musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual


Remembering the Mendi 2017

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.

TQ2713 : Memorial to Chief Henry Bokleni Ndamase by Bob Parkes

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…

Typical documentation for SANLC

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 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.  On board 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” 

© DRW 2017-2018. Created 21/02/2017.  Image of Newtimber Memorial © Copyright Bob Parkes and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Updated: 01/01/2018 — 16:40

Remembering the Mendi. Hollybrook Cemetery

Every year about this time I try to write something about the Mendi disaster, it is one of those tragedies that is becoming even more known now compared to when it happened in 1917. Last year I was fortunate enough to confront the Mendi legacy at Hollybrook Cemetery in Southampton, and at Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth.
Today, 23 February 2014, the South African Legion of Military Veterans in the UK held a commemorative service at Hollybrook Cemetery, to Honour and Remember those men from the South African Native Labour Corps who lost their lives in this tragic disaster so many years ago. The Isle of Wight is not too far from Southampton, and this is really the main centre in the UK where they are remembered on a memorial. Unfortunately it was a cold and grey day in Southampton, and I kept on thinking that it was probably a cold and grey day when they died. I do not recall reading what the weather was like on that day, but it was foggy on that morning when the Mendi was lost. The occasion was well attended, not only by foreign dignitaries, but also by South Africans that have made the United Kingdom their home. 
We were fortunate enough to have wreaths from a number of service, veterans and military organisations, and the Mayor of Southampton was there to lay a wreath on behalf of the city from where so many South Africans have sailed from or to.
The point was made that the men who sailed on the Mendi were not conscripted into service, they were volunteers, their status was as non-combatants, and they were involved in a war far removed from their homes and villages back in Africa. Sadly very little information exists on the men themselves, they do not have record cards, and there is no service or medical file for them. Often their names were incorrectly captured, and CWGC has recently replaced the panels of the memorial to reflect the names of these men and to correct grammatical and spelling errors. Yet, when I was validating records for the South African War Graves Project I could not help but wonder who was Saucepan Maake or Canteen Mahutu? Their real names are lost forever, we know nothing about them. 
The Roll of Honour of the Mendi is a long one, each must have had a mother and a father, or siblings, maybe a wife and children to whom they never returned. Over the years their immediate family would die out too, and they would be only a distant memory of somebody that never returned from what was in effect a “White Mans War”. Today we helped to keep that memory alive of these men, and I hope that one day when we too are gone somebody will continue with the Remembrance of those who did not return.
“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. “

Those inspiring words are words that need to reach out to a younger generation, so that they too can show the courage that the men on that sinking ship had, so many years ago and so far from home.

The playing of the Last Post, and the act of Remembrance always seem so minor, but those few minutes leave you time to reflect on those who have made the final sacrifice. The Centenary of World War One is months away, and all of the participants in it have their own part in the tragedy and waste. The Sinking of the Mendi and the Battle of Delville Wood are significant to South Africa, and we must never forget them, and those who fell in those moments of madness almost a century ago.

They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.
And then we were finished,  our wreaths were laid and group photographs were taken. The fact that so many had braved the chilly weather was a good sign. Seven services had been held for the Mendi this year, and I cannot help but feel that this one was the closest to the place where the sinking had occurred. 

Soon Hollybrook would grow quiet again, and people would pause at the Cross of Sacrifice, and see the many names that are remembered here, and just maybe somebody will reach out and touch the names, making a tactile connection to one who has long entered into the other realm. Maybe they too came from South Africa and came to discover our proud military heritage that is remembered here. And I know that somewhere, many years ago, families in African homes remembered their lost family member, and that they too hoped that somebody would reach out and take the flame of Remembrance from them when they were gone, that flame has passed to us now, the next generation of servicemen from the SADF, and one day we too will pass it onwards. 

Rest in peace Men of the Mendi, 

“……. 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. ” 

© DRW 2014-2018. Images recreated 17/04/2016
Updated: 30/12/2017 — 20:15

Visiting the Men of the Mendi

Many years ago I was  fortunate enough to read “Black Valour” by Norman Clothier. At the time it was the definitive book about the Africans and Coloureds that served with the South Africans during the wars. It also spurred my interest in the Mendi, and the men who lost their lives in the sinking. It took many years to finally be able to visit the Mendi Memorial at Avalon Cemetery and from then on things just happened. My Mendi Webpage is still a work in progress even after so many years, and deep in my heart I always wanted to visit some tangible relic to the Mendi in the United Kingdom. 
My chance came on 10 April 2013, while I was in Southampton and I decided to visit the old Cemetery here. But when I arrived at it I decided to carry on going and find Hollybrook. I was not going to loose the chance of a visit while I had time or weather on my side. Hollybrook in itself is not a great cemetery, it is however an OK cemetery, and it does have a World War 2 CWGC plot as well as a number of CWGC headstones inside the cemetery
World War 2 Plot at Hollybrook

World War 2 Plot at Hollybrook

The plot I was after was at the opposite side where I had come in and I soon found it on a slight rise. Up till this point the weather had been poor: overcast, misty and generally not great for photography, but suddenly the sun came out as if it knew I was there.

The Men of the Mendi have a small corner of their own, and it had recently been visited by HRH Prince Michael of Kent, and wreaths had been laid at the site. When I saw that first plaque I broke out in tears. It was one of those truly seminal points in my life.

I ran my fingers over the names, names that I have on my Roll of Honour, and that I had read record cards of, or who I had read about. They became real, and yet they were long gone. Like them I was far from South Africa at that moment, and I felt humble that I was representing their home on this day. I wish I had had something from there to leave behind for them, but all I really had was my own sadness at seeing these men who went willingly off to war, and who never returned,
I noticed that the wreaths were from other Commonwealth nations, but saw that there was nothing from our own government. What would these men say about the South Africa of 2013? It matters not, what matters is that they never get forgotten. And that seeing those names up close and personal was a moment in my life that won’t leave me.
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.  
Not too long ago the CWGC was able to correct a lot of the errors in the names on this memorial, and I hope to be able to correct my own list as well. Sadly, all that is left of their lives is this name 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 fight 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. 
Hamba Kahle  Men of the Mendi. May You Rest In Peace.
© DRW 2013-2018. Images recreated and links repaired 29/03/2016
Updated: 28/12/2017 — 07:18

Remembering the Mendi.

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.

SS Mendi in happier times.

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.
NMC Collar and cap badge

NMC Collar and cap badge

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. 
NMC Member, buried in Payneville, Springs.

NMC Member, buried in Payneville, Springs.

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 pilgramage 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 2012-2018. Images and links recreated 23/03/2016
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 14:39
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