What was the Boer War?
The word ‘Boer’ comes from the Dutch and Afrikaans for farmer or husbandman and refers to settlers in southern Africa of Dutch, German and Huguenot ancestry. The First Boer War of 1880–1881, also known as the Transvaal Rebellion, saw Boers of the Transvaal revolting against the British annexation of their land in 1877. However, mentions of the Boer War normally refer to the longer, bloodier and much better-known Second Anglo-Boer War, fought between the British Empire and two Boer States from 11 October 1899 to 31 May 1902.
With its quick-firing rifles, machine guns and high explosives, the Second Anglo-Boer War is often characterised by historians as a kind of bridge between the smaller-scale colonial wars that pepper Queen Victoria’s reign, and the increasingly mechanised bloodshed of the First and Second World Wars. It is also remembered for the Boers’ successful use of guerrilla tactics against British forces, and for the British use of concentration camps, in which they imprisoned Boer civilians.
Boer War records: The best websites
The Casus-Belli military history website is home to The Register of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, a pay-per-view list of over 362,000 soldiers’ names, as well as guides to researching Boer War ancestors. The Register has been compiled from over 565 sources, many of which are available elsewhere, but the site claims a high level of accuracy and also includes details about injuries and causes of death that are not included elsewhere. Prices to view a single record start at £1 with reductions for multiple purchases.
2. Ancestry Casualties of the Boer War
Ancestry has a collection of more than 54,000 Boer War records of British soldiers killed, captured or wounded during the conflict. It also has ‘Campaign Medal and Award Rolls, 1793–1949’, which you can search for the two Boer campaign medals: the Queen’s South Africa (for service to 22 January 1901), and the King’s (for service from the accession of Edward VII to the war’s end). Men might also be awarded clasps, which can tell you roughly where they served. The site also has the National Army Museum’s Registers of Soldiers’ Effects 1901–1929.
3. The National Archives Boer War Records
This guide from The National Archives summarises where you might find the government’s Boer War records, before directing you to the more genealogically relevant guides to soldiers, officers and campaigns up to 1913. Together these detail campaign medals, army lists, service records and more. Some are searchable online, such as Boer War officers’ service records (in WO25 and WO76). You can list results by relevance or date, before downloading any digitised records. Other important collections of Boer War records include attestation and discharge papers in WO97.
This project, led by Dr Elizabeth van Heyningen of the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town, records the names of the thousands of individuals who were imprisoned in the British-run camps designed to hold residents of the two Boer republics of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. The concentration camps were established towards the end of 1900, and this database, drawn from the original registers, was built in order to investigate prisoners’ mortality rates.
Chosen by Anthony Dawson, author of Real War Horses: The Experience of the British Cavalry 1814–1914:
“One of the best websites for Boer War records is angloboerwar.com, a website set up and run by Boer War historian David Biggins. It contains details on the 1899–1902 war as well as earlier conflicts in Africa from 1779 onwards. It lists an extensive bibliography and has three main forums, with recent topics on the role of certain military units, Boer prisoners, and other conflicts in South Africa.”
More Boer War records websites
Findmypast has British Army service records from 1760 to 1939, plus a dedicated Anglo-Boer War Records database. This contains more than 293,000 names, drawn from casualty lists and other transcribed sources. Findmypast also has soldiers’ service papers held at The National Archives in series WO97, plus militia attestation papers from series WO96.
You can find indexes and photographs of war memorials commemorating those who died in the conflict at TheGenealogist, plus Army Lists from the era. Army Lists are also found on the Internet Archive, where you can also download the War Office’s History of the War in South Africa, 1899–1902 for free. You could also try Forces War Records, which has Boer casualty records, while you can search a Boer Roll of Honour here. The Boer Wars also has useful background information about the conflict.
The index Soldiers of the Queen in the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902 lists soldiers, sailors and nurses who served.
Old newspapers might record casualties or men singled out for bravery. Your local library or archive may have online finding aids, and try the British Newspaper Archive (also available on Findmypast). You’ll also find a list of dispatches and Victoria Cross citations for both Boer Wars from The Gazette. Medal collectors’ forums such as British Medals Forum can help identify any medals or insignia, while Wikipedia is useful for background information on types of medal.
The Sandhurst Collection Archive website allows you to search registers of cadets who attended the academy between 1800 and 1946, and the Royal Military Academy Woolwich between 1790 and 1939; downloading an image costs £5.99. And you can visit a ‘virtual museum’ of British military photos from the Victorian era, with biographies, at Soldiers of the Queen.
The South African Constabulary was created in 1900 to police captured Boer areas. If your ancestor was one of over 10,000 men who served on the force, you can search the database here.
Jonathan Scott is the author of A Dictionary of Family History