On January 16, 1917 the MENDI troopship sailed from Cape Town en route to La Havre in France carrying the last contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps comprising of 805 black privates, 5 white officers and 17 non-commissioned officers and the ship’s crew which comprised of 33 members.
On 21 February 1917, the SS DARRO, a 11 000 ton ship was transiting at full speed across the ENGLISH CHANNEL without any warning signals and rammed the SS MENDI which was a mere 4 230 ton ship. The MENDI sank within 20 minutes. The DARRO took no steps to save lives of those men that had survived, however the escorting ship the HMS BRISK helped to rescue survivors! A total of 616 South Africans, including 607 black troops serving in the South African Native Labour Contingent.
There are many stories of bravery and more particular about the men's bravery as the ship went down! One of them was the Rev Isaac Dyobha who cried the words of encouragement to the dying men!
BE QUIET AND CALM MY COUNTRYMEN, FOR WHAT IS TAKING PLACE NOW IS WHAT YOU CAME HERE TO DO. WE ARE GOING TO DIE, AND THAT IS WHAT WE CAME FOR! BROTHERS.......XHOSAS, 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 ASSEGAAIS BACK IN THE KRAALS, OUR VOICES ARE LEFT WITH OUR BODIES......
THE men sang and stamped the death dance together as the SS MENDI sank, taking with her all still on board and many who leapt into the icy waters. Of note, regardless of clan or tribe, these men faced death together as South Africans.
Like so many other military disasters, the story of the SS MENDI is a story of supreme courage in the face of death and valour shown between brothers toward each other in dire circumstances. The Courage displayed by these men has remained a legend in South African history.
The SA Native Labour Contingent which consisted of some 21 000 black South Africans, which were volunteers, served in France between 1916 and 1918. They joined the Labour force made up of French, British, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian, and Canadian labourers, as well as German prisoners of war. By the time the unit was disbanded in 1918, 333 men gave their lives in France during WW1. Most of are buried at the British Military Cemetery at Argues-la-Bataille, while those who died on the SS MENDI are remembered at the Hollybrook Memorial in South Hampton, England. There are memorials at the Delvillewood Museum in France, Port Elizabeth and a new memorial in Soweto, South Africa, which was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995.
The MENDI has also given its name to South Africa's highest award for courage - Order of the MENDI Decoration for Bravery, bestowed by the President on South African Citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of Bravery.
South Africa Salutes these Brave and Courageous Fallen Countrymen!.
The Defence Attaché Office in Ankara commemorates The South African Armed Forces Day
with the participation of South African Embassy Councellor Mr Puleng Chaba and Defence Attaché Captain Shawn Wright
and Members of AMAC Community and Members from the Turkish Armed Forces