For many family historians, the only surviving relic of an Anglo-Boer War ancestor is a man wearing khaki uniform, staring unblinkingly out of a faded photograph. Details about him are often scant, his regiment usually unknown. ‘He fought in the Boer War of 1899-1902. How do I find out more about him?’ is the frequently-asked-question. The answer is, with some difficulty.
In the run-up to the war, there were about 10 000 British troops in the Cape and
Natal. Before the delivery of the ultimatum - the final word from Britain to the Boers that war would follow - Britain dispatched reinforcements of another 10
000, about 6 000 officers and men being sent out from India.
Before the end of the war was in sight, some 500 000 men were in the field. If the ancestor in your photograph was in the British Imperial forces, he could have been in the Regular Army (Cavalry, Artillery, Infantry etc) or a Reservist. He may have been a member of the Militia (reinforcements attached to the Regulars) or among the Yeomanry. Over 120 000 recruits who had no military experience whatsoever joined the British Army during the Anglo-Boer War. If the ancestor served in the British Colonial forces, about 16 000 came from
Australia, 6 600 from New
Zealand, 6 000 from Canada
and over 52 000 from South
Africa itself. Statistics vary, but these
give some indication of the task ahead when trying to find information about
one particular individual.
On 16 October 1899, Rudyard Kipling penned his verses ‘The Absent-Minded Beggar’, which burst upon the British nation through the medium of the press, whipping up a remarkable degree of patriotic fervour. The theme of the poem was the very ‘gentleman in khaki’ that we’re attempting to find, our unknown warrior of the Anglo-Boer War:
‘When you’ve shouted Rule Britannia, when you’ve sung God Save the Queen,
When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth,
Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine
For a gentleman in kharki ordered South?’
Most of us are familiar with the word – though perhaps not with Kipling’s spelling of it – but its origins are less-often considered. Said to stem from the Indian word meaning dust-coloured, opinion is divided as to how this form of apparel emerged. The Indian Corps of Guides in the 1840s may have been the first to dye their clothes as a form of camouflage, using a substance obtained from the mazari palm.
Elsewhere, it is suggested that at a dangerous outpost on the Indian frontier, an officer dipped dazzling-white uniforms into coffee to make them inconspicuous while on patrol. This proved serviceable and was followed up by a request for an issue of properly-dyed uniforms in the colour, an idea which was gradually adopted by the British Army for its colonial campaigns. All troops serving in the re-conquest of the
1897-1898 wore full khaki uniform.
To be continued.