When I originally started photographing war graves and memorials I had very little information about the loss of the SS Mendi in 1917. An occasional mention in the newspapers was as informative as it got. There was one book by Norman Clothier that always stood out, but was almost impossible to find, and so I “went it alone”, producing my first page on the Mendi. There is not much to say here that isn’t on that page already, but oddly enough Mendi material still keeps coming my way.
The death of over 600 soldiers in one incident is not something that is taken lightly, although when you look at it in terms of naval deaths, the sinking of a capital ship can result in over 1500 deaths at a time. However, what makes the Mendi deaths very sad is how the members of the SANLC and NMC were treated by the government that they were serving, and how little recognition they got for their service overseas. Make no mistake about it, these men were crucial cogs in the line of battle, and who knows how many lives they saved as stretcher-bearers. In fact, their contribution to the war effort was a major one, but the moment they returned home, they were forgotten.
There are a number of NMC graves in South Africa, in Gauteng the biggest concentration is at Palmietkuil War Cemetery, and it is here that we hope a memorial will be erected to the members of the NMC and SANLC who became victims of apathy in the war department.
In South Africa the Mendi men have a number of Memorials, the most poignant is in Atteridgeville, and there are memorials in Avalon Cemetery and New Brighton in Port Elizabeth and one (which I do not have photographs of), in Mowbray in Cape Town.
How many of their family members were ever able to make a pilgrimage to these memorials? How many even knew where their sons or fathers or grandfathers lost their lives? All I know is, today it is up to us to keep their memory alive.
The words of Reverend Isaac Dyobha should never be forgotten,
“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 drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazi’s, Pondo’s, Basuto’s, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies. “
We need leaders like that today in our country, we need to show the youth that bling, alcoholism, and ill-discipline have no place in their lives. The courage of those long lost African Servicemen is all the example that we really need.
DRW 2012-2020. Images and links recreated 23/03/2016