ON 21 FEBRUARY 2017, THE COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION MARKED THE CENTENARY OF THE SINKING OF THE BRITISH TROOPSHIP SS MENDI.

It was one of the worst maritime disasters in british waters and many of those who died were members of the south african native labour corps.

 

Pictures from the remembrance event at the CWGC Hollybrook Memorial on 20 February 2017, attended by The Princess Royal.

 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cares for the graves and memorials of all those who died.

South African Native Labour Corps

When the First World War began in August 1914, it was immediately a global conflict. The British Empire and its allies, including France and Russia, fought against the German Empire and its allies in campaigns which took place not just in Europe, but across Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Societies on every continent were affected by this clash of imperial powers.

The focus for much of the fighting was the Western Front, where opposing armies faced each other across lines of trenches which ran through Belgium and France, from the North Sea to Switzerland. The battles which took place here caused enormous casualties, leading to increasing pressure to sustain the manpower of the fighting forces.

At the beginning of the war tasks such as moving stores, repairing roads and building defences were carried out by soldiers withdrawn from the front lines for rest. By early 1917, however, the need for labour on the Western Front had become particularly critical as a result of the unprecedented scale of death and injury.

For the British Empire the demand for manpower led to the creation of non-combatant Foreign Labour Corps. Units were formed across the territories of the Empire, from the Caribbean to India, eventually totalling some 300,000 men.

Numbering over 20,000, the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) was one of the most significant groups. Among them were respected warriors and tribal leaders, yet its personnel were not permitted to carry weapons or mix with white communities, and were under the command of white Commissioned Officers. Working initially in German South West Africa and East Africa, the SANLC established a base at Arques-la-Bataille, on the northern coast of France, in early 1917.

The Sinking of SS Mendi

The troopship SS Mendi left Cape Town on 25 January 1917, carrying the last contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps bound for the Western Front – some 823 men of the 5th Battalion. She stopped three times during her voyage, delivering cargo and taking on supplies. Her last stop was Plymouth, England, on 19 February. She sailed for France the following day. Since German submarines were present in the English Channel, she was escorted on this last, hazardous, leg of her journey by the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Brisk.

After midnight on 21 February, thick fog surrounded Mendi and she had to slow down until she was barely moving forward. By 04:57 a.m. Mendi was 11 nautical miles (20 km) off St Catherine’s Point, on the southern tip of the Isle of Wight. Without warning, the steam ship SS Darro emerged from the dark and fog. She was a mail ship, twice the size of Mendi.

SS Mendi

SS Darro

Despite the conditions, Darro was sailing at full speed with no warning signals. She drove into Mendi’s hull amidships, cutting into the hold where men lay asleep. The damage was fatal. As Mendi listed further and further to starboard, none of the life boats on that side could be launched. Although other life boats were eventually used, along with life rafts and lifebelts, few of those on board could swim. Most had never seen the sea before they boarded Mendi at Cape Town.

SS Mendi sank within 25 minutes. Darro offered no help to those in the freezing water. Almost 650 men lost their lives, both from her crew and from the hundreds of South Africans aboard. Those survivors picked up by HMS Brisk and other ships coming to their rescue, told tales of bravery and selflessness.

Bronze Relief at Delville Wood Museum in France which depicts the sinking.

Those aboard Mendi were the last contingent of the SANLC to be transported to Europe. The survivors were assigned to other labour battalions and continued to perform their duties in France.

On 11 November 1918, an Armistice came into effect on the Western Front, and the guns fell silent. The sinking of SS Mendi was one of the worst maritime disasters in British waters, and among the darkest moments of South Africa’s war. The number of lives lost was second only to the casualties suffered by the South African Brigade at Delville Wood during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The Mendi has given its name to South Africa's highest award for courage - the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery, bestowed by the President on the country's citizens.

Isaac Wauchope Dyobha

Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha

Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha was one of the men of the South African Native Labour Corps who died when the troop transport ship SS Mendi sank in the English Channel after a collision with another ship in thick fog on 21 February 1917.

Eyewitness stories of the bravery exhibited by the doomed men aboard the SS Mendi have become legendary. The most famous story is that of the death dance that the men performed as the ship went down.

They were led by the chaplain, the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha.

He was heard calling out:

"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do."

"Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies."

Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha is commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial.

Follow the story of a Xhosa boy called Samuel, as he uses the Mendi tragedy to explore the hopes and dreams of the black South Africans who enlisted, examining the way they were treated and the legacy of their sacrifice.

Commemorating the Dead

The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was established in 1917, during the First World War, to commemorate those who lost their lives serving with British and Empire forces. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, graves were marked with Commission headstones, while memorials were constructed to honour those with no known grave or who had been lost at sea.

The remains of 19 of those South Africans who lost their lives on 21 February 1917 were recovered and buried in cemeteries and local churchyards. Today their graves can be found in many places along the coastlines on either side of the English Channel, including at Portsmouth (Milton) Cemetery, Littlehampton, Hastings, East Dean, CWGC Wimereux Communal Cemetery in France, and CWGC Noordwijk General Cemetery in the Netherlands.

 

The Hollybrook Memorial

Nearly 600 members of the SANLC are commemorated on the CWGC Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, designed by T. Newham and unveiled by Sir William Robertson on 10 December 1930. It commemorates by name almost 1,900 servicemen and women of Commonwealth land and air forces whose graves are not known, many of whom were lost in transports or other vessels torpedoed or mined in home waters. The memorial also bears the names of those who were lost or buried at sea, or who died at home but whose bodies could not be recovered for burial.

Almost one third of the names on the memorial are those of officers and men of the South African Native Labour Corps.

Alongside their names is that of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War and Britain’s most famous soldier when he died on 5 June 1916, after HMS Hampshire was mined and sunk off Scapa Flow, Orkney.

All those named on the memorial are commemorated in the same way: equal in death, despite their differing experiences in life.