This corps was raised in Natal and was largely recruited from those who had lost their employment through the outbreak of hostilities. The command was given to Lieutenant Colonel Nash (Border Regiment). By the end of December 1899 the regiment was ready for active service, and it was inspected by General Sir C Warren on 2nd January 1900. When the move by Potgieter's and Trichard's Drifts was projected, this regiment and the Somersetshire Light Infantry were put into General Coke's 10th Brigade, taking the place of the 1st Yorkshire Regiment and the 2nd Warwickshire, both of which had been dropped at Cape Town. The Imperial Light Infantry saw comparatively little training and no fighting until they were thrown into the awful combat on Spion Kop on 24th January 1900. The Imperial Light Infantry, about 1000 strong, was paraded at 10 pm on 23rd January, and, as ordered, they took up positions from which they could reinforce General Woodgate, who commanded the force detailed to capture the hill. Sir C Warren visited the regiment early on the morning of the 24th, and asked the officers if they had seen anything of a mountain-battery which he was expecting. They had not. He requested that 2 companies be sent forward to a specified point to be ready to escort the battery to the summit. He appeared anxious as to its non-appearance. The companies of Captains Champney and Smith moved out at 6 am and waited as ordered for the battery, but about 9 am a staff-officer told them to reinforce immediately on the summit. The 2 companies advanced and reached the top shortly after 10 am. At this hour the enemy's fire was appalling, the hail of bullets and shells being ceaseless, but these untried volunteers are said to have pushed up to the shallow trench and the firing-line beyond it without flinching. They at once commenced to suffer very severe losses. These 2 companies were the first reinforcements to enter the firing-line, and their arrival proved most opportune, some Lancashire companies being very hard pressed at this time and at this part of the position.
About mid-day Colonel Nash was ordered to reinforce on the summit with "every available man". About 2 pm he reached the top with his remaining companies, who at once bolted out from the rocks at the head of the ascent and fed the firing-line, pushing forward fearlessly across the open.
Throughout the afternoon and evening the firing was unceasing, and often at very close quarters; after dark it had died away. A field-officer of the Imperial Light Infantry, formerly a regular officer, who was present, has stated to the writer that about 8 pm it was whispered a retirement was contemplated, and that about 9 o'clock Colonel Nash intimated that he had got a message to get ready to move off the hill. These hours are uncertain, and might be put somewhat later. The regiment having been collected, fell in and marched off. They had barely gone 200 yards, however, when an officer said to Colonel Nash, "Where are you going?" The latter replied that he had been ordered to take down the regiment. The other officer then said, "I am Colonel Hill of the Middlesex; not a man or regiment is to leave the hill". The officers of the Imperial Light Infantry then said to their men that a mistake had been made, and the column 'about turned', marched back to the place they had come from, put out pickets, and lay down among the dead and wounded. The worst feature of this very trying experience was the ceaseless crying of the wounded for water: there was none on the hill. During the night a staff-officer informed Colonel Nash that he had better bring down his men before dawn if no fresh troops or orders came up. Between 3 am and 4 am the regiment was again collected and finally left the hill. No Boers had ventured on to the hill up to that time.
From the reports of Colonel Thorneycroft and General Talbot Coke one would gather that all the troops left the hill together, the Scottish Rifles bringing up the rear, but in the darkness the absence of the Imperial Light Infantry from the main body might escape notice. The account given above is confirmed by the terms of a message published in the Spion Kop despatches, p 32, as follows: "Officer commanding Imperial Light Infantry. Withdraw and at once. 2am W J Bonus, Brigade-Major". No explanation of any kind is given as to this message, although it is appended to a report by General Talbot Coke the text of which gives the impression that the troops were all down the hill before midnight.
The losses of the Imperial Light Infantry, as published at the time, were: killed—2 officers, Lieutenants Rudall and Kynoch-Shand, and 29 non-commissioned officers and men; wounded—3 officers, Captain Cole-man, Lieutenants H R Brown and Richards, and 110 non-commissioned officers and men; missing—19 men. Most of the latter were afterwards found to have been killed or wounded.
After the army had recrossed the Tugela, General Warren visited the camp of the Imperial Light Infantry and congratulated them on the splendid fight they had made. He specially mentioned by name several men who had distinguished themselves, among them being Private T Hughes, who, in a duel with some Boers among rocks not 50 yards away, was hit five times.
Coke's Brigade was not engaged at Vaal Krantz in the beginning of February. When General Buller gave up his efforts against the enemy's right and took back his army to the position opposite Colenso, the Imperial Light Infantry were left, with Colonel Burn-Murdoch's cavalry, to protect the left rear of the Natal army, but, before the close of the fourteen days' fighting, all available troops were needed about Colenso. The regiment marched to Chieveley, arriving there on the 22nd at noon. Four companies, under Major Hay, were now ordered to Colenso, where they were to report to General Hart. It was thought that their duties would be the off-loading stores at the railway bridge which was broken. As soon as they had dinners the 4 companies entrained for Colenso, but on arrival there found the army was across the river, very heavy firing going on upon the north side. They crossed in a pont, this operation taking two hours. Major Hay endeavoured to find General Hart's whereabouts while there was still some light; a staff-officer pointed to some hills. After a short sleep and a fatiguing and anxious march, for the enemy's lines were close at hand and the ground broken, Hart's Brigade was found as reveille was sounding on the 23rd. The 4 companies were put into the Irish Brigade, their companions being the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, and Royal Dublin Fusiliers. On the afternoon of the 23rd the Brigade assaulted Hart's Hill, one of the strongest of the many immensely strong positions north of the Tugela. The Imperial Light Infantry were directed by General Hart to move down the river to the right; they then moved up a ravine, turned to the left and assaulted the left of the Boer position on that hill, but a very heavy fire struck them from trenches on the east or opposite side of the ravine, which trenches seemed to be receiving no attention from any one. Major Hay, who was said to have behaved with great gallantry at Spion Kop and on this occasion, fell badly wounded. His men never reached the top of the hill. The Irish regiments in the frontal attack also failed to reach the top. General Buller said the troops failed to carry the top of the hill, but they established themselves in the lower sangars and other positions, "which ensured our ultimate success". The casualties of the brigade were very heavy. There was some confusion about the losses of the Imperial Light Infantry. Lieutenant Blake Knox of the RAMC, who made up the return, says: "The Imperial Light Infantry had Major Hay wounded, and among the men 19 were killed, 105 wounded, and 8 missing—some of these casualties occurring on the 24th", but an officer of the corps says the losses were not so great, and that these figures must have included some men not belonging to them. The 4 companies took part in the further operations which on the 27th were crowned with success, the whole Boer position being captured and the road to Ladysmith opened.
In mentioning Lieutenant Colonel Nash in the despatch of 30th March General Buller said: "Commanded the Imperial Light Infantry. The extremely good work done by the Battalion is due to the excellent manner in which it was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Nash". Of course the material must have been very good, otherwise the best of regimental officers could not have got a hastily raised body of untrained men to do this good work with the very limited preparation possible. Seven non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned in the same despatch, 4 of whom got the DCM.
After the relief of Ladysmith the regiment was mainly employed in the Greytown district under Colonel Bethune (see Bethune's Mounted Infantry). They performed valuable service until General Buller moved forward to clear the Biggarsberg in May. Colonel Bethune's force co-operated with General Buller, and joined him near Helpmakaar about the 14th. From June to October the regiment did garrison duty about Newcastle and Volksrust. In his final despatch General Buller, in referring to the regiment, said: "This battalion, which was raised at a time Natal was short of troops has done good service. It has latterly been well commanded by Major (local Lieutenant Colonel) M C Curry, Devonshire Regiment".
During 1901 the Imperial Light Infantry garrisoned various forts and posts on the borders of Natal, and in the south-east corner of the Transvaal. They were disbanded in June, as by that time mounted troops were what was needed. Many of the men joined mounted corps.
The Mentions gained were as follows:—
Sir C Warren's despatch: 1st February 1900, for Spion Kop.— Lieutenant Colonel Nash, commanding ILI, reports that Corporal Pack Weldon refused to surrender until compelled to do so; he was killed outside the trenches. Private Chambers showed conspicuous bravery under fire when leading men in firing-line; he was killed. Private Hughes, wounded five times, wished to return to firing-line, but was prevented by those dressing his wounds.
General Buller's despatches: 30th March 1900.— Again mentions Pack Weldon and Hughes, and states that after being wounded Hughes returned to the firing-line and was wounded on right shoulder, then, firing from left shoulder, he was successively wounded in left arm, throat, wrist, hand, and chest. Private R Hunter, on February 24th in action near Pieter's Hill, whilst under a heavy fire, twice built walls round wounded comrades. Private G Reed in same action, while under heavy fire, carried a wounded man of the Connaught Rangers to shelter of a kraal, and remained with him after other men had retired. Major (local Lieutenant Colonel) Nash in terms already given; Quartermaster Sergeant Hillstead; Pay-Sergeant G Pirie, R C Geddes.
9th November 1900.—Major Curry; Captain C C Maynard, 2nd Devons; 2nd Lieutenant (local Captain) G H Jackson, 1st Border Regiment; Captain and Adjutant H Bousfield; 2nd Lieutenat Gregorie.
Lord Roberts' despatch: 2nd April 1901.—Captain Bousfield; 2nd Lieutenant Gregorie; Corporal P M Weldon (killed); Privates Chambers (killed), T Hughes, Hunter, G Reed.
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