Horrors of the Boer War Revealed in Historical Casualty Lists

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Records detail the British soldiers who were killed, wounded, captured or died of disease during the Second Boer War – online today at Ancestry.co.uk. Boer War was fought between the British Empire and Dutch settlers in South Africa | Collection features more than 55,000 records of deaths, injuries and captures | Details soldiers ‘missing’ from the 1901 Census because they were fighting overseas.

Ancestry.co.uk, the UK’s number one family history website1, has launched online the UK, Casualties of the Boer War, 1899-1902, detailing 55,000 British and colonial soldiers who were killed, wounded, captured, or who died of disease during the Second Boer War.

This collection of military records2 highlights the horror of the conflict; detailing the deaths of more than 20,000 British soldiers and the injuries of a further 23,000. Typically each record details the soldier’s name, rank, force, regiment, battalion and date and place of death, injury or capture.

Most of the other records are of capture or disease, which was rife in South Africa during the early 20th century. Dysentery, typhoid fever and intestine infections were among the most common contagions and account for around 12,000 deaths in the collection.

As well as death through sickness and battlefield injuries, the collection reveals some unusual ‘fates’ met by soldiers. These include records of 86 British troops who were killed or injured by lightning, including a mysterious case of two soldiers struck dead within moments of each other when a lightning storm swept their base in Stormberg near Cape Town. One soldier is even listed as having been eaten by a crocodile at the Usutu River.

As the number of deaths recorded in this collection correspond with the fatalities noted in other historical sources, this archive can be considered one of the most comprehensive resources of British soldiers in the Second Boer War available.

Anyone trying to find out more about an ancestor who fought in the Second Boer War will find these records invaluable, particularly as most British soldiers who fought in the conflict won’t appear in the 1901 census of England and Wales because they were fighting in South Africa.

These include a number of famous men who were awarded with the Victoria Cross, the highest honour for bravery, upon their return from Africa:

Sir Walter Norris Congreve – Congreve was a hero in both the Boer War and WWI, attaining the rank of general by the end of his 30-year military career. He was awarded his Victoria Cross for defending an abandoned gun emplacement during the Battle of Colenso, where he rescued a fallen comrade under heavy fire despite suffering from gunshot wounds

Charles Fitzclarence – Fitzclarence was decorated for three separate actions of gallantry and became known as one of the fiercest soldiers of the Boer conflict. Major-General Baden-Powell himself even remarked on Fitzclarence’s bravery and importance to the cause. During several sorties Fitzclarence showed ‘coolness and courage’, defying insurmountable odds to defeat the enemy

Henry William Engleheart – After completing a mission to destroy Boer railways behind enemy lines, Engleheart led the extrication through the Boer defences - even stopping to rescue a fallen comrade despite being outnumbered by more than four to one

Following on from the First Boer War, the Second Boer War was a dispute over territory in South Africa, fought between the British Empire and Dutch settlers (known as ‘Boers’ – the Dutch word for ‘farmer’). The catalyst for this secondary conflict was the discovery of gold in the Boer-controlled South African Republic, also known as the Transvaal.

The resulting gold rush encouraged thousands of British settlers (known as uitlanders) to migrate to the republic. Before long the British numbers exceeded those of the Boer, prompting tension around ‘uitlander rights’ and which nation should control the gold mining industry. When the British refused to evacuate their forces in 1899, the Boer declared war.

The so-called 'Boers' were farmers who were used to riding and hunting for survival and were therefore considerable opponents for the British Army and claimed the lives of around 8,000 British soldiers. The Boer themselves lost 7,000 troops.

In an attempt to cut off supplies to the Boers, a 'scorched earth policy' was introduced. This resulted in the destruction of Boer farms and crops, and subsequent introduction of concentration camps where the Boer and African women, children and workers were interned. Thousands of Boers lost their lives here, primarily through malnutrition and disease.

Ancestry.co.uk International Content Director Dan Jones comments: “These records are a stark reminder of the atrocities of a conflict that is often eclipsed by wars that took place closer to home. They detail a dark and regrettable period of history, but one that should never be forgotten.    

“These records will be of great significance to anyone trying to find out more about an ancestor or soldier who fought in the Second Boer War, particularly as British soldiers who fought in the conflict won’t appear in the 1901 England and Wales Census because they were fighting in South Africa.”


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Annabel Bernhardt
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