told his story. As it is almost unknown and I thought that especially Gurkhas and others as well, who are very interested in the Gurkha participation must know about this work officer, and I think that's the little bit of information on him that's available.
TT: Pretap, thank you very much for your time.
PC: Thank you very much.
TT: You have been listening to the ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ podcast from the Western Front Association with me Tom Thorpe. Thank you to all my guests for appearing on this addition. The theme music for this podcast was George Butterworth’s, ‘The Banks of Green Willow’. It was performed by the BBC National Orchestra Wales conducted by Chrish Rothman and produced by Biz Records. This recording is part of a collection of orchestral works by Butterworth performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and supported by The Western Front Association - this is available from all good record stores under the record code BIS2195. Until next time.
The First Ghurka Officer in the British Army by Pratap Chhetri
Photo: 'Rana Jodha(seated far right) with British officers of the Garhwal Rifles at Pont du Hem France 1915' - Photo credit Ashok Nath Foundation Sweden