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in a shocking newspaper article on the 17th of February, it was revealed that “The department of military veterans has withdrawn support for an “imperial” commemoration of a World War 1 shipping disaster in which 646 mainly black South Africans died”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.
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.
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