I was there...

Few troops survived the SS Mendi tragedy, but those that did brought back stories of remarkable courage. Read an account of that fateful evening and the bravery it aroused.

The memory of that cold foggy morning is still keen in my mind, though 23 years have now passed.

I hear the crash as the other big ship ran into us in the darkness. I see the officer in charge of the Bantu, who thought only of his men and their safety, go running round all the sleeping places, shouting "All on deck."

I see hundreds of them coming up quickly and quietly from below, and each man finding his own appointed place on the deck, notwithstanding the blackness of the night. There is no fear or panic; they put on their clothes and lifebelts as they fall into position. Each man has used his lifebelt as a pillow during the night.

I hear the warning hoots of our steamer and, standing on the deck, I see two boats being lowered into the sea alongside.

I feel the heavy list of the ship as the water beings to fill her, and she turns slowly on her side, so that we cannot stand on the deck.

I hear the shout, "All overboard! She's sinking!" and every man who can do so jumps.

I remember the jump into the bitter cold sea, the sinking beneath the surface, the coming up again, the swimming to the boat that had been let down from our ship, and then cut adrift. I feel my hands gripping her side, as we were drawn along in the water by the rowers. I hear myself say, "Goodbye, my strength is gone", and then I feel the strong hands of a Native gripping my wrists and holding me up. Then several others catch me round the chest and shoulders and drag me, nearly dead, into the boat, and so I am saved.

Nearly two hundred others were also saved, and all of us who are still alive, remember with you today the Bantu and Europeans who went bravely to meet their death on that black day of the last War.

On Sunday the 25th, I shall stand in my house at 4 o'clock and join with you in saluting their memory.

Our salutation is a pledge of our loyalty to the government of our country, to our King and to the Empire to which we all belong.

Ngi ya ba bingelela, ngi ya konza kanye nani nonke.

- "Message from Dr LE Hertslet, 23rd Anniversary Service, February 25, 1940", in Souvenir of the Mendi Disaster, African Ex-Servicemen's League, publication undated.

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"You are going to die, but that is what you came to do... Let us die like warriors."
Reverend Isaac Wauchope
King George V inspects the SA Native Labour Corps, France, 1917
Picture: © SA National Museum of Miltary History


In this lesson plan, learners will study two transcripts of oral sources and will be encouraged to appreciate the insights and feelings that these sources offer us. They will also study a "minute" from Louis Botha, the Prime Minister at the time of the disaster, and resolutions passed by a Christian African community on how they planned to carry forward the fight for the Empire.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
A small collection of images of Reverend Wauchope and the men who died with him in the SS Mendi disaster.
The brave Reverend Wauchope
In February 1917, hundreds of SA Native Labour Corps members died when the troopship SS Mendi sank in the freezing waters of the English Channel.