Friday, April 27, 2012

Finding a Zulu War ancestor

In my experience, the average family historian seeking an ancestor said to have served with British forces in the Anglo-Zulu War 1879 begins with minimal information. There are a fortunate few who find original letters, diaries and personal accounts of the ancestor’s career among family memorabilia or miraculously preserved in museum collections. If a medal awarded to your soldier has survived and is accessible to you, engraved on the rim will be his name, rank and regiment: an enviable starting point for discovering further details.

A fundamental nugget of information is the unit with which the man served. In the context of the Zulu War there are plenty of regiments to choose from. Your ancestor may have been a regular in the British Army. He may have been in the ‘irregulars’ – Imperial mounted units raised in South Africa. Or he could have been in one of several Colonial volunteer units. If he fails to turn up in among the military, there’s a chance he was a sailor or marine in the Naval Brigade.

Considering the extent of the British forces in the field, finding an individual forebear among them is a daunting task. Although you believe your soldier was in a certain regiment known to have taken part in the Zulu War, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he personally served in the campaign, or even set foot in South Africa. Not every company of each battalion of all regiments which served in the war was present in Zululand. Some units arrived sporadically, coming up to Natal via the Cape where they had previously been involved in campaigns on the Eastern Frontier. Some troops were among reinforcements who arrived by sea before the first or second invasion. In Zululand, detachments of men would be sent to forts way out in the veld to build walls while their company could be in the thick of action elsewhere. Men died or due to injuries or disease were invalided home and their places taken by new recruits. The situation was fluid.

It’s only by accessing the ancestor’s service documents that his military activities will come into sharper focus – that is, if his service documents have survived. There's no guarantee on that score.

3rd Buffs guarding Zulu prisoners 1879


Winson Saw said...

Are there any picture of Major Charles James Hamilton The Buff regiment?.

Winson Saw said...

Are there any picture of Major Charles James Hamilton The Buff regiment?.

Mole said...

At present I'm unable to source a pic of Maj Charles James Hamilton of the Buffs. Do you know what dates he served in the Regt? The Buffs Regimental Museum collection is now held at the National Army Museum, London. See