Trace your Boer War ancestors like Charles Dance

By Guest, 6 July 2017 - 7:06pm

Inspired by Charles Dance’s episode? Genealogist Laura Berry explains how to find records of ancestors who served in the South African conflict


British soldiers stop for a ‘scratch meal’ during the Second Boer War campaign, c1901 (Photo: Getty Images)

Actor Charles Dance was surprised to learn that a photo of his father in military uniform actually dated from the Second Boer War, not the First World War as he had originally thought.

If you struggle to find a male ancestor of fighting age in the 1901 census at home, there’s every chance he could have been away at war like Walter Dance. Approximately half a million men served in the South African conflict, thousands of them having signed up to the British Army precisely for that purpose.

Your ancestor could have been in the regular British Army, or in a Militia unit attached to a regular battalion. Alternatively he may have been a civilian Reservist who was called upon to join the forces, or perhaps he signed up to the Yeomanry or Volunteers. There are also tales of men heading to South Africa independently and being recruited once there.

The Second Boer War between the British Empire and the combined Boer forces from the South African Republic of the Transvaal and the Republic of the Orange Free State started on 11 October 1899 after negotiations between the two sides to co-exist peacefully as neighbours failed.

The Boers, or Afrikaners, descended from Dutch settlers, and there had been tension ever since the Napoleonic Wars when the British took possession of the Dutch Cape Colony in 1806. Boers subsequently moved out of the Cape Colony and set up two independent republics, which were eventually absorbed into the Union of South Africa in 1910 after the Boers surrendered to the British in May 1902.
 


Records including transcriptions of medal rolls can be searched at Findmypast

Medals and awards

The Queen’s South Africa (QSA) medal was awarded to British soldiers who served between October 1899 and 22 January 1901 (when Queen Victoria died). Men who served after that date were also entitled to the King’s South Africa (KSA) medal. The QSA and KSA medal rolls are held at The National Archives (TNA) in series WO 100, but have been digitised on Ancestry.

Transcriptions from several medal rolls, including records from WO 100, casualty rolls and an index to the Gazetteer of the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902 can be searched at Findmypast.

The medal rolls often give your ancestor’s regiment, battalion, regimental number and their rank, which can help with sourcing service records.
 


The britishmedals.us website features nominal rolls of men who served with the Imperial Yeomanry and other forces in South Africa

Service records

The most comprehensive collection of soldiers’ service papers is held in TNA series WO 97 for those men who were discharged to pension. This collection has been digitised on Findmypast, however if your ancestor died whilst serving or was not entitled to receive a pension when he left the army, then his full service papers may not survive.

Many of the younger soldiers with the British Army during the Second Boer War went on to fight in the First World War, in which case their service record is more likely to be found amongst papers of the 1914–1918 conflict. A substantial number of those records were destroyed during the Blitz, but those that have survived can be found on Ancestry and Findmypast.

Militia Attestation Papers from series WO 96 have also been digitised on Findmypast, as have Imperial Yeomanry attestation and discharge papers held at TNA in series WO 128. You can find out more about researching men with the Militia using this online guide and search for officers’ service records in WO 76 by name on the Discovery catalogue, where they can be downloaded free of charge. Published Army Lists are also useful for tracking an officer’s career.

Nominal rolls of many men who served with the Imperial Yeomanry and other forces in South Africa can be freely accessed here. Soldiers who were recruited locally within South Africa may be found listed in TNA series WO 126 (local armed forces enrolment forms) and WO 127 (local armed forces nominal rolls).

These are original documents that need to be ordered for viewing at TNA.
However, you need to know which regiment a soldier was with in order to start a search. Old photos of your ancestor in uniform could be useful for identifying his regiment.
 


Soldiers’ effects records spanning 1901-1929 have been digitised and published on Ancestry

Casualties

Around 22,000 men who fought for the British cause died in action during the Boer War, more from disease than from inflicted wounds. TNA has a casualty list in WO 108/360, and there’s a list of soldiers buried in cemeteries in Cape Colony in file DO 119/1479.

A searchable database for the Boer War can be found here and TheGenealogist also has indexes and photographs of war memorials commemorating men who died in South Africa.

The National Army Museum’s records of soldiers’ effects for men who died from April 1901 onwards have been digitised on Ancestry. These registers usually name the next-of-kin, the date and sometimes place of death.
 


AngloeBoerWar.com is a treasure trove of Boer War resources

Digging deeper

Once you have established which unit your ancestor served with, and perhaps the dates that they saw service in South Africa, you can try to find out more about their experience of war by reading around the subject.

There’s a free digital copy of the War Office’s History of the War in South Africa, 1899–1902 at Archive.org. Regimental museums and published histories for the regiment can also be useful sources.

Plenty of information about the history of the war and the units that served there can be found at angloboerwar.com, and TNA has an archived list of additional original documents that might be of interest here.

Broadsheet newspapers ran coverage of the war, so it’s worth searching The Times Digital Archive (see if your local library or archive provides free access) and The Guardian and Observer Digital Archive.

Regional newspapers also followed the war closely, and the names of casualties and local men singled out for bravery may be found by searching the British Library’s online collection at britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk (also accessible via a subscription to Findmypast).

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