SS Mendi – South African lives lost 100 years ago

SS Mendi – A Watery Grave

A hundred years ago this month, over 600 South Africans set sail from Cape Town to help Britain in the great war effort. They were bound for France, but most never reached their destination. Instead, they became part of one of the greatest tragedies of WW1. This massive loss of life was not in combat. Hundreds of ordinary people from South Africa & surrounding countries died far away from home after joining SS Mendi on her final voyage.

The War to end all Wars

WWI was hoped to be the war to end all wars. It was bloody, cruel & devastating on a scale not previously imagined. The cost in human life & suffering is incalculable, but not all lives were lost in battle. 9 million servicemen & 7 million civilian lives are estimated to have been lost between 28 July 1914 & 11 November 1918. Countries aligned themselves with the Allies or the so-called Central Powers to shed rivers of human blood over after an assassination that, in retrospect, seems impossible to understand.

Africa in WW1

Africa was not left untouched. French and British troops invaded Togoland & Kamerun (German Protectorates), German forces in South-West Africa attacked South Africa. German colonial forces in German East Africa waged guerilla warfare while Indian forces (despite German efforts) sided with England & the Allies. Naval blockades to disrupt supplies were the order of the day, as mighty nations clashed for victory. By 1917 the Ottoman Conflict was in full flare as war raged in Sinai & Palestine. The world was ablaze as nation fought nation & joined sides for survival and domination. 

This, however, is not about the war. There are many authoritative sources available that cover every detail of this terrible time in human history. This is about South African men who died because of the war, but not in combat.


SS Mendi was built on the Clyde, in the world-renowned shipyards of Glasgow. The 370ft long steamship was commissioned by the British & African Steam Navigation Company & built in the Linthouse, the yard of shipbuilder Alexander Stephens. Built to carry both people & cargo, the Mendi was launched in June 1905.  She was put to work immediately to support Britain’s then vital trade with Africa. She sailed the route between Liverpool & West Africa 53 times during her time as a cargo & mail ship. This ended abruptly in Lagos in October 1916, when the British government had her refitted for her new role – a troop carrier supporting the war effort. She transported Nigerian troops to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to fight in German East Africa before returning to South Africa. From there, she set out on what would be her final voyage.

The Labour Corps of WW1

During WW1, success depended very highly on the ability to move people & supplies quickly & efficiently. There was a huge need for roads, bridges, railway lines & labour to load & offload supplies. Communications also required infrastructure & that needed building & maintaining. Humans, horses, mules & camels were always in short supply & high demand. Some infantry regiments formed companies to undertake the work, but there was no overall plan or capacity in the traditional armed services at the start of the war for this vital work. Labour units expanded their numbers. People were brought in from India, China & all over the world but there was always more to be done. Servicemen & artillery alike did their bit, but although the estimate for people supporting the labour force is estimated at over 700, 000 – Constant recruitment was required.

The ASC Labour Company was initially formed to offload British ships in France. Two Railway Labour Companies followed. Royal Engineers Labour Battalions provided 11 battalions for labour work, Infantry Pioneer & Labour or Works Corps were created to provide men who could fight in the infantry as well as provide this labour. They were tradesmen, miners, joiners, bricklayers & drawn from any other sector that was hoped to prove useful. By 1916, there were 12 battalions of men found unfit to fight who were also used as labour. Non-combatant troops were next. They made up 8 labour companies by mid-1916. Finally, in January 1917, the Labour Corps was finally officially formed. It numbered around 389,900 people with about 175,000 based in Britain & the rest abroad. Many were wounded, some were medically unfit for combat & despite their important, exhausting & often dangerous roles are still considered by many as being of secondary importance to the rest of their & other (combatant) regiments.

The South African Native Labour Corps

The shortage of labour continued. To fill this need, Britain followed France in importing labour from China. Recruitment from India, South Africa, Egypt & other countries in the British Empire followed. Segregation norms of the day meant that these labour forces often remained in one place. Indian recruits were often used closer to the front lines for fortification, ammunition, driving & other work. Others were kept away from the fighting front and provided communication & labour work.

The South African Native Labour Corps had a base in France at Arques-la-Bataille from early 1917.  Around 21000 South African volunteers served in France between 1916 & 1918, with a labour force of French, British, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian and Canadian labourers, as well as German POWs.

There is no doubt that the British forces practiced segregation. It has been stated in many sources that the quarters for black labourers were similar in condition to those used to hold German POWs. Further, blacks & labourers from some other countries were kept distant from arms and ammunition. Their role, from the base in France, was mainly to offload cargo & supplies. It was transferred to to other methods of transport for distribution as required.

South African casualties & the SS Mendi

The SS Mendi sailed from Cape Town bound for France on 16 January 1917. She was carrying 823 troops of the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps. The ship made a stop in Lagos, followed by Sierra Leone before her final stop at Portsmouth. From here she embarked for her final destination in France (La Havre) She would never reach her destination. She left, escorted by the destroyer,  HMS Brisk on 19 February. The sea was calm, but a thick fog surrounded the Mendi by midnight. She was forced to slow down until barely moving which was dangerous in the sea which was patrolled by enemy submarines. By 4.57 she was around 20km off the southern tip of the Isle of Wight.

The SS Mendi was struck on her starboard side, amidships around 04.58 on 21 February 1917 by the Darro, a mail ship around twice her size. The Darro was moving at full steam when she the Menzi, cutting directly into the area where the men were sleeping. Only the port lifeboats were launchable. The Darro continued her journey & offered no assistance. HMS Brisk rescued survivors, but the freezing cold weather & the fog were against them. The survivors numbering around 200 were taken back to England then reassigned to France. These men were the last South African Native Labour Corps deployed as the war ended soon after.

The Mendi is reported to have sunk within 25 minutes. 646 men died, (616 South Africans) some on impact but most drowned in the ice cold water of the English Channel. The majority of these men en route to support the British war effort of WW1 could not swim. Very few had even seen the ocean.

Despite the abject fear that these men experienced, eye witnesses commented on the dignity they displayed in the face of death itself. Watching their fellow comrades drown, hurt & in an absolute panic it is chilling to think about how each man must have felt.

Survivors told stories of the men aboard the SS Mendi. Some became legends.

Reverend Dyobha is reported to have lead the men who went down with the ship in a Death Dance/Drill with the words,

“‘You are going to die, but that is what you came to do… 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.”

Another version is recorded as,

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now 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 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 leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies.”

Other sources attribute these words to an interpreter, Isaac Williams Wauchope, who had previously served as a Minister in the Congregational Native Church of Fort Beaufort & Blinkwater.

The story of the death dance has not been attributed to a particular source & is regarded by some as being a legend. I personally believe it took place in some form based only on the way I have seen people respond to the very dire circumstances & under extreme duress.

Additional Information:

The SANLC men aboard the Mendes were from many different backgrounds & areas : Transvaal 287, Eastern Cape 139, Natal 87, Northern Cape 27, Orange Free State 26, Basutoland 26, Bechuanaland 8,  Western Cape 5, Rhodesia 1, South West Africa 1

The wreckage of the Mendi was only identified in 1974

Military history all over the world has, until recently, mostly excluded the labour corps

The Mendi deaths are marked by memorials in South Africa, England, France & the Netherlands

In a final injustice, Madi Phala the artist who was commissioned & completed the Mendi memorial at UCT was murdered outside his home in 2007. He said, of the memorial, ‘I have put my signature on the Mother City’s belly and we’ve made a baby now. This will be more memorable than anybody else buying my private work and keeping it in their lounge, because now this will be exposed to everybody.’



Sources & further reading :  Labour Corps ,  S A Military History, Wessex , War Graves , MendiWiki , MadiPhala ,  TragedyoftheClyde ,   SANAVY,