The Somerset Light Infantry

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(13th Regiment of Foot - Prince Albert's)

The Earl of Huntingdon's Regiment of Foot - 1685

The Earl of Huntingdon's Regiment of Foot - 1685

In 1685, King James II of England, recognising the threat to his throne from the Duke of Monmouth, commissioned Theophilus, the 7th Earl of Huntingdon, to raise a Regiment of foot soldiers. This Regiment was to be known as the Earl of Huntingdon's Regiment and would eventually be called the Somerset Light Infantry.

The Earl of Huntingdon commanded the Regiment for 3 years. In 1688 the Army transferred its allegiance to King William of Orange - the Protestant King who succeeded James II. At the same time, the Catholic Earl handed over command of the Regiment to Ferdinand Hastings, who was a Protestant, and the Regiment, following the custom of Regiments to be called after the name of their Commanding Officer, took the title of Hastings' Regiment. It was also known as the 13th Regiment of Foot.

The regiment's first battle was at Killiekrankie in 1689. This was a defeat for the English, but Hastings' Regiment is reported to have distinguished itself and was the only English regiment to stand fast amid the general rout of King William's forces.

The first Battle Honour was that of 'Gibraltar' when the Regiment, under the command of the Earl of Barrymore, played its part in the raising of the Siege of Gibraltar in 1705. Whilst serving in the War of Spanish Succession, the C-in-C (the Earl of Peterborough) ordered that the role of the Regiment should be changed from that of foot soldiers to cavalry. From 1706-1713, the Regiment was on horse-back and was called Pearce's Dragoons. In 1725, Lord Mark Kerr became the Colonel-in-Chief. Some 55 years later, a direct descendant of Kerr also became the Colonel of the Regiment (and was responsible for handing over the Burma Memorial, which stands in the centre of the town, to the Borough Council of Taunton).

Pearce's Dragoons 1707-13

Pearce's Dragoons 1707-13

Under Colonel Pulteney the Regiment took part in the Battle of Dettingen (1743) - the last battle in which the English Sovereign led his troops into battle. It also took part in the famous Battle of Culloden in 1746 - the last battle to be fought on British soil - when the English Army defeated the Scots under Bonnie Prince Charlie. It is thought that the English C-in-C, the Earl of Cumberland, was so impressed with the performance of the Regiment that he gave instructions for the senior NCOs to wear their sashes over their left shoulders (similar to the Officers). This unique tradition still exists in the successor Regiment today, although its true origin is still in some doubt.

In about 1752, regiments of the British Army ceased to be called by the name of their Commanding Officer. They took instead their seniority number in the line. In the case of this Regiment, it was known as the 13th Regiment of Foot. Although in 1766 the Regiment had its first connection with the Royal family when HRH The Duke of Gloucester became Colonel of the Regiment, it was not until 1782 that the Regiment was first officially connected to the County of Somerset. King George II decreed that all Regiments should be affiliated to a particular Territorial area of the country. The 13th of Foot thus became known as the 1st Somersetshire Regiment.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Regiment found itself on the periphery of the main conflict areas. In 1801 it took part in the assault landing at Aboukir Bay in Egypt, when a combined British Naval and Army force defeated Napoleon's troops and captured Alexandria. This was yet another battle Honour and the Regiment was also accorded the distinction of wearing the Sphinx in its cap badge and the name 'Egypt' appeared in the centre of the Regimental Colour. Service in Egypt was followed by further fighting in the French West Indies when the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe were captured. The Regiment was then sent to Canada in 1813 where it was involved in the war with the United States of America, which had invaded Canada. It was, in fact, in North America that it first used Light Infantry tactics to good effect. In 1822, on Christmas Day, the Regiment was accorded the significant privilege of being appointed a Light Infantry Regiment.

Major Robert ("fighting bob") Sale rescues a soldier from a Burmese Chief at Rangoon 8th July 1824

It was also in 1822 that the Regiment was posted to India where it was later required to take part in the Burmese War (1824-26). This was the start of an extraordinary link with the Indian continent. From then on, apart from a few short periods, there was always one of the Regiment's Battalions serving on the Indian continent. Indeed, the Regiment was to be the last British unit to leave India after its Independence in February 1948.

Of all the Battle Honours bestowed upon the Regiment none surpasses that of 'Jellalabad'. The Regiment was besieged by a greatly superior force of Afghans in the town of Jellalabad from November 1841 to April 1842. The conduct of the Regiment during the siege and the courage and resilience of all ranks was legendary. After the relieving force failed to reach the town which had by now been turned into a fortress, the decision was taken to break out. This was successfully accomplished on 7th April 1842 when the Regiment (together with a Bengal Native Regiment) defeated an Afghan rebel force estimated to be six times greater in number.

Original sketch of Jellalabad June 1842

News of the courageous breakout soon reached England. Queen Victoria was so impressed that she ordered that the Regiment should henceforth be known as 'Prince Albert's Regiment of Light Infantry' after her Consort. The Queen also approved the change of colour of the Regiment's uniform facings from yellow to royal blue. A special campaign medal was struck to commemorate the siege. The name 'Jellalabad' would appear in a scroll at the top of the Regimental badge and the badge would also contain a mural crown (referring to the fortress walls of Jellalabad) and the initials 'PA' (Prince Albert). In Parliament, the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, referred to the Regiment as the 'Illustrious Garrison'.

The Regiment next saw active service in the Crimean War and played its part in suppressing the Indian Mutiny. It was at Azimgurh in 1858 that the Regiment earned its first two Victoria Crosses. They were awarded to Pte Patrick Carlin and Sgt William Napier - both for exceptional bravery in rescuing wounded colleagues under heavy enemy fire. It was also in 1858 that the Regiment formed its 2nd battalion at Winchester.

The 1st Battalion fought in the Zulu War (1877-79) when, at the Battle of Ulundi, it carried its Colours into battle for the last time. Maj William Knox Leet was awarded the Victoria Cross during this campaign. In 1885-87 the 2nd Battalion saw its first action when it took part in the Burma War. A memorial to all those members of the Regiment who lost their lives in this conflict was erected by the Regiment and now stands in the centre of Taunton, having been moved to its present position in 1997. Meanwhile in Taunton a new Barracks was built on the site of an old and rather smaller Barracks. This new Barracks was known as Jellalabad Barracks. Apart from the Keep, which still stands much as it has ever done, most of the Barracks has been demolished and new housing, has been built on the site.

The 13th Light Infantry at the Battle of Ulundi - 1879. The Battalion firing in line flanked by artillery

The British Army found itself short of available troops to go to South Africa in 1899 to fight in the Boer War. The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment was deployed there and so were some members of the West and North Somerset Yeomanry (the equivalent of the TA). Even some members of the Somerset Militia were sent to South Africa - an extremely rare event for a Militia unit. Then came the Great War (1914-18). The Regiment formed no less than 19 Battalions. Many fought in Europe, but there were also some which were sent to India and the Middle East. The Regiment suffered nearly 5000 casualties as a result of the Great War. One member, Pte Tom Sage, of the 8th Battalion was awarded the Victoria Cross.

In the Second World War the Regiment formed 10 Battalions. The 1st Battalion was in India and saw service in Burma. One of its Officers, Lt George Cairns, whilst on attachment to the South Staffordshire Regiment won a posthumous Victoria Cross fighting against the Japanese. The 2nd Battalion fought in the Italian Campaign and later in Greece. It was in Italy where Maj Gen John Harding started to show prominence as Chief of Staff to General Alexander. Harding was to go on to be Field Marshal The Lord Harding of Petherton - the Regiment's most famous son. The 4th and 7th Battalions landed in Normandy 2 weeks after D-Day and fought their way through France, Belgium and Holland with the 43rd Wessex Division. At the end of the war both Battalions were in the area of Bremen having suffered terrible casualties. The 10th Battalion was re-roled as a Parachute battalion in 1942. It landed on the canal and river bridges north of Caen in the early hours of D-Day and was to see further action as the North-West Europe campaign progressed.

Field Marshal Lord Harding of Petherton GCB CBE DSO MC - Died 20/01/1989.
On 28th February 1948, the 1st Battalion The Somerset Light Infantry marched through the Gateway of India in Bombay after having taken part in a huge ceremonial Parade. The Battalion was the last British unit to leave India after it had received its Independence in August 1947. It was during this Parade that the Regiment was presented with a magnificent silver replica of the Gateway of India by the Army of India. This magnificent item of silver can be seen in the Military Museum in the Castle in Taunton. The Battalion returned by troopship to Liverpool where they received a hero's welcome as, indeed, they received in Taunton, when they arrived there by train a day later.

The 2nd Battalion was disbanded in 1948 as part of the Government's post-war defence cuts. In 1952, after some intensive training in Germany, the lst Battalion was deployed to Malaya for a 3 year tour of duty fighting against the Communist terrorists in the jungle. The Battalion had a most successful tour of duty in that theatre. This was followed by counter-insurgency operations in Cyprus (where Field Marshal Harding was the Governor) in 1956. The anti-tank platoon also saw action in the Suez Operation in 1956. In 1959, at Warminster, the Regiment carried out its final Parade before amalgamation with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry to become the Somerset and Cornwall Light Infantry.

The Regiment survives today as The 2nd Battalion The Light Infantry

Somerset Light Infantry Regimental Association
Contact: 14 Mount Street, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 3QE, Tel: 01823 333434 ext 663 or 665


Wednesday, 21 September, 2016 18:25

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