Since August, the first stage of selection for the 2019 cohort of Gurkha soldiers has been taking place in Nepal.
This year, more than 10,000 Nepali men aged 18-21 have applied for just 320 places in the Brigade of Gurkhas.
That’s 31 candidates registered for every available space.
Becoming a Gurkha soldier means a British salary, a Ministry of Defence (MoD) pension and the right to settle in the UK. These life-changing opportunities will secure the future for both the successful recruits and their families.
Forces News was given exclusive access to see this year’s Potential Recruits - PRs - being put through their paces during a selection day in the city of Dharan.
In order to recruit fairly throughout the country, regional selection days are held in lower-lying Dharan in the far East and in hilly Pokhara in the West.
The top 290 PRs from the East and the top 290 PRs from the West are then called forward to central selection in British Gurkhas Pokhara, with the best 320 enlisted.
Documents are painstakingly verified and there is no room for human error. Deputy Head of Recruiting Major Sandy Nightingale said:
“Nepal is a country where people pay money to get just about everything and therefore for us to kind of display ourselves as being free, fair and transparent, we have to go to huge lengths to convince people that that’s the case.
“Every single score that’s written down gets checked by someone else.
“Everything is black and white as much as it can be and that can seem harsh because there’s no deviation from the line, but it’s the only way to make it fair.”
The selection day is comprised of three elements; physical tests, a written exam and an interview.
The standard is so high that it is not enough to just pass the basic requirements, as additional points are awarded for excelling.
Throughout the day, PRs that fail to meet the basic requirements are asked to leave, and those that remain are then ranked, with only the top invited to central selection.
Why Does The British
Army Recruit In Nepal?
Gurkhas were first recruited to serve the British Crown more than 200 years ago.
They fought with such ferocity during the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-16 that the British East India Company decided to recruit them, forming the first Gurkha brigade.
At the peak of the Second World War, approximately 112,000 Gurkhas were fighting for Britain.
They have since served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Between them, Gurkha regiments have received 26 Victoria Crosses, the highest military decoration awarded for "valour in the face of the enemy".
Their motto is “Better to die than be a coward”.
Members of the Queen's Gurkha Engineers (PA).
Members of the Queen's Gurkha Engineers (PA).
The Regional Selection
Not far from the centre of Dharan, over a hundred young men queue outside the British Gurkha Camp ready for their 5am start.
Some had been waiting most of the night, desperate for the chance to serve a Queen and country thousands of miles away.
Dealing with the PRs was Senior Recruiting Officer, Ganesh Rai:
“Today we have one hilly district, that’s Dhankuta, and five Terai districts. Normally they’re from farming backgrounds, but now most of the boys do come down to the cities for a better education.”
Formal qualifications are the first step in the selection process.
PRs are not allowed to register unless they have a Standard School Leaving Certificate and a passport to prove they are a Nepalese citizen.
With so much resting on their success or failure, the recruiting staff must do everything within their power to ensure the process is fair and transparent.
- 800m run completed in at least 2 minutes 40 seconds – scheduled early in the day to avoid the searing heat
- 70 sit-ups in 2 minutes (best effort required)
- 12 underarm heaves in 2 minutes (best effort required)
- A one lift 35kg powerbag (minimum standard only pass/fail)
- 2 x 20 litre jerry can carry for 120 meters (minimum standard only pass/fail)
- English assessment
- Maths assessment
Both of the test are in English, in line with wider Army recruiting literacy requirements.
There are new exam questions set each day, as the black market trade of past papers is rife. By 3pm of the same day, the test paper will be in the local bazaar being sold for a few rupees.
Over seeing the exam papers is Captain Peter McDougall:
“Writing the papers is extremely difficult and we do keep them under strict lock and key.
“Then in order to generate those papers, to proof read those papers again and again, because if there are any dramas on the day, it is unfortunately a cohort of young boys who are going to suffer and we do not want that to happen.”
Conducted in both Nepali and English with both a Nepali Gurkha Officer and a British Gurkha Officer.
The interview aims to ascertain whether PRs have the right character.
They need to demonstrate they are honest, interested and have the necessary qualities to be a Gurkha soldier.
PRs are asked questions about:
- Selfless commitment and teamwork
- Courage and discipline
- Integrity and respect for others
- Motivation, resilience and maturity
- Military and brigade of Gurkhas knowledge
- Height minimum 158m
- Weight minimum 50kgs
- Eyes, hearing and teeth (no more than four fillings are allowed) are all checked
This year, Major Nightingale has also introduced enhanced medical tests to this stage of the recruitment process to filter out potential problems sooner.
Hyperextending elbows are an immediate fail, so this is now checked early to save the recruits wasted time and efforts further down the line.
Throughout the day, if the recruits fall short on anything, they head straight to the dreaded ‘chautari’ and then home.
The chautari is usually a rest stop that can be found along the foot trails of rural Nepal.
Senior Recruiting Officer Ganesh Rai said:
“The biggest challenge is to filter them out, we can’t have everyone, so we have to leave some of the good PRs behind.”
Major Nightingale is overseeing this year's recruiting process:
“These boys will give everything to try and get into the British Army.
“I’m not saying that a British soldier is not equally motivated to join the British Army but the difference with these guys is that their whole family put pressure on them to join the British Army.
“They get into the British Army and the whole family’s lives change forever. That the context that we’re working with.”
This year the recruiting campaign was bigger than ever before.
Recruiting officers advertised on every one of Nepal’s 72 radio stations and travelled to all corners of the country – gathering young men together on football pitches, tennis courts and in cafes.
With even remote villages having mobile phones and internet access, there was a significant update to the website too.
Recruits could even email Major Nightingale personally. He told Forces News:
“I do get quite a few emails from PRs asking some quite varied questions, from 'are my teeth OK?' with photographic evidence.
“What we trying to do it dispel the myth that only certain Nepalis can join the British Army.
“It’s still amazing to me that people think it’s only certain castes, people think that you have to be rich, people think all kinds of things that are all wrong.
“We will take any one who’s good enough."
The chosen few from regional selection will be invited back to central selection in January – where they’ll compete for one of the 320 spaces available in the Gurkha units of the British Army of 2019.