Monday, 29 February 2016


SS Mendi Casualties to be remembered

To mark the anniversary of the loss of the SS Mendi, the European Outpost of the UK Branch of the South African Legion/South African Branch of the Royal British Legion will be hosting a wreath-laying ceremony at 10h30 on Saturday 27 February 2016 at the Algemene Begraafplaats in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

In the annals of South Africa’s military history, 21 February 1917 is a dark day. It marks the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi after it was rammed off the Isle of Wight, with the loss of 616 South African servicemen, 607 of them members of the South African Native Labour Corps: Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana; the names on the SS Mendi Roll of Honour reflect every corner of Southern African society, then or since.

Today, the anniversary of the SS Mendi disaster is aptly the day on which South Africa remembers her fallen soldiers. Across the country, parades and ceremonies will be held to commemorate those South Africans who paid the ultimate price in wars across the globe.

Only a fraction of the bodies of the SS Mendi casualties were ever found. Of those, 13 lie in the UK. One, Private Beleza Myengwa, was originally buried near Le Havre in France, but in July 2014, was ceremoniously re-interred at the South African National War Memorial at Delville Wood, in the presence of South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

He was carried to his grave by serving South African soldiers, sailors, medics and airmen, past an honour guard of South African and French military veterans.

But another five SS Mendi casualties, Private A. Leboche, Private Arosi Zendile, Private Sitebe Molide, Private Natal Kazimula and Private Sikaniso Mtolo, lie in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of the General Cemetery of Noordwijk, just north of The Hague in the Netherlands.
Though neutral during the First World War, the Netherlands was not spared from hosting the casualties of a war that was fought within earshot.

It is our fervent hope that you (or your representative) will be able to join us in this unique tribute.

The sinking of the SS Mendi was one of South Africa's worst tragedies of the First World War, second perhaps only to the Battle of Delville Wood (Image: South African Navy)One of South Africa's worst military disasters is to be taught in British schools to highlight the role of black soldiers in World War I, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission announced on Monday.

A total of 616 South Africans, including 607 black troops serving in the South African Native Labour Contingent, died when the steamship SS Mendi sank in the English Channel on the way to France on 21 February 1917.

Let Us Die Like Brothers, a 20-minute film exploring the Mendi disaster and black South Africans' involvement in the European war, is to be distributed to more than 5 000 British schools. It was commissioned by the CWGC and produced at no cost by the History Channel.

The film's release marks Black History Month, held in October in the UK. It will be launched in South Africa in February 2007, the 90th anniversary of the Mendi tragedy.

The title Let Us Die Like Brothers comes from a prayer said to the men by ship's chaplain Isaac Wauchope Dyobha as the SS Mendi went down.

In icy watersOn 16 January 1917 the Mendi troopship sailed from Cape Town en route to La Havre in France, carrying the Fifth Battalion of the South African Native Labour Contingent. On board were 805 black privates, 22 white officers and 33 crew.

On the morning of 21 February 1917, just south of the Isle of Wight, the 4 000-ton steamship was rammed and almost cut in half by a 11 000-ton liner, the SS Darro. The Mendi sank in 20 minutes, and 607 black troops, nine white officers and all 33 crewmembers died in the icy waters of the English Channel.

The captain of the Darro, HW Stump, was later disciplined for travelling at speed through fog without sounding a warning horn. It was also said that he took no steps to save the drowning, merely floating his ship nearby while lifeboats from the SS Mendi's escorting destroyer, HMS Brisk, rowed among survivors, trying to rescue them.

Legends of braveryThere are many legends of the troops' bravery as the ship sank. One is that of the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, who is said to have calmed the panicked men by crying out this prayer:

"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do ... you are going to die, but that is what you came to do ... I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers ... Swazis, Pondos, Basotho ... so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa ..."

Another legend is that of the "death dance", as the men of the labour contingent performed one last, barefooted, dance on the tilting deck of the Mendi before she plunged beneath the ocean.

Then there was Joseph Tshite, a schoolmaster from near Pretoria, who encouraged the drowning men in the waters around him with hymns and prayers until he, too, succumbed. A white sergeant is said to have been supported by two black compatriots, who swam with him and found place for him on a piece of flotsam.

The Mendi disaster was one of South Africa's worst tragedies of World War I, second perhaps only to the Battle of Delville Wood.

Among the South Africans lost were some prominent men such as the Pondoland chiefs Henry Bokleni, Dokoda Richard Ndamase, Mxonywa Bangani and the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha.

When the news of the tragedy was announced to Parliament on 9 March 1917, all the members of the South African House of Assembly, led by celebrated Boer War hero and Prime Minister Louis Botha, rose in their seats as a token of respect.

The SA Native Labour ContingentSome 21 000 black South Africans - all volunteers - served in France with the South African Native Labour Contingent between 1916 and 1918. They joined a labour force made up of French, British, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian and Canadian labourers, as well as German prisoners of war.

By the time the unit was disbanded in 1918, the SANLC had dug quarries, laid and repaired roads and railway lines, and cut tons of timber. But most of the men were employed in the French harbours of Le Havre, Rouen and Dieppe, where they unloaded supply ships and loaded trains with supplies for the battlefront.

Three hundred and thirty-three of these men gave their lives in France during World War I. Most are buried at the British military cemetery at Arques-la-Bataille, while those who died on the Mendi are remembered at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southhampton, England. A plaque at the Delville Wood Museum in France, a little known memorial in Port Elizabeth and the new Mendi memorial at Avalon cemetery in Soweto - unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995 - also commemorate the disaster.

The SS Mendi is also honoured by the modern South African Navy, which has among its fleet the SAS Isaac Dyobha, a Warrior-class fast attack craft - and probably one of the few naval warships in the world named after a cleric - and the SAS Mendi, a Valour-class frigate.

In 23 August 2004 a wreath-laying ceremony was held when the SAS Mendi and the British Navy's HMS Nottingham met at the site where the SS Mendi sank.

The Mendi has also given its name to South Africa's highest award for courage, the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery, bestowed by the President on South African citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery.

Today, the SS Mendi lies on the ocean floor some 11 miles south of the Isle of Wight.

Read more:

During the First World War, a ship sank off the Isle of Wight, killing more than 600 South African passengers. The sinking of the SS Mendi is one of the worst maritime disasters in UK waters of the 20th century, yet few in the UK have heard of it. This Black History Month, Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey reminds us that this tragedy needs to be brought from the realm of hidden history to that of official history.

There are always many different perspectives on a historical event

History is a curious subject. There it is, with all its authority, apparently telling us what we need to know about a particular time, an individual or a group of people, a continent, or an event. And yet history is inevitably incomplete and partial. We have internalised its inadequacies, accepted the gaps and absences because — well, what else is there to do? We have to recognise that a history of everything is impossible, an indigestible concoction of the epoch-defining, the trivial and the irrelevant. Too much detail can become detritus and not much use to us at all.

Not everyone who died in the First World War was killed in battle

As we commemorate the First World War, I want to draw attention to a tragic incident. It involved the loss of human life without a shot being fired or a bayonet drawn, alongside great dignity and heroism. Some may consider it a mere detail or a footnote. It is though, in effect, a story that reflects many of the themes of that conflict, demonstrating as it does how the official, grand narratives of history can sometimes gloss over events that resonate with some of us more than others.

In South Africa, the SS Mendi evokes a mixture of grief and pride. Yet in Britain, few are familiar with the ship or the fate of those who sailed in it.

What happened to the SS Mendi?

The bald facts are that on 21 February 1917, the SS Mendi was struck by another ship not far from the Isle of Wight and badly damaged. It sank. More than 600 South African men died.

How did it come about that hundreds of South African men — predominantly black, but some white — were sailing from Cape Town to Le Havre, France? Like many thousands of others from across the British Empire, they were travelling to support the war effort. Put simply, Britain and her allies were running out of people and supplies.

This was a time during which the prevalent view in Britain was an absolute belief in the superiority of the white man. So although it was deemed necessary to conscript and recruit from the Caribbean, Africa and India, there was uneasiness at the prospect of putting weapons into the hands of colonial subjects. In the end, battalions of armed Caribbean and African men were deployed to fight, but always under the command of white men. As well as troops, labourers were also conscripted and recruited to serve in the war effort. The latter were known as the Foreign Labour Corps.

There were about 70,000 men working in the South African Native Labour Corps. These were the passengers on board the SS Mendi, which left Cape Town towards the end of January 1917. It was carrying 823 men from the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps when the fatal blow was struck. Travelling at some speed in foggy, dangerous waters 20 kilometres from the Isle of Wight, the Darro, a mail ship twice the size of the Mendi, crashed into the smaller boat.

The larger ship initially did not stop to help the SS Mendi and its beleaguered, drowning passengers and crew. It took less than half an hour for the stricken vessel to sink.

The story of the SS Mendi was saved by oral history — but what of official history and remembrance in the UK?

Some 200 men survived the disaster. These survivors were able to tell their lost comrades’ stories, making sure that those who died would not become yet another historical absence, an unknown group of mainly black men at the bottom of the sea.

The story of the Reverend Dyobha was especially compelling. In his final address on board the Mendi, as it went down, the Reverend led those who could not make it into a life boat in a death dance, telling them:

‘You are going to die, but that is what you came to do… 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 [spears] back in the kraals [villages], our voices are left with our bodies.’

After the tragedy, white South African parliamentarians paid their respects to those who died, though their deference did not stretch to awarding medals to any of the black servicemen — living or dead — from the South African Native Labour Force. Such honours were reserved for white officers only.

Initially disregarded by the official histories of the First World War, the story of the SS Mendi lives on because it has been passed down orally. It is only since the ending of apartheid in South Africa that the events of that night in February 1917 have been integrated into the mainstream historical narratives of the period, and remembered through ceremonies and memorials in various parts of the country.

In the summer of 2015, there will be a permanent exhibition commissioned by English Heritage, ‘We Die Like Brothers’ at the South African National Memorial, Delville Wood, on the Somme in France, which will include web content and education packs to help teachers tell the story.

Here in the UK, the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton is inscribed with the names of those who died, but it is a sad fact that it is only relatively recently that the significance of the wreck lying on the sea floor has been recognised in Britain. In addition to the Southampton memorial, it would seem most appropriate here in the UK to create a permanent monument on the Isle of Wight, which would point to the location where those men lost their lives.

We sometimes need to go beyond what official history selects to focus on

When whole swathes of peoples’ experiences are overlooked by studies of the past, they are sometimes referred to as ‘hidden histories’. Often, they are hidden in plain sight. These stories are there if you have the time, energy and knowledge required to seek out the clues, or if someone points them out for you. Thankfully, there is a growing number of researchers looking for the global historical jigsaw puzzle’s missing pieces. We need to familiarise ourselves with these brief but telling moments, that are such an important part of our interconnected histories.

In its recent report, Remember the World as well as the War, and in the context of Black History Month, the British Council has been aiming to draw attention to some of the ‘hidden histories’ of the First World War.

more about victims buried in Noordwijk

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