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Research Guides

The Boer War: Australians and the War in South Africa, 1899–1902

Appendix 1: A note for family historians

Image 13: Alexander Krygger of the 1st West Australian Contingent.

Image 13: Alexander Krygger of the 1st West Australian Contingent.
NAA: A1721, 21
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Family historians who are interested in learning more about a soldier or nurse in one of the Australian contingents to the war should first consult P L Murray's Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa (Government Printer, Melbourne, 1911), which gives a brief history of each contingent's service and lists all its members, their regimental numbers, and whether they were decorated, wounded, invalided home sick, killed or died of disease. Murray's book is too sparsely indexed to be of immediate use if you do not know the contingent in which a person served, but one or more indexes have been compiled, including R McLachlan, Index to Australian Contingents to South Africa (privately published, 1984).

The Australian War Memorial has developed an electronic version of McLachlan's index which allows an electronic search of names of all service personnel who are listed in Murray's Official Records. This database allows researchers to identify the contingent in which the service person served and therefore makes identifying those series of records which may contain further details of the service person a much simpler task. This database is available as the 'Boer War Nominal Roll' through the Australian War Memorial's website.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs has also funded the Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra (HAGSOC) to develop a database of burial and memorial sites of Australian soldiers who died in South Africa during the Boer War. This database is available through the HAGSOC website.

The next step is to learn what you can from other published sources. Government gazettes are useful for finding out when officers were appointed, when a contingent was formed, how much it was paid, and who was contracted to ship it to South Africa. Annual officers' lists, typically called Army and Navy lists, will tell you about an officer's military background. Local newspapers reported in great detail the raising and recruiting of contingents, and contained interviews with officers and men.

You are now ready to tackle the official records discussed in this guide. The first series to consult is B4418, Boer War dossiers (see Chapter 3). It contains around 5 000 dossiers, largely comprising attestation papers giving name, place of birth, nationality, age, occupation, marital status, next of kin, address, religion, previous military service in South Africa, and occasionally medical fitness. Other papers found on some dossiers include medical reports and recent correspondence with family members, the Central Army Records Office and its successor, the Soldier Career Management Agency. Most soldiers for whom dossiers exist enlisted at the end of the war, but even so many of them had served earlier in the war as well. The National Archives can photocopy and post a dossier to family members and interested researchers.

For more detailed searching, nominal rolls and pay documents list names, regimental numbers and – depending on their purpose – dates of birth, addresses, occupations, physical descriptions, next of kin, pay rates and other biographical data. Most of these records are discussed in Chapter 3 on raising and maintaining the contingents and in Chapter 6 on the war's aftermath. Personal case files on pay, insurance, compensation, repatriation and eligibility for medals are plentiful though scattered. This guide indicates which series contain these and how fruitful they might prove.

Do not ignore the documents housed in state archives and the private records held by the Australian War Memorial. Though these vast sources require much time for sifting, they are both valuable and little used. There are also many books written about the war by soldiers and journalists. If you read one written by someone who served in or who was attached to the same unit as the person whose history you are reconstructing, you can learn much about the front-line experiences of that person. Two examples of such histories are:

J H M Abbott, Tommy Cornstalk, Longmans, London, 1902 (for the Australian Horse, part of the second New South Wales contingent); and

W T Reay, Australians in War: With the Australian Regiment from Melbourne to Bloemfontein, Massina, Melbourne, 1901 (for part of the first Victorian contingent).

There are several published guides to tracing the careers of Australian soldiers in the Boer War and other wars, including:

National Archives of Australia, Finding Families: The Guide to the National Archives of Australia for Genealogists, compiled by Margaret Chambers, National Archives of Australia in association with Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1998;

Joyce Bradley and others, Roll Call! A Guide to Genealogical Sources in the Australian War Memorial, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1986;

R H Montague, How to Trace your Military Ancestors in Australia and New Zealand, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1989; and

Allan Box, A Soldier in the Family: A Source Book for Australian Military Genealogy: The First Fleet to the Gulf War, Leongatha, Traralgon Vic., 1993.