SS Mendi – Remembering the South African tragedy of WW1

SS Mendi set sail from Cape Town 100 years ago

She never returned. Neither did most of the men aboard her. They answered the call to defend Britain during WW1 but most never made it. They were taken by the icy waters of the English Channel before they could reach France, their final destination.

We can only guess at the thoughts that entered the minds of so many men, many who had never even seen the ocean, as they boarded that ship to supply desperately needed labour for the British war effort. We know that they did. It is obvious that many must have felt sea sick, as well as homesick during the long sea journey from the Cape, to Lagos, then Sierra Leone & Southampton. They probably formed bonds, fought & made friends with their fellow volunteers. They were the men of the South African Native Labour Corps.

The South African Native Labour Corps was formed to oil the wheels of the war effort. They would offload & distribute supplies, moving food & cargo to ensure servicemen had the goods essential for the many battles of this war to end all wars. They were not alone. People were recruited from China, India & many other countries to meet the labour needs of the Great War.

Many went down with the Mendi on 21 February 1917, after a mail ship twice her size rammed into the men’s sleeping quarters. Only around 200 men were rescued, not by the ship that sank the Mendes, but by the destroyer that escorted her. The rest were engulfed by the water, the vast ocean that many had never even seen before, let alone able to swim in it.

It has been said that the people who couldn’t make it to the lifeboats sang & danced a death dance or drill as the Mendi sank. Some say that’s just a legend that grew through time. I believe they did.

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