Research Methodology and Sources

The biographical entries appended to this website were compiled to illustrate the main sources available for researching Australian soldiers who fought in South Africa during the Boer War of 1899-1902.  They were compiled without the benefit of any prior knowledge of the subjects and without personal information that most family historians would have available to them.  The sources used have been selected to illustrate the wide variety of material and information available.  The findings are not consistent for every individual with research on some revealing more information than others.

The research starting point for almost 17,000 men serving in official contingents raised within Australia is the Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, compiled and edited by Lt Col P L Murray, for the Department of Defence in 1911.  This book is arranged by state and within each state are listed the contingents chronologically in order of them leaving Australia.  The men are listed within each contingent, commencing with officers, then non-commissioned officers and lastly the other ranks.  Usually, but not always the other ranks are listed alphabetically and sometimes in order of enlistment, according to their regimental number.  The index in Murray's Official Records etc does not list all the names of those that appear in it.  It does contain officer’s names, those awarded decorations and awards, those listed as badly injured or killed and some other minor details.  There are two sources that allow quick access to the information.  One is the Boer War Nominal Roll available on the Australian War Memorial (AWM) website based on an index to Murray’s Official Records etc prepared by Dr R McLachlan in which all the names appearing in the volume have been indexed.  This index is available in hardcopy at the AWM and National Archives of Australia (NAA) and portions of it are also available electronically through a number of Boer War websites linked to this site. (See Links).  Once a name has been located in either the Boer War Nominal Roll or the McLachlan Index it will refer to the page on which the name appears in the Murray’s Official Records etc.  This will then establish the name of the contingent the soldier served in.  It will tell you when and from where the contingent as a whole was formed, set sail, the engagements it took part in and when it returned, as well as other details such as equipment and numbers of horses used by the contingent.  Some men have details such as wounded, invalided, returned to Australia, promotions etc. recorded next to their names.  Others have no details except a regimental number, names, (sometimes only initials are given) and rank.

You may find more than one soldier of the same name but this does not necessarily mean there is more than one person.  It is known that many men after returning with one contingent, re-enlisted in another (with a new regimental number and sometimes in another state) to return to South Africa.  The next step is to check the nominal rolls for the contingents, which are held in Melbourne but microfilm copies are available in each state office of the NAA and provide valuable information, although it is not consistent for all contingents.  Some nominal rolls eg. 3rd Imperial Bushmen's Contingent (NAA microfilm, Series No B5204) gives fairly broad information not only on the soldier but also his wife and children if he is married.  Medal lists, repatriation records, pay ledgers, discharges, correspondence and returns make up the bulk of records held.

The quantity and quality of material appearing in official records varies greatly.  It is not all held in one place nor is it complete, when the records are brought together.  The majority of records relating to the Boer War are held in the Melbourne Office of NAA, although there are some files held in Canberra and other state capital offices.  Dossiers are available for some 5,000 Boer War soldiers, but do not contain the quality, quantity and type of material that can be found in a WWI soldier's file.  Some dossiers contain only a single sheet of paper totally unrelated to a soldier's Boer War service.  Consult the NAA website to ascertain which records can assist you.

Federation in 1901 brought a more uniform approach to record keeping for the army, with records from the states being kept in Melbourne, some of which were eventually transferred to AWM in Canberra.  This complements those held by the NAA but it seems many records have not survived.  The main official records series AWM1 & AWM3 contain much of interest to family historians - shooting and riding results, medical examinations, promotions, courts martial, discipline and punishments, medals and awards, accounts of voyages and engagements.  Correspondence, muster rolls, applications for commissions, agent’s registers, reports on regiments and accommodation conditions, can add much to the family historian’s knowledge.  Records from colonial garrisons predate the war by some twenty years but give details of some men who enlisted for service in the Boer War.  The Private Records held by the AWM provide another dimension and give depth and insight into official records through the writings, papers, diaries and ephemera of individuals.  The private records of commanding officers are of particular interest and frequently challenge what is regarded as 'official'.  The extensive library contains much contemporary material written during or shortly after the war in addition to more recent material.  Maps and photographs illustrate the progress of battles and other aspects of lives of the Australians who fought and died in the war.  A walk though the Australians in South Africa gallery will acquaint you with an overall picture of the progress of the war, the appalling conditions the men and nurses lived under and the resulting loss of more than 600 lives in official Australian contingents.

Information on nurses is regrettably, extremely sparse.  The names of only twenty-seven are listed in Murray's Official Records etc, but it is known from various sources that there were in excess of eighty Australian nurses serving in South Africa during the war.  Some even paid their own way or with the assistance of public subscriptions made their way to South Africa.

Newspapers and in particular pictorial publications such as the Sydney Mail, Town and Country Journal, The Australasian and the Queenslander provided extensive coverage of the war.  They employed well-known writers as war correspondents.  Men such as A B 'Banjo' Paterson and W J Lambie reported and photographed the action, and at times took great personal risk to get their story - in Lambie’s case it cost him his life.  The pictorial material produced in the first year and half of the war is particularly rich and informative, with many individuals featured.

If you are certain that an Australian served in the Boer War and cannot find them listed in Murray's Official Records etc, it is possible that they may have served as an irregular, ie not with an official Australian unit. Many Australians served with units raised in South Africa or another country such as England, Canada or New Zealand.  A large number of Australians were living and working in South Africa before war was declared and these men enlisted in local units to protect their livelihoods.  At the end of a contingent’s tour of duty, men who had enlisted in Australia frequently transferred to these units without returning to Australia or sought employment in some government position in the colony.  The irregular units are not easy to trace.  References can be found to such units as Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, Bethune's Mounted Infantry and the Natal Carbineers in records but they usually do not give complete lists of those who served.  There is currently no complete list of these estimated 8,000 irregulars.  However, researchers and historians are making progress, with at least one publication expected within the next few months.  The family historian may have to be prepared to seek information from overseas, but there is a source that should not be neglected – contact or advertise your interest on one of the many websites, dedicated to Boer War research.  Contacting a family or local history society can be extremely beneficial to your research as can advertising in your family history society magazine.  A read through the local newspaper for the hometown of your soldier may reveal the name of the unit he served with and other valuable information.  There may even be letters he had written home, published in the local or regional newspaper.  Of course do not forget any family material such as letters, photographs, postcards and mementos relating to the soldier.

Are the official records right?  As with all records many discrepancies occur in those relating to the Boer War.  For an example refer to the biography of Lt Col C E E Umphelby of Victoria.  All the sources quoted in relation to his death and burial would be expected to be accurate, but they do not agree.  But family historians do enjoy a challenge!