Military Ancestors: Boer War Ancestors

Remembrance Day this year coincides with the centenary of the WWI battles of Vimy and Passchendale. There are some great blog posts from other bloggers showing you ways to search your WWI ancestors\’ details.

What I\’d like to do this week is highlight a lesser known set of veterans, those who fought in the Boer War. Also called the South African War, this was the first time that Canadian troops were sent overseas. The War ran from 1899-1902, with Britain and her allies fighting against the Afrikaner republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The Afrikaners were of German, Swiss and Dutch descent. They were staunchly against becoming part of the British Empire. Compared to the World Wars, the Canadian contingent sent was small. Just over 7,000 troops went, and 12 nursing sisters. What should be noted is that the entire force volunteered to go. There was no conscription. Of the over 60,000 military and civilian lives lost, 270 were Canadian.

The issue of whether to not send troops was one of many in our country\’s history that have divided people along French and English lines. The French, never a proponent of British Imperialism to begin with, were very much against sending troops. English Canadians, on the other hand, were very much for sending troops. Loyalty to Britain was very strong. Don\’t forget that we only officially became a country 30 years or so before the war began.

Now to the records. Library and Archives Canada has a database online called South African War, 1899- 1902 – Service Files, Medals and Land Applications. You can search by name, regimental number, and/or by regiment.

I typed in \”McDonald\”. Sometimes it\’s good having a common last name. You\’re sure to get hits. I also entered \”John\” in the given name box, just to narrow it down at least a little. This gave me 18 hits. The way that the results are set up, you\’ll get land applications results first, then services files, then medals. So make sure you flip through all the results, because your particular ancestor may be listed 3 separate times. So for John McDonald there were 10 under land applications, and 8 under the heading of service files.

Land Grants
I clicked on the first one under land grants, for a Daniel John McDonald, and this is what came up:

Now, these particular records are not digitized yet. Using the information on this index you can order a reproduction through the website here. The applications were two pages and includes name, place of residence, and a summary of their service.

If you have an Ancestry subscription though, then you\’re in luck. They have digitized some of the records in their database Canada, South African War Land Grants, 1908-1910. By putting in Daniel John McDonald into the search, I was able to see his application. Just remember that these are 2 page applications. Don\’t forget to flip to the next page in the images, so you get a look at both pages.

Service Files
Now for the service records. I clicked on Daniel John McDonald under the service file section. If he\’s an ancestor of yours, then good for you because it\’s 29 pages. Within it I found attestation papers, physical descriptions, and letters of reference. I also found notation of his application to the War Allowances Board.

One thing I should mention though is that these service files are extremely cumbersome to work with. This is especially true compared to working with the WWI services files that the LAC is digitizing. You cannot download the whole file at once. What you do is look at each image. Click on the image to enlarge it. Then right click on the image to save to your computer.

There were no John McDonalds listed as getting a medal, so I took away the \”John\” and just went with \”McDonald\”. I skimmed through the 117 results until I found the medals section. It appears that there are no given names, just first initials. So I found a D. J. McDonald that had the same regiment number as our Daniel John above. The image is a chart of several names, detailing what medals each soldier was qualified for, where presented and by whom.

South African Constabulary
In 1901, around 1,200 Canadians traveled to South Africa to become part of the South African Constabulary to keep order in the area. If you cannot find your ancestor among the service files, then perhaps they were part of the Constabulary. Since they were not financed by the Canadian government, there is very little on this side of the Atlantic pertaining to them. According to the LAC, the service files of these individuals are held by the National Archives of South Africa. Contact information for both locations is listed on the main page of the collection (see link at the beginning of this post).

They also say that FamilySearch has microfilmed the service files. When I clicked on the link provided, it brought me to the Family History Library\’s catalog page. They have 32 rolls of microfilm pertaining to the Constabulary. Good news is that they have been digitized. Bad news is that they are not indexed.

So, click on the camera at the far right of the microfilm listing. This will take you to the images on the microfilm. They all show up at once as little thumbnails, but you can fix it so it only looks at one image at a time. Just look to the right under the + and – and you\’ll see what looks like a box within a box. Click on that and you\’ll be able to browse image by image. With 32 microfilms to browse through, this looks like a rainy day project.

British Units
If you cannot find your ancestor in the Canadian contingent, then perhaps they fought with a British unit. Both the National Archives in England and Find My Past have records relating to British Boer War soldiers.

Book of Remembrance
If your ancestor was one of the 270 Canadians who died in the war, there is a Book of Remembrance dedicated to them in Ottawa. You can search for their entry on Veteran\’s Affairs\’ website here.

For a more detailed history of the Boer War and Canada\’s involvement you can look at the following sites:

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