On Tuesday the Duke of Kent, Commonwealth War Graves Commission president, will unveil a new style information panel at the Southampton (Hollybrook) Memorial telling the story of South African hero Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha.
He was one of the men of the SA Native Labour Corps who died when the troop transport ship SS Mendi sank in the English Channel after a collision with another ship in thick fog on 21 February 1917.
Eyewitness stories of the bravery exhibited by the doomed men aboard the SS Mendi have become legendary. The most famous story is that of the death dance the men performed as the ship went down.
They were led by the chaplain, the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha. He was heard calling out:
“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.”
The panel at Southampton is among 500 the Commission is installing as part of a drive to provide more information for the public during the centenary of the First World War. More than 100 panels are being erected at sites in the UK, with a further 16 planned for cemeteries in South Africa and Namibia, to provide information about the many thousands of First World War casualties, from all parts of the Commonwealth, who died during the war.
Each of the panels carries information about the site of the cemetery or memorial and the reason why it is situated where it is. But each panel also carries a QR (Quick Response) code which, when scanned with a smartphone, provides access to further information, including the personal stories of some of the casualties buried or commemorated at the location.
The Duke of Kent said: “The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is at the heart of events to mark the centenary of the First World War. Our cemeteries and memorials will be the focus for many acts of remembrance over the coming years and this initiative will help inform visitors of the historical context which brought these places into being, while putting a human face to the names of those who died. It is a powerful means of combining traditional methods with new technology to ensure we never forget.”
The QR code at Southampton reveals the heroism of The Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha and the tragic loss of the SS Mendi on which 616 South Africans (607 of them black troops) plus 30 British crew members died. The Reverend Dyobha is reported to have calmed the panicked men as the ship sank. His rallying call can be read and heard after scanning the code on the panel.
In South Africa at least two memorial services will be held on Sunday to remember the worst tragedy in local naval history. Avalon Cemetery in Soweto will host one while the second will take place at the Mendi Memorial in Atteridgeville, Pretoria.