image

THE COMMEMORATION OF 105 YEARS’ CENTENARY OF THE SINKING OF THE SS MENDI TROOPSHIP AND THE ARMED FORCES DAy

  /  News   /  THE COMMEMORATION OF 105 YEARS’ CENTENARY OF THE SINKING OF THE SS MENDI TROOPSHIP AND THE ARMED FORCES DAy
Post IMG

THE COMMEMORATION OF 105 YEARS’ CENTENARY OF THE SINKING OF THE SS MENDI TROOPSHIP AND THE ARMED FORCES DAy

By Tinyeko Captain Ndhlovu, Curator: Insignia, Memorial Plaques, Postal History, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History 

Introduction

This article aims to commemorate the 105th centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi troopship in the English Channel during the First World War. In the early hours of 21 February 1917, more than 600 troops of the South African Native Labour Corp/Contingent perished as the result of the sinking of their troopship, due to an accident caused by the SS Darro ship. The sinking of the heroes of SS Mendi is commemorated at various places, in South Africa, Britain, France and Belgium annually. In South Africa, the SS Mendi anniversaries were officially celebrated by the South African National Defence Force as Armed Forces Day since 21 February 1993. On this day, the Commander-in Chief of the SANDF (the President of South Africa) and the Chief of the Defence Force deliver a special speech and lay wreaths on the SS Mendi memorials.

The legendary story of the SS Mendi troopship

It remained the greatest single loss of life and wartime marine catastrophe ever suffered in South Africa. Although still unknown to most South Africans, many residents and school learners are nowadays exposed to this historic gallantry account through media sources, guided tours at museums (e.g. DITSONG: National Museum of Military History [DNMMH]) and via the poetic work of S.E.K. Mqhayi titled Ukutshona kuka Mendi/ the sinking of the Mendi (1922). This poem was translated from isiXhosa into other South African indigenous languages (including English) and became a popular prescribed work in schools. Another work is The Narrative of Catastrophe, in Hilary Graham’s The Wreck of Mendi (1994). Father Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu (South African catholic cleric, poet, and writer) graced us with a poem titled: “Waters of Wars Unknown” in honour of the 100th centenary commemorative of SS Mendi troopship (March 2017).

Figure 1. Photograph of the SS Mendi Troopship (Image: DNMMH).

Historical background

The Union of South Africa (established on 31 May 1910) under the first Prime Minister General Louis Botha and a cabinet minister of Native Affairs had announced to the Parliament that Britain had requested the labour force to assist at some French ports. As a result, the South African Native Labour Corp/Contingent (SANLC) was established in January 1916. Part of his role as a cabinet minister was to ensure that Black troops had non-combatant roles. They also worked behind the frontline and on the railway lines. General J.C. Smuts, Minister of Defence concurred with the motion and declined the fact that Africans and Coloured offered to fight a “White man’s war.” 

On 20 November 1916, the first two groups were shipped and arrived safely in France. The SANLC was deployed in various basic non-combatant roles, such as quarrying and digging reserve trench systems, logging, unloading railway trucks railheads and unloading ships at French ports. They worked in the harsher cold weather of France than what they were used to experience back in South Africa. Most of their time was allocated to too much hard labour, and they were not given time for educational tutorials or recreational sport. Their only main form of entertainment and leisure time was during singing and traditional dancing and concerts. However, when they were not on duty, they would stay and sleep in the staff quarters made from galvanized iron with wooden ceilings and boards. They were also restrained from talking to the British citizens or having contact with them. The third group encountered a crisis when the SS Mendi troopship sank due to an accident caused by a larger cargo ship, the SS Darro, almost three times the Mendi’s weight.

The voyage of the SS Mendi troopship 

The SS Mendi was a British 4 230 GRT (gross register tonnage) passenger steamship owned by the British and African Steam Navigation Company, part of the Elder Dempster Group, and used on the Liverpool to West Africa mail and cargo run. Its route was part of the earlier slave trade, from Britain to Africa and then America. She was named after the Western African tribe Mendi in Sierra Leone. The SS Mendi was first launched in June 1905. The ship was later reclassified as a troopship. Her previous journey included transporting Nigerian troops from Lagos, Nigeria to Mombasa, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to fight in German East Africa, prior to returning to South Africa to depart on her fateful journey to Le Havre in France. 

In January 1917, the SS Mendi troopship was commissioned by Britain to transport the SANLC troops/ service men from Cape Town to Europe, specifically Le Havre in France. She was commanded by experienced Captain Arthur Yardley. She left Cape Town on the 25th of January, carrying a contingent of the SANLC: 802 Blacks soldiers, 5 Whites officers, and 17 non-commissioner officers as well as 89 crew members and other military passengers. They sailed without stopping and lined up in a convoy with four ships carrying South African and Australian troops and a shipment of gold. The cruiser HMS Cornwall accompanied them. The convoy proceeded at a leisurely pace to accommodate the slowest vessel and let the troops to fall into the routine of life on a troopship. Troops were tasked with various duties such as cleaning of the decks, and organising their kits (equipment) for inspection. During the daytime, they spent time on the decks assisting the crew, while others were with Jacob Koos Matli’s (one of the survivors) group of stokers, who tended to the furnace of the ship in the engine room. Later a large number of troops were used on the various observation lookouts of the ship. 

The SS Mendi troopship had stopped three times, for delivering shipments, acquiring stock, and for loading coal. The first stop was in Lagos, Nigeria and then Freetown in Sierra Leone, where a small gun was fitted to the stern. On the 19th of February, the SS Mendi made her third stop in Plymouth in England, where the military passengers got off. The voyage was remarkably calm, although they encountered a few incidents; the worse one was the death of the assistant steward who was buried at sea.

The final voyage: the sinking of SS Mendi

Figure 2. Troopship Mendi – The Black Titanic.  (Source: Heritage Portal: New Book).

20 February 1917 marked the 34th day since the SS Mendi left Cape Town. In the afternoon she cruised from Plymouth and steamed to Le Havre, France, accompanied by the destroyer HMS Brisk commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Algernon Lyons. During sunset, the weather became foggy, and the SS Mendi’s sirens were sounded at one-minute intervals, as required by regulations. When the fog became thicker, the speed was reduced. Late afternoon, on the same day, the SS Darro cargo ship (11, 484 GRT and three times the size of the SS Mendi) commanded by Captain H.W Stump, with a cargo of frozen meat was sailing from Le Havre, France steaming full speed to Falmouth, England. During a foggy night the SS Darro put on her lights, yet her sirens were never sounded and the speed not reduced. On 21 February the SS Mendi troopship passed the Isle of Wight (England) in foggy weather. In the early hours, around 5 am in the morning, the visibility was still reduced by the thick fog –  about 19 naval kilometres south of St Catherine’s Point. Around 4:55 am, the SS Darro was still at her full speed and without any warning sirens signals, it accidentally struck the SS Mendi on the starboard quarter (please see technical illustration by Wessex arch on fig. 3) left the gaping of 20 metres long and 20 metres wide.

Figure 3. Technical diagram of the SS Mendi’s side, showing (red marked) where the SS Darro collided into it, cutting into the space where the SANLC troops lay asleep. (Source: Wassexarcha.co.uk).

Troops were shaken by the trauma and struggled to come out of their blankets. Captain Yardley was knocked down by the force of the collision. He managed to get up, and ordered that the engine should be stopped and the boats be lowered. Unfortunately, time was never on their side and SS Mendi took less than half an hour to sink. According to oral tradition, the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyoba, calmed and comforted the doomed SANLC troops during the peril.

Lets die like brothers: Dancing the death drill.

Figure 4. Photograph of Rev Isaac William Dyobha Wauchope (Source: SA History Online).

Rev Isaac Dyobha cried out to the troops on the sinking decks saying these words: 

Be quiet and calm, my countymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with ourbodies.

Figure 5. Painting of the sinking of SS Mendi and survivors on life boats (Source: South African Naval Museum).

Figure 6.  The destroyer HMS Brisk, which accompanied the SS Mendi troopship and assisted the survivors of the SS Mendi (Source: Wikipedia).

Although the SS Darro was damaged, she survived the collision. She did not stay to assist or rescue the survivors. However, the destroyer HMS Brisk (see fig. 5 and 6) lowered her boats, and her crew rescued the survivors. Unfortunately, the SS Mendi sank within 25 minutes, killing 616 South Africans (607 of them were Black troops) and 30 other crew members.

Figure 7. The SS Darro cargo ship that struck the SS Mendi. The ship’s crew did not assist or rescue any survivors (Source: DNMMH collection).

Following the catastrophe, bodies continued to wash up on both sides of the English Channel for several weeks. Only after two weeks after the tragic incident, the Prime Minister, General Louis Botha rose in parliament, to announce and inform the nation. The house unanimously carried a motion passing on parliament’s grief. General Botha took time to praise the SANLC for doing all possible in the war and for their loyalty to the flag and the king. 

Families and relatives of the SANLC Black service men who perished during the sinking of their troopship, only knew several months later of the incident. According to media sources, most of the family members claimed that they were not officially informed by the authorities about the deaths of their loved ones. They just learned about the incident via rumours/word of mouth. The other painful issue is that as Africans, they did not have a chance to bury their loved ones following their tradition. The fact is that most were buried in unknown graves outside of South Africa. There is also a claims that SANLC black windows were only given black dresses (by SA government) to mourn their husbands. 

Unfortunately, the Defence Force did not honour any Black soldiers or servicemen, living or dead from the SANLC. Such honours were reserved for White officers only. It is also noted that the then South African government decided not to honour them. Though, their fellow SANLC Black servicemen from the neighbouring British Protectorates: Basutoland (renamed Lesotho, 4 October 1966), Bechuanaland (renamed Botswana, 30 September1966) and Kingdom of Swaziland (renamed Kingdom of Eswatini, 19 April 2018) did receive medals. Therefore, the SS Mendi heroes’ descendants have called upon the international community and South Africa for more recognition. 

The SS Mendi wreck site

Figure 9. The SS Mendi Wreck Site at the English Channel (Source: Wessexarch.co.uk) .

The wreck site was first located in 1945, yet she was not precisely recognised as the SS Mendi until 1974. This wreck site is rarely visited by divers since it is designated as a protected military area. On 16 April 2012, the SS Mendi wreck site was designated as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. The site is also recognised as a military grave site. Those who have visited the site testify that the SS Mendi lies in deep water and sits upright on the seabed. She is still preserved, yet broken in the middle and her boilers are exposed. Marine archaeologilists/divers managed to retrieve and restore a plate that would have been used by the SANLC men for serving or eating food from (see fig.9).

Figure 10. A restored SANLC plate that was retrieved from the SS Mendi (Source: Wessexarch.co.uk).

In December 2006, the English Heritage contracted Wessex Archaeology in the UK to make a preliminary desk-based assessment of the SS Mendi wreck site. The project aimed to identify a scope of zones for potential future research and serve as the basis for a possible non-destructive survey of the wreck itself in the near future. In 2017 the SS Mendi’s bell was recovered and anonymously passed to a BBC journalist. Post the 100th centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi in August 2018, the Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May returned the bell to South Africa during an official visit to the country (see, fig. 10). She officially presented it to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Figure 11. Prime Minister Theresa May (UK) hands over the SS Mendi bell to President Cyril Ramaphosa (Source: Mike Hutching/Reuters).

The memorials of the SS Mendi

This greatest wartime maritime catastrophe: the sinking of the SS Mendi incident is commemorated by communities around the world every year on or around 21 February. Various memorials were erected in South Africa, the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. Post 1994, the South African government has managed to raise more awareness, commemorations and memorials to honour the unsung SS Mendi heroes. The South African Navy has honoured the SS Mendi troopship with namesakes on two ships: SAS Mendi and SAS Isaac Dyobha. On 30 November 2003, the SA government has instituted the Order of Mendi for Bravery. It was originally called the Mendi Decoration for Bravery and renamed as an order on 22 October 2004. On 18 November 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa conferred the Order of Mendi in Gold posthumously to Rev Isaac William Dyobha Wauchope. His descendant Ms Natalia Sifuba received the award on behalf of the Wauchope family.

Figure 12. The Order of Mendi for Bravery, Awarded by the President of South Africa (Source: Wikipedia).

SS Mendi Memorials in South Africa:

The Mendi Memorial in Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, Johannesburg, was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II on 23 March 1995. At Port Ngqura in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) there is a building named eMendi Admin Building. A Mendi Memorial has been erected at the Gamothaga Resort in Atteridgeville, Pretoria. The site allocated for the SANLC before boarding the SS Mendi, is located on the Mowbray campus of the University of Cape Town in Cape Town. The Delville Wood South African National Memorial in France has a bronze relief and panel bearing the names of the men who lost their lives on the Mendi. Most of the memorials have a roll of honour bearing the names of those who perished during the sinking of the ship. For instance, the Memorial New Brighton and the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton bear the names of the men of the SS Mendi who had no known graves. To mention all of is impossible. 

The City of Johannesburg in partnership with the SA Legion of Military Veterans hosted the 105th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi troopship. DNMMH partakes in the commemorations annually through attending the SS Mendi media interviews and memorial commemorations events.  DNMMH representatives partake in the laying of wreaths. Last year (February 2021), DNMMH, Mr TC Ndhlovu from the DNMMH was interviewed by a SABC channel with regard to the sinking of SS Mendi (104th year). This year (February 2022), the 105th commemoration was held in Soweto at the Avalon Cemetery Mendi Memorial. The host speaker was Cllr Vasco da Gama. DNMMH was represented by Mr TC Ndhlovu and Mr M Tobolo who were given an opportunity to attend the event and lay wreaths on behalf of DNMMH. Nationally the SS Mendi/Armed Forces Day commemorations are held annually at various places. The Armed Forces Day in South Africa was first celebrated on 21 February 1993 by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

The Armed Forces Day events aim to honour the fallen heroes of the SS Mendi, whom carried the South African forces into frontlines during the Great War. It resulted in a huge loss of military lives. During this day, the number one citizen of South Africa and the Chief-in-Command of the SANDF, President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the SANDF and lay wreaths on the SS Mendi memorials. He is accompanied by the Minister and Deputy Minister of Defence. Each year, the venue changes, for instance, previously the SS Mendi/Armed Forces Day was held in Polokwane, Limpopo Province (21 February, 2020); Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town (21 February 2021) and this year in Mbombela, Mpumalanga (21 February, 2022). 

A ship prefix, used in this article:

HMS = His Majesty Ship/Her Majesty Ship.

SAS = South African Ship.

SS = Screw Steamer.

Conclusion

For the first time in the history of South African wartime marine, it had suffered a single huge loss of life. More than 600 troops drowned and died due to the accident caused by the SS Darro. The safety regulation of reducing speed and sounding the ships’ sirens during the bad weather like fog were neglected. The worst part is that the SS Darro never stayed or lowered her lifeboats to offer assistance to the survivors after the accident. The destroyer HMS Brisk managed to lower her lifeboats and assisted the survivors.

Unfortunately, the SS Mendi sank within 25 minutes and many, most of them Black troops drowned and died. Some survivors might have died due the cold freezing waters. According to the oral history, Rev Isaac Dyobha managed to calm and comfort the troops by leading them in what is known as ‘the Dance of the Death Drill’. Several weeks after the incident, bodies were o washed up from both shores of the English Channel. Back in South Africa the government only knew about the incident two weeks after it happened. It was announced in parliament by the Prime Minister Gen Louis Botha.

The SA parliament paid a tribute by a moment of silence to the SANLC troops. In August 1918, the SANLC was disbanded by the South African government. The SANLC Black soldiers’/service men returned home without any reward, medal or ribbon to show. Such merits were reserved only for White officers. Unfortunately, Black family members of the SANLC only learned about the incident after a few months via some rumours. Post 1994, the South African government has managed to raise memorials and annual commemorations for the SS Mendi heroes. Overseas in France, Belgium and Britain there are commemorations and memorials for the SS Mendi. It was not until 1975 when the wreck site of SS Mendi was successfully identified and located.

The English Heritage commissioned Wessex Archaeology to do a preliminary survey at the SS Mendi wreck site. The project was aimed at non-destructive analysis to determine future studies. In 2012 the wreck site was designated as a protected military area. In 2017, the SS Mendi bell was retrieved and anonymously passed to a BBC journalist. In 2018, the Prime Minister Theresa May (UK) on her official visit to South Africa, handed the bell to President Cyril Ramaphosa. The descendants of the SANLC troops felt betrayed since their loved ones have never received any reward and recognition. Therefore, they call for more international and national recognition.

The SA Navy has also managed to honour the SS Mendi by the namesake of two ships: SAS Isaac Dyobha and SAS Mendi. Locally and abroad, the memorials and commemorations for SS Mendi are annually held. This year, the 105 years Commemoration was hosted in Soweto at the Mendi Memorial in the Avalon Cemetery. DNMMH representatives managed to lay the wreaths during that commemoration event. DNMMH salute the unsung heroes of the SS Mendi troopship.

REFERENCES

  • Anderson, R. 2010. SA Navy: SS Mendi. Department Defence Republic of South Africa: Advance Media Promotions.
  • Clothier, N. 1987. Black Valour: The South African Native Labour Contingent 1916-1918 and the sinking of the ‘Mendi’. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.
  • Deberg, F. 2007. The SANLC and the sinking of the SS Mendi (Chapter 5). In: The South African in World War I: The Battle of the Menin Road – ninety years on 20 September 1917 – 20 September 2007. (Unpublished) Johannesburg: DNNMH.
  • Grundlingh, A. 1987. Fighting their own War: South African Blacks and the First World War. Johannessburg: Ravan Press.
  • Jamangile, M.A. 2017. Centenary Retrospective: Delville Wood 1916-2016, Sinking of SS Mendi 1917-2017. www.delvillewood.com
  • Ndlovu, L.M. 2017. Waters of Wars Unknown: In On the Centenary of the Sinking of the SS Mendi. Huffington Post South Africa.
  • UK Statutory Instruments, 2012. N0. 1110. Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 (Designation of Vessels and Controlled sites) Order 2012.

SOURCE MATERIAL AND PHOTOGRAPHS

Wikipedia:

Ditsong Logo

Open Daily : 08:30 ‒ 15:00

GaMohle Building
70 WF Nkomo (Church) Street
West Pretoria
+27 12 492 5744, +27 12 323-6592