Unarmed Soldiers

21 000 members of the South African Native Labour Corps were sent to provide labour on the front line in France where they were treated like the second-class citizens they were in South Africa.

They were unarmed, housed in compounds and refused the right to interact with anyone besides their officers. Read extracts from the Directorate of Labour's handbook, Appendix to notes for officers of labour companies (South African Labour).

"Compounds should be surrounded by an unclimbable [sic] fence or wall, in which all openings are guarded...

"Under the conditions under which they are living in France, they (the Natives) are not to be trusted with white women, and any Native found wandering about without a pass and not under the escort of a white N.C.O. should be returned to his unit under guard, or failing this, handed over to the Military Police..."

General Remarks, Section 7:

"Care should be taken to prevent unauthorised persons from entering the Camp or conversing with Natives and especially to prevent all familiarity between Europeans and Natives, as this is subversive to discipline and calculated to impair their efficiency as working units."

- Willan, BP, "The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916-1918", in The Journal of African History, Vol. 19, No. 1, 1978, pp. 72-73

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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.