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Researching Your Ancestor in the Anglo-Boer War

The Army

There is lots of archive material on those who fought in the Boer War spread over the world in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. There is also plenty of background material to give you a flavour of the experiences likely met by your ancestor. Much preliminary research can be done on-line and there is lots of background material on the Internet too.

What can you find out about your ancestor?

For most participants you should be able to build up a pretty accurate picture of their war: which unit (or units) they fought with, how long they served, battles fought in, did they become a casualty and what medals they were awarded. As with all research you can get a lot more and unfortunately not very much.

Where you start your research depends upon what you know about the person you are researching. With the exception of the British Regular Army discharge papers (class WO97 at The National Archives) and on-line sources the military records are all arranged by unit. Knowing which unit they served with is the key to unlocking the history behind "your man".

I know......

- Just the name

At this stage it is important to gather every scrap of information about the person's military career; any clue could be vital.

The hardest start point but it is becoming easier with the advent of on-line databases:

This is the most largest and most comprehensive listing anywhere, also available at FindmyPast.

Service papers on FindmyPast and Ancestry can be searched by name, date of birth and other biographical details - See below under Name and Unit for more details.

You can now search the medal rolls at Ancestry - but beware the mis-transcriptions, errors and missing names from their index.


The object is to find a unit and each of these sites will provide you with a unit. With a list of likely names and units you can begin to narrow the list down by excluding say those who died, regular army/volunteer, members of colonial units recruited in South Africa/Australia/Canada/UK, officer/other rank and so on.

With a unit you can move on to the next section 'Name and Unit'.

- Name and Unit

Here the critical question is "what type of unit" as this will lead to the relevant Archive to search for service papers:

  • British Regular Army and Militia, Imperial Yeomanry, units raised in South Africa specifically for the war
  • The National Archives
    • WO97 - Regular Army, now available on FindmyPast
      • Generally full of useful military detail - if not here then try the "WWI" Service and Pension papers on Ancestry (see below) even if they did not serve in WWI
      • If they went on to serve in World War I then look in the "WWI" Pension and Service papers (WO363 and WO364) - very rarely will there be papers in WO97 for WWI servicemen. See also www.ancestry.co.uk.
      • Research tip: On the front page of WO97 papers if you see a notation like '1234/FW/M' this indicates the soldier had a separate file raised by the Ministry of Pensions, these are filed at the National Archives class PIN71. These are not available on the internet, if you want these copied please email me.
    • WO96 - Militia
      • Basic biographical detail,, now available on FindmyPast
    • Volunteer battalions - check WO97 (see above) as they enlisted for 1 years special service
    • WO128 - Imperial Yeomanry
      • Basic biographical detail, dates of service
      • If not here then check WO97
    • WO126 - Colonial Units attestation/discharge papers
      • Basic biographical detail, can be very sketchy
      • There are papers Town Guards (but not it appears Kimberley, Ladysmith or Mafeking), District Mounted Troops and Cape Colonial Force members
    • WO127 - Colonial Units nominal rolls
      • Can supplement WO126 with enlistment and discharge dates and miscellaneous notes
      • Use the National Archives on-line catalogue to establish which units they hold material for; generally all units raised specifically for the war.
  • Australian Units
  • Canadian Units
  • New Zealand Units - no on-line source known
  • Cape Colony Permanent Force and Police
  • Civilians
    • There are no military records for civilians who served in regular army units, e.g. conductors in the Army Service Corps, vets in the Remount and Army Veterinary Department

With a name and a unit you can now search the medal rolls.

Medal Rolls

The medal rolls for all units, military and civilian, are held at the National Archives (WO100). I have a copy of these from which I can verify a medal entitlement for you.

The purpose of the medal rolls was to create a list of personnel entitled to a campaign medal and which bars (or clasps) they earned. The rolls in the National Archives were working documents, full of corrections, crossings out and annotations. These were not the actual rolls sent to the Mint from which medals were made up and named, these have probably been destroyed.

Beyond the basic information on the roll of initial(s), rank, number and clasps entitlement the notes added by the compilers can include full name, address medal sent to (can be next of kin), whether died, other units served in and sometimes the reason why they are not entitled to a medal; deserted or convicted of an offence. The medal rolls for the volunteer colonial units tend to contain the most extra information rather than the Regular Army. Soldiers of colonial units often served in more than one unit, up to five is not uncommon, and this had to be tracked to avoid duplicate medal issue and to locate the man so he could receive his medal.

The medal rolls are arranged by unit and generally are in alphabetical order by surname. The medal rolls for the corps; Artillery, Medical and Service Corp are sub-divided by sub-unit such as battery or company. If you don't know the sub-unit then searching the medal rolls is lengthy process - although the Artillery has a nominal index in rolls WO100/137 and /138. This index is ordered by first letter surname only and then date medal issued. You can use to short cut this process as most entries for the corps show the sub-unit or point you to a specific roll which will save you a lot of time.

Many men of the British Regular Army did not serve in the war with their parent unit and cannot be found on the parent unit roll. Men attached to the Remount Department are a good example as are many men who served on the various Staff formations. Again The Register of the Anglo-Boer War [link] is a good place to search as it uses the medal rolls and cross references units; so searching for Private Swales of the 10th Hussars who isn't on the 10th Hussars medal roll reveals him to have been a servant to Major-General Brabazon who commanded the Imperial Yeomanry during the war. Swales isn't even listed in the IY rolls but on the Staff roll WO100/299.

Even if you have the medal it is always worth checking the medal roll to see what other information is noted. Also some bars (clasps), especially South Africa 1901and South Africa 1902 were issued loose and have become separated from the medal.

What did they do?

Having established the unit, medal entitlement and hopefully got a set of papers telling when and for how long they served in South Africa it is now possible to write a good summary of their likely war service.

There are a huge number of regimental histories covering the Anglo-Boer War. The War Diary as known in World War I and later did not exist, although every Regular Army unit did keep a diary of sorts. In many instances these diaries formed the basis of a publication, some were edited to provide a more interesting read and others were published verbatim. Many individuals wrote their own accounts, either a unit history or their personal experiences.

There isn't a comprehensive list of Anglo-Boer War books on the Internet, but the Source list used in The Register of the Anglo-Boer War provides a good starting point. Also try the Ogilby Trust for regimental histories. Many of these books are now very scarce and expensive some have been re-printed by Boer War Books and Naval & Military Press. For those of you in the UK try the inter-library loan service at your local library.

The general history of the war is well covered too, again the Source list used in The Register of the Anglo-Boer War provides a good starting point.

The Navy

This is far simpler than the Army.

Service papers for naval personnel are available on-line at The National Archives.

The medal rolls which at the National Archives have been reproduced in a book:

Queen's South Africa medal to the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines
WH Feyver & JW Wilson
Re-printed by Naval and Military Publishing

For a history of each ship during the war read:

Afloat and Ashore
Peter Singlehurst
Token Publishing 2006

I hope you have found this useful and informative in your quest for information. Should you have any questions please feel free to contact me. (e-mail link)

Meurig Jones
January 2012

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