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.