South Africans have remembered the loss of the troopship SS Mendi, the worst maritime disaster in the country’s history, at memorials throughout the country and in the UK.
The sinking of the Mendi on 21 February 1917 is considered one of the worst maritime disasters off the British coast in the 20th Century and is commemorated by South African veterans in the UK, and places as far apart as Cape Town and Pretoria.
The Memorial Service in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, at the weekend, remembered the heroism of the British Merchant Navy sailors, soldiers and men of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) who died.
Chairman of the Atteridgeville Branch of the South African Legion, Legionnaire Abel Sefolosha expressed his pleasure at the number of local people from Atteridgeville attending the service and encouraged the young people to use the example of the heroes of the past to build a foundation for their lives. He further called on people to respect one another.
The loss of life in the Mendi disaster was considered very high and caused a great shock, with the South African Parliament standing for a moment of silence to remember the great loss.
While most of the SANLC troops were from South Africa, there were also 26 from Lesotho, eight from Botswana and one each from Zimbabwe and Namibia, all of which were then British possessions. All South African soldiers in World War I fought as British Imperial troops, part of the South Africa Overseas Expeditionary Force.
On the Mendi itself, according to the official (British) Board of Trade Report, the total crew was 89, including the Master (captain) and four officers. The total number of troops was 824, of whom five were officers, 17 were NCOs and 802 were SANLC troops.
Of the ship’s company, 30 died, including the 2nd and 3rd officers, two of the army officers, seven NCOs and 607 SANLC troops.
Hilary Page, the granddaughter of Lieutenant Samuel Emslie, who was one of the two army officers lost on the Mendi, has been active in raising awareness of the ship’s story. She told the Cape Times that he had the chance to be rescued, but had said: “No, I’m dying with these men.” She said her grandfather had recruited 100 soldiers to serve in the SANLC from the Eastern Cape, where he also came from.
Representatives of the Chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force and the Surgeon General as well as veterans organisations such as the Gunners’ Association laid wreaths to the strains of well-known tunes like the Lament and Danny Boy. The diplomatic corps was also represented, with some countries not often seen laying wreaths or planting crosses, including Kenya, Mali, Thailand, Brazil and Japan. Countries often present included Germany and the US.