Not all who died in the Great War died in battle. Some died without the shot from a gun being fired or the thrust of a bayonet. Civilians were killed by bombs dropped from Zeppelins, some prisoners of war died in camps through poor treatment and illness and then there are those who met tragic ends. The sinking of the SS Mendi is one such story and considered to be one of the worst maritime disasters in British waters.
The SS Mendi (pictured right) was transporting 823 men from the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps. The men were predominantly black; however, there were some whites amongst them namely their officers and NCOs. The men came from a range of social backgrounds from many different provinces across South Africa. Many of these men had never seen the sea before and a majority of them could not swim.
The Mendi had left Cape Town towards the end of January 1917 sailing for Le Harve, France where upon its arrival the men of the Labour Corps would serve the war effort. On the morning of 21 February at 5:00am the vessel was sailing in thick fog ten nautical miles (19 km) off of St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight. Out of the fog the mail ship Darro belonging to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company appeared travelling at an extremely high speed and accidently rammed the SS Mendi’s starboard quarter breaching her forward hull and leaving a 20 ft gash. The Darro (pictured left) was a much larger ship and was sailing with ballast to Argentina where it would reload with meat and return to the United Kingdom. The damaged Darro survived and did not stay to assist the stricken Mendi and sailed on.
A number of men were killed outright in the collision, the rest went into the water. Many clung to the deck as the Mendi sunk which took 25 minutes. HMS Brisk launched her lifeboats in an attempt to rescue those in the water but this achieved little. Many drowned in the channel or died of hyperthermia. In total 616 South Africans and 30 crew died in the incident.
One man, an interpreter, Isaac Williams Wauchope (pictured right), who had served as a Minister in the Congregational Native Church is reported to have calmed the panicked men as they stood on the deck of the sinking Mendi awaiting their fate. He raised his arms in the air and cried out in a loud voice:
“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 are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.”
An investigation into the accident was launched and a formal hearing carried out in summer 1917 and concluded on 8 August that the Darro’s Master, Henry W Stump, was guilty of “having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary fog sound signals.” Stump had his license suspended for one year.
The decision made by Henry Stump not to help Mendi’s survivors has been a source of controversy. One source states the reason for this was because of the risk of attack by enemy submarines. The Darro would have been vulnerable, both as a large merchant ship and having sustained damage in the collision that put her out of action for three months. However, some suggested that racial prejudice influenced Stump’s decision, and others state that he simply lost his nerve.
The wreck now lies 11.3 nautical miles (21 km) off St Catherine’s Light, but it was not positively identified until 1974. The Mendi rests upright on the sea floor but has started to break up and her boilers are now exposed. In December 2006, English Heritage commissioned Wessex Archaeology to make an initial desk-based appraisal of the wreck. It is hoped that the project will identify a range of areas for future research and serve as the basis for a possible non-intrusive survey of the wreck in the future.
This year sees the 100th anniversary of this tragic sinking and on the 17th February a service was held at Milton Cemetery, in Portsmouth where the bodies of those recovered from the sea are buried.
On the 21st, a memorial event will be held in Portsmouth. The South African Navy has sent the frigate SAS Amatola to the UK to support ceremonies ashore and those that are being held over the wreck site. Royal Navy divers are planning to go down to the Mendi’s wreck to place the South African flag and wreath in memory of all 646 souls lost. Princess Anne will attend another ceremony being held on the 20th at Southampton Hollybrook Cemetery. Nearly 600 members of the SANLC are commemorated on the CWGC Hollybrook Memorial (pictured above) which was unveiled in 1930. This ceremony is being organised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
At the Delville wood Museum on the Somme there is a display commemorating the sinking of the SS Mendi including a bronze relief. In a large glass case are artefacts from the wreck and the full story is written on information boards. The entrance to the museum has also been altered to commemorate the sinking. As you walk down the path to the museum entrance either side are walls with the names of those who died in this tragic sinking as well as a small memorial. This was opened last year (2016) during an official ceremony held in July.
For those wishing to see this new addition at the Delville Wood Museum, our World War One battlefield tours The Somme: Heroism and Horror, a three day Somme battlefield tour based in Arras and our four day Somme and Ypres tour From the Ypres Salient to the Crucible of the Somme, based in the centre of Ypres, will make this possible.
Lest We Forget