On 21 February 1917, South Africa lost some 607 African volunteers en route to the battlefields of France when their troopship; HMT Mendi, was in a collision with the SS Darro off St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight. The resulting death toll was high; of the 802 SANLC troops on board, some 607 men of the South African contingent perished, as did 30 members of her crew. The 4230 GRT Mendi (Official number 120875), was owned by the British & African Steam Navigation Company Limited. which was part of Elder, Dempster and Company. She was 370 ft long with a beam of 46 ft and was built by Alexander Stephen & Sons, Glasgow. She was fitted with triple expansion steam engines that gave her a maximum speed of 13 knots.
On 10 April 2013, while I was in Southampton I decided to visit Hollybrook Cemetery and the Hollybrook Memorial to the missing.
This particular memorial at Hollybrook commemorates by name almost 1900 servicemen and women of the Commonwealth land and air forces whose graves are not known, many of whom were lost in transports, 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.
Sadly, all that is left of their lives is their names on a plaque. And I think that in this case, there is a small piece of England that is uniquely South African. They were men that came from the tip of Africa, to participate as non combatants in a war that they knew nothing about, and they died far from their homes, never reaching their destination, but remaining here, far from the sunshine that was now fading as I took my last few photographs. But if I do think about it, these men were never really forgotten, their families remembered them, and their comrades, but they too have passed on, and that duty has been passed on to us, a generation of ex-servicemen who also served their country.
However, in a shocking newspaper article on the 17th of February, it was revealed that “The department of military veterans has withdrawn support for an “imperial” commemoration of a World War 1 shipping disaster in which 646 mainly black South Africans died”
A retired senior military officer this week described the department’s decision as “abominable and a disgrace”. He said: “This means no military band or guards in fact no formal military presence at a memorial for South Africans who died on service in war.”
(Article in the Sunday Times 17 February 2019 Front page.)
The stance has drawn severe criticism from veterans and organisations, and sadly the Mendi is once again just a porn in a game called political correctness and white washing of history.
Every year around this time I commemorate the lives lost in the sinking of the troopship Mendi on the 21st of February 1917. This year is no different and each year I know more about it.
Earlier this month I discovered a new Mendi Memorial in the churchyard of St John The Evangelist, Newtimber, Sussex. The memorial is to “Chief Henry Bokleni Ndamase” who perished on the Mendi.
Naturally I wanted to know more and took a good long look at my Roll of Honour and drew a blank. The big problem with the ROH is that it is really inaccurate, and there are a number of reasons for that. I consulted with the local co-ordinator of the South African War Graves Project and he replied as follows:
“This whole Mendi RoH is troubling, it seems to me that there were initial errors made in some of the names, errors crept in as a result of “tweaking” the facts and a general misunderstanding of the history of the casualties (probably due to the unavailability of any documentary evidence.) Many of these errors are now on memorials and plaques and seem to be copied from one to the next (or sourced from the internet) and how do we address that? We have forwarded copies of the documents at the SANDF Archive that list the recruitment details of these chaps and I hope that these will eventually be filtered through the system and the graves/memorials amended. Lets see…
Henry Bokleni: (7587) His father was Bokleni and he was Henry. In keeping with the standard practice at the time, as he never had a surname, he was given his father’s name as a surname. It seems he was a Chief/Headman at the time.
Richard Ndamase: (9389) His father was Ndamase and he was Richard. In keeping with the standard practice at the time, as he never had a surname, he was given his father’s name as a surname. His Chief was Dumezweni so based on the info we have, it is unlikely he was a Chief.
Mxonywa Bangani: (9379) ) His father was Bangani and he was Mxonywa. In keeping with the standard practice at the time, as he never had a surname, he was given his father’s name as a surname. His Chief was Nongotwane so based on the info we have, it is unlikely he was a Chief.
Isaac Williams Wauchope : (3276) His father was Dyoba (also known as William Wauchope). Isaac was a learned man, holding the posts of a teacher and a clerk/interpreter to the magistrate and married his wife Mina as per Christian rites. He was a minister at a church in Blinkwater when he got sentenced to 3 years in Tokai Prison for forgery. He enlisted in 16 Oct 1916 as a clerk/interpreter and not as a chaplain (it is unlikely he would have got the chaplain post as he had a criminal record) The Chaplain’s job went to Koni Luhlongwana (9580), who also died on the ship.
It does not seem that he used his father’s name as surname at all during his lifetime and so the use of “Dyoba” is incorrect. The reasoning behind the attempts to ‘africanise’ his name remain a mystery.
New Memorial to the Mendi : There is also a problem with the 670 (it was 646, including the crew) who died. We have identified the home provinces of some of the casualties – Transvaal (287), Eastern Cape (139), Natal (87), Northern Cape (27), OFS (26), Basutoland (26), Bechuanaland (8), Western Cape (5), Rhodesia (1) and SWA (1) so not all were from the Eastern Cape.”
The reality is that the memorial contains incorrect information, and it is perpetuated as there is no real way to correct many of the errors. I am relooking my own RoH and correcting it to conform with the data that SAWGP has.
However, in spite of the errors, the fact remains that people have not forgotten the Mendi, in fact we probably know more about it today than we did way back in 1917.
This year apart from the Services of Remembrance being held at Hollybrook and Milton Cemeteries in Hampshire, a South African Warship, SAS Amatola, (a Valour Class Frigate) will lay a wreath at the site of the disaster. Onboard her will be some of the relatives of the soldiers who died on board that ill fated troopship.
The Mendi has not been forgotten, it is now prominent in the military history of South Africa, The men who lost their lives have not been forgotten, the sea has claimed them, but their spirit and courage still resonates 100 years after they died. However, we need to broaden our vision and recognise that all of the men of the battalions of the SANLC and NMC who volunteered to serve overseas are remembered too, because the non-combatant role that they played was equally important to the ending of the “war to end all wars”
On 21 February 1917, South Africa lost some of its finest: Black African volunteers en route to the battlefields of France. They were not going there because they were conscripted to go there, neither were they going there to fight; they were going because they volunteered, and because they would be supporting those in the front. These men were going to make history, but not in the way that you would expect. Their lives would be taken when their troopship; HMT Mendi, was in a collision with another vessel, the SS Darro off St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight.
It has been 99 years since they sailed into history, and their story was shunted aside by successive governments for too many years. However, since the advent of the internet and the opening of eyes to history, many old soldiers now recognise that we owe a debt to these men, to keep their memory alive and to pass that memory onto others. Sadly the desecration of a war memorial by students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has left me saddened. It is not just a piece of stone that was desecrated, what was done was just as bad as those in power who rubber stamped the Mendi disaster out of the history books.
I expect those soldiers would have been shocked at the unruly behaviour of those students because those men stood on the deck of their ship and stared death in the face, the Reverend Isaac Dyobha. calling them together and admonishing them:
“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.“
“Be quiet and calm…” those words resonate through the ages and should be the watchword for those who rampage and desecrate and demand. Unfortunately they do not.
The Mendi, once forgotten is now remembered, in memorials, literature, on a warship, on a medal, and by the South African Legion and the South African branch of the Royal British Legion, The imperative is to keep their memory alive, and to make sure that when we pass onwards that others will take up our call: “Remember the Mendi”
Hamba Kahle South African Soldiers.
There is a lot of material about the Mendi out there, and I am proud to say my own efforts contributed in a small way to it.