This page is an entry in Shonas Wreck Guide.
On 16 January 1917, the 4 230 ton troopship SS Mendi sailed from Cape Town to Europe, stopping off at Plymouth before making for her final destination, La Havre, France. Aboard her were 823 troops of the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), the last contingent of the Native Labour Corps for duty in France.
The trip to England was uneventful - the men passing the time in such activities as boxing and lifeboat drill. The men on board were to be used as labourers in the French ports and as trench diggers in the front lines. During the war, they were recruited to fulfil a non-combatant role although many would have preferred to serve the King of Britain as fighting men.
The SS Mendi departed from Plymouth for Le Havre on 20 February in dense fog. At about 04:55 in the early morning mist of 21 February 1917, the 11 484 ton SS Darro, travelling at full speed and emitting no warning signal, crashed into the Mendi's starboard side, approximately eighteen kilometres off St Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight.
The Mendi sank within about 25 minutes of the collision. Of the 805 black troops, 607 were lost along with nine of their fellow white countrymen and all 31 crew. Some died on impact, many of the men were trapped in their quarters in the hold of the Mendi, but the life was sapped from most by the icy waters of the English Channel.
Remarkably, there was little effort made by the crew of the Darro to rescue those floundering in the icy waters of the English Channel. Some survivors were picked up by the destroyers escorting the Mendi, responding to her distress calls.
The Mendi disaster was one of South Africa's worst tragedies of the First World War. Fear must have gripped many hearts aboard her, but, despite this and the fact that many of the men had not even seen the sea before boarding the vessel, it is believed that most did not panic and acted in a most disciplined manner after the collision.
The best publicised of the legends of heriosm to come out of the sinking of the Mendi was that of the so-called 'Death Dance' or 'Death Drill'. It is said that a large number of SANLC men performed one last (barefooted) dance on the tilting deck of the Mendi before she plunged beneath the ocean surface and took the 'death-dancers' with her to the depths.
The inquest into the accident found the Captain of the Darro, H W Stump, responsible for the collision, suspending him for one year. Captain Stump was accused of having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the neccessary fog sound signals. His failure to render assistance to the Mendi's survivors was also questioned and is the source of much controversy. Some historians have suggested that racial prejudice influenced his conduct, while others hold that he merely lost his nerve.
A little fewer than 21 000 black South Africans - apparently all volunteers - eventually served in France with the SANLC between 1916 and 1918. There, they formed part of a labour force that also consisted of French, British, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian and Canadian labourers, as well as German prisoners of war. By the time the unit was disbanded early in 1918, the SANLC had - to name but a few tasks - laboured in quarries, laid and repaired roads and railway lines, and cut copious quantities of timber. However, most of the men were employed in the French harbours of Le Havre, Rouen and Dieppe, where they unloaded supply ships and loaded trains with supplies for the battlefront. For the most part, the SANLC's work was highly regarded and those employed at the harbours earned especially high praise. One of the less known and perhaps more astonishing aspects of the unit's stay in France, was that they were housed in closed compounds, which were apparently not unlike the camps which were used to hold the Genman prisoners of war (who were also being employed as labour in France).
Three hundred and thirty-three of these SANLC men gave their lives in France during the First World War. Most of the SANLC members who died in France are buried at the British military cemetery at Arques-la-Bataille and most of those who died with the Mendi are remembered at the Hollybrook Memorial 'for those who have no grave but the sea' in Southhampton, England. A plaque at the Delville Wood Museum in France, a little known memorial in Port Elizabeth and the new Mendi memorial in Avalon graveyard, Soweto, also commemorate the disaster.