Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard

On 21 February 1917, during World War I, this chartered troopship – the SS Mendi – containing a full battalion of South African Native Labour Corps men and officers on its way to the western front was rammed in fog conditions in the English Channel. The SS Mendi sank in 25 minutes with the loss of 616 South Africans and 30 British.

The greatest tragedy was yet to come as due to racial prejudice this event was somewhat down-played through the years and not enough recognition given to these men, something the South African Legion and the South African National Defence Force is now working very hard at redressing.

The accidental ramming of SS Mendi Troopship by SS Darro on a cold foggy morning eleven miles off Isle of Wight, on 21st February 1917, became an almost unparalleled wartime tragedy for South African forces.

Darro, at almost three times Mendi’s weight, travelling ‘full ahead’ in fog conditions – not using her fog horn to warn shipping in the area or the appropriate lights – she rammed the troop ship with such force the SS Mendi sunk and was resting on the sea-bed within 25 minutes. The violent impact, nearly at right angles, left a gaping 20ft tear amidships instantly trapping more than 100 soldiers below decks who were unable to escape the rapidly rising water as the ship quickly listed to starboard.

Her crew, consisting 29 sailors, failed to launch sufficient life rafts for the 811 strong contingent of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). In the dense fog and inadequate rescue effort that followed, many remained aboard the ship, unwilling to commit to an icy plunge.

They were reportedly exhorted by the Chaplain Rev Isaac Dyobha who called them together to die like warriors and brothers – what he said is now legendary.

He said “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.”

They took off their boots, picked up imaginary spears and shields and performed an African war dance, a dance of death.

Thus, together, as brothers they chanted and danced on the tilting deck, facing death with unparalleled bravery until finally being sucked into the vortex created by the sinking ship.

The reference to weapons was to the fact that the South African Government had agreed to send black men to assist the Allied forces as labourers, but, due to policies of the time, they insisted they could not be given weapons.

There were many more individual acts of bravery and selflessness in those terrifying early morning hours in the freezing water. A catalogue of failures exacerbated the final outcome, the Darro for example made no effort at all to rescue the men in the water, and ultimately it was that many of these brave men had no experience of the sea combined with extended exposure to the frigid February waters, off St Catherine’s Light, that accounted for the unusually high death toll.

Fewer than 200 of the 840 souls aboard the SS Mendi survived. The total toll on human lives lost that day reached a staggering 646.

Although the then Prime Minister Louis Botha brought the South African Parliament to attention in remembrance of the tragedy and the impact to the community, convention and prejudice meant this dreadful tragedy was not afforded appropriate recognition by respective Governments in South Africa and the United Kingdom. South African officials during these years demonstrated their unwillingness to highlight black people’s wartime contributions by withholding medals and reasonable post-war recompense to ‘non-combatant men’ deemed somehow less valuable.

Particularly poignant was that South African Labour Corps men, drawn from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, had readily volunteered their services to support the British Crown’s war effort on the Western Front in the hope it would win them greater political concessions at home. The reality was that remarkably little changed for 7 decades.

After World War 1, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi, neither the survivors nor the dead, or any other members of the South African Native Labour Corps, received a British War Medal or a ribbon. Their white officers did (i.e. commissioned and non commissioned South African Labour Corps officers – whites only).

The War Medal was issued by the British to all who participated in World War 1 fighting for Britain and her Empire. The decision not to award it to Black South African servicemen was a South African government decision and South African government alone. Black members of the South African Labour Corps from the neighbouring British Protectorates of Basutoland (modern Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland did receive medals, as the government in these territories approved the issue.

Approaches are now been made to the British government by the SANDF Attache in London to see if this issue can be redressed and medals struck, a memorial “commemorative” medal have also been struck for surviving family members and will make up part of the Centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi.


The British War Medal with King George V bust, the medal in question and King George V who is seen here inspecting N.C.O.’s of the South African Native Labour Corps at Abbeville, 10 July 1917.

The shipwreck has recently been awarded World Heritage and War Grave status and an increasing number of Memorials are testament to contemporary recognition for, and acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by not only the 607 South African Labour Corps men lost that day on His Majesty’s service but also many thousand silent black South African citizens who risked everything to join Europe, ‘like brothers’.

12728864_547649455404791_260877941339324195_n

Rev. Isaac Williams Wauchope Dyobha (1852-1917) – see insert picture, our hero who called all to the death dance on the SS Mendi was a rather remarkable man – he was a prominent member of the Eastern Cape African elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a Congregational minister, political activist, historian, poet and ultimately the legendary hero in the Mendi disaster.

As a Lovedale student he joined a missionary party to Malawi, he was instrumental in founding one of the first political organisations for Africans, a staunch ally of John Tengo Jabavu and an enthusiastic campaigner for the establishment of the University of Fort Hare. For over 40 years, from 1874 to 1916, he was a prodigious contributor to newspapers, submitting news, comments, announcements, poetry, hymns, history and biography, travelogues, sermons, translations, explications of proverbs and royal praise poems. He used nom de plume Silwangangubo, Dyoba wo Daka and Ngingi and published The Natives and their Missionaries in 1908.

1947484_257837754385964_1327099841_n

This is a recent picture of a diver on the wreck of he SS Mendi and an artefact recovered from the wreck.

The Mendi sinking is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the South African military, and was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century in British waters.

For South Africans this is especially important as there are very few physical reminders of this tragedy, such as this photograph BASNC plate courtesy of David Wendes.

Some small things can be seen on the wreck, such as some of the plates that the men would have eaten off. It was the crest of the British and African Steam Navigation Company on some of these plates that allowed divers to identify the wreck as the Mendi.

For many years in South Africa the only memorial to these men was a life ring with the words “SS Mendi” on it on a railing in Simonstown, South Africa and the Hollybrook Cemetery Memorial which listed all the names of the SS Mendi missing in Southampton, England.

Happily this suppression of Black South African contribution to WW1 is no-longer the case, after 1994 memorial statues to the SS Mendi memorials now exist in Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg.   Memorial services are held countrywide and form part of the SANDF’s Armed Forces Day (Mendi Day).  Awards and decorations for Bravery in the name of the Mendi have been issued, and the South African Navy has named two ships – the SAS Mendi (a Valour class Frigate) and the SAS Isaac Dyobha (a Warrior class Strike-craft).  Memorial services are also regularly held overseas in Southampton England and Noordwijk Netherlands.  A dedicated exhibit now also takes up place at Delville Wood in France.

The image to the left of the Atteridgeville memorial is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and President Nelson Mandela unveiling the memorial to the SS Mendi in Soweto, South Africa.

The immediate recognition of this event by the British government in 1995 was one of the first acts by the Queen on her return to South Africa – she had last been in South Africa in 1947 and was prevented from visiting again as South Africa had “resigned” from the Commonwealth in the intervening years of Apartheid.

Once South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994, such was the importance and urgent need to recognise this tragic event as a fundamental building block to nation building it took centre stage of Royal visit not seen in South Africa for 47 years.

Continue reading

The ‘2 minutes silence’ is a South African gift to the Act of Remembrance

Many people do not know that the two minutes silence and its association to Armistice Day (11/11/11) or Remembrance Sunday has a South African origin.  It is one of our greatest gifts to humankind, yet most South Africans are completely oblivious of it.

The featured image taken in 1918 is a rare and unique one, it shows South African civilians stopping what they are doing in the middle of Cape Town and standing to attention for two minutes silence, signalled when the noon day gun was fired.  Not common today in Cape Town but a daily occurrence during war years.  So how did this unique practice become a worldwide standard for remembrance?

Read on and learn a little why South Africans should stand proud of what they have given the world; when on Remembrance Sunday and on Armistice day in November, the western world stands silent in remembrance for two minutes … and take heart that this entire ceremony has South African roots.

The end of Word War 1 – Armistice Day 11/11/11

BgtOUCICMAAvwfLAt 05.30 in the morning of 11 November 1918 the Germans signed the Armistice Agreement in a remote railway siding in the heart of the forest of Compiègne. Soon wires were humming with the message : ‘Hostilities will cease at 11.00 today November 11th. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour…’.Thus, at 11.00 on 11 November 1918 the guns on the Western Front in France and Flanders fell silent after more than four years of continuous warfare, warfare that had witnessed the most horrific casualties.World War One (then known as the Great War) had ended.

front

South African troops in a support trench on the Western Front, Fresenberg Ridge, 22 September 1917

The time and date attained an important significance in the post war years and the moment that hostilities ceased became universally associated with the remembrance of those that died in that and subsequent wars and conflicts. The Two Minutes silence to remember all who paid the supreme sacrifice was a result of this expression… and it all began in Cape Town, South Africa.

Cape Town’s unique remembrance during WW1 

When the first casualty lists recording the horrific loss of life in the Battles of the Somme were announced in Cape Town, Mr JA Eagar, a Cape Town businessman, suggested that the congregation of the church he attended observe a special silent pause to remember those in the South African casualty list. It was the church also attended by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick the famous South African author of “Jock of the Bushveld”.

In May 1918, the Mayor of Cape Town, Councillor H. Hands (later Sir Harry Hands) at the suggestion made by Mr. RR Brydon, a Cape Town City Councillor, in a letter to the Cape Times initiated a period of silence to remember the events unfolding on the battlefields of Europe and the sacrifices being made there. Mr Brydon’s son, Maj Walter Brydon, three times wounded and once gassed, was killed on 12 April 1918.

1391458_221953444641062_1918118670_n

Cape Town’s noon day gun

The pause would follow the firing of the Noon Gun (a tradition instituted in 1902 and fired everyday at 12:00 from Signal Hill), simply put the gun was the most audible signal with which to co-ordinate the event across the city of Cape Town.

The boom of the gun signalling the midday pause of three minutes was heard for the first time on 14 May 1918.  It became the signal for all activity in the Mother City to come to a halt. Everything came to a dead stop while everyone bowed their heads in silent prayer for those in the trenches in Flanders.

As soon as the city fell silent, a trumpeter on the balcony of the Fletcher and Cartwright’s Building on the corner of Adderley and Darling Streets sounded the Last Post, the melancholy strains of which reverberated through the city. Reveille was played at the end of the midday pause.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 16.36.05

Rare photo of the midday pause in Cape Town – 1918

Articles in the newspapers described how trams, taxis and private vehicles stopped, pedestrians came to a halt and most men bared their heads. People stopped what they were doing at their places of work and sat or stood silently. The result of the Mayor’s appeal exceeded all expectations.

One journalist witnessing the midday pause described a young woman dressed in black, who came to a halt on the pavement and furtively dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “One could not but wonder what personal interest she had in the act of remembrance”, he wrote.

A few days later Sir Harry, whose son, Capt Richard Hands, a member of ‘Brydon’s Battery’, had been mortally wounded in the same battle in which Maj Brydon had been killed, decided to shorten the duration of the pause to two minutes, “in order to better retain its hold on the people”.

In terms of the meaning of “two minutes” it was also argued that the first minute is for thanksgiving for those that survived war and the second minute is to remember the fallen.

There is even an eye-witness account of the midday pause in 1918 which eloquently outlines the event – see the Observation Post story on it by following this link: The 2 minutes silence; an eye witness account of South Africa’s unique gift to Remembrance

The midday pause continued daily in Cape Town and was last observed on 17 January 1919, but was revived in Cape Town during the Second World War.  This is another rare photo of soldiers and civilians paused and standing at attention for two minutes of silence on Cape Town’s streets in 1942.

21521_10153711878346480_96703057814447340_n

Rare photo of the midday pause of Remembrance in Cape Town during World War 2 – 1942

Today, the tradition of the midday gun has continued, as any Capetonian can attest – regular as clockwork it goes off at 12:00, and although the pause is no longer part of the ritual in Cape Town, the idea of the ‘pause’ for two minutes remembrance has survived.

That this ritual survived is by no means in a small way either, but in such a way that it now concludes how we as modern human beings in the western world remember the war dead and sacrifice.  It started when it became the official two minute ‘pause’ throughout Britain and the British Commonwealth from 11 November 1919, and here is how that came about, and once again – surprise – we have a South African from Cape Town right at the centre of it.

Step in Sir Percy Fitzpatrick 

Now, back to Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.  He had been impressed by the period of silence kept in his local church after the horrific loss of life at Delville Wood became known and the casualty lists had been read out. He had a personal interest in the daily remembrance as his son, Maj Nugent Fitzpatrick, battery commander of 71st Siege Battery, was killed on 14 December 1917 by a chance shell fired at long range.

Sir Percy was understandably deeply affected by the loss of his favourite son and was also so moved by the dignity and effectiveness of the two minute pause in Cape Town that the date and time of the Armistice inspired him to an annual commemoration on an Imperial basis.

The King Decrees 

Sir Percy then wrote to Lord Milner and described the silence that fell on the city during this daily ritual. Taking into consideration that the guns of war finally fell silent at 11:00 on the 11th day of the 11th month (November), Sir Percy felt that the idea of observing the two-minute silence at that time and on that date, would give the Act of Homage great impact, and proposed that this became an official part of the annual service on Armistice Day.

The meaning behind Sir Percy’s proposal was stated as:

It is due to the women, who have lost and suffered and borne so much, with whom the thought is ever present.
It is due to the children that they know to whom they owe their dear fought freedom.
It is due to the men, and from them, as men.
But far and away, above all else, it is due to those who gave their all, sought no recompense, and with whom we can never re-pay – our Glorious and Immortal Dead.

Sir Percy’s letter was received by Lord Milner on November 4, 1919, reviewed and accepted by the War Cabinet on November 5, and was immediately approved by King George V.

George V, then King of the United Kingdom, shortly afterwards on the 7th November 1919, proclaimed by decree.

“Tuesday next, November 11, is the first anniversary of the Armistice, which stayed the worldwide carnage of the four preceding years and the victory of Right and Freedom. I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the meaning of the Great Deliverance, and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.

To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of their feeling, it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice comes into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be for a brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activitiy that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.

Sir Percy when he heard the news that his suggestion had reached the King stated: “I was so stunned by the news that I could not leave the hotel. An hour or two afterwards I received a cable from Lord Long of Wexhall: ‘Thank you. Walter Long.’ Only then did I know that my proposal had reached the King and had been accepted and that the Cabinet knew the source.”

Later, Sir Percy was thanked for his suggestion of the two minute silence by Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary who wrote:

Dear Sir Percy,
The King, who learns that you are shortly to leave for South Africa, desires me to assure you that he ever gratefully remembers that the idea of the Two Minute Pause on Armistice Day was due to your initiation, a suggestion readily adopted and carried out with heartfelt sympathy throughout the Empire.
Signed – Stamfordham

And so the tradition of 2 minutes of silence during remembrance occasions was born, a unique South African gift to world, a simple peaceful gesture that in deep solitude remembers the end of all war – not the beginning.

supporting-poppy-appeal


Story and images researched by Peter Dickens.

Image copyrights include The Imperial War Museum and “The Celebration of Peace” Booklet, issued in 1919 by the Cape Town Peace Celebrations committee for distribution throughout the Schools of the Cape Peninsula.