We Die Like Brothers
In the cold darkness, the Liverpool troopship Mendi is steaming slowly through dense fog south of the Isle of Wight, sounding its whistle to warn nearby ships. It is just before 5am on the 21st February 1917 and the Mendi is en route from Cape Town to Le Havre in France. It is a year of deep war with no end in sight and the ship is carrying 824 South Africans vital to the British war effort. The atmosphere is tense – German U-boats have made the English Channel a very unsafe place for shipping.
Captain Yardley has just left the bridge when he hears an urgent warning being sounded. Rushing back, a huge impact knocks him off his feet. As he gets up he sees a much larger steamship backing away into the fog, leaving an enormous hole in the side of his ship. Very soon after he gives the order to abandon ship. The flooding Mendi slips below the waves in just 20 minutes. Very few of the lifeboats can be launched and most must jump into the sea and cling to primitive life rafts. Yardley walks calmly into the water as the bridge submerges and manages to cling to a lifeboat.
The crew of HMS Brisk, the Mendi’s Royal Navy escort, are all action. Doubling back, they launch boats and begin to look for survivors. However, search lights bounce uselessly back off the fog and the task of locating and recovering survivors is slow and exhausting. Inexplicably the other ship, the relatively undamaged Royal Mail steamer Darro, offers no assistance.
In the meantime, the cold water has begun its work of killing the men in the water. That February was unusually cold and what has caused misery on the Western Front is now lethal to the men in the water. Out of more than 900 on-board, just 267 survive. Captain Yardley is amongst those lucky few –pulled from the water just before succumbing to hypothermia. At the subsequent Inquiry, Captain Stump of the Darro is blamed for causing the accident and was heavily censured for his failure to help the survivors. He offers no convincing explanation for his actions that night.
In a Britain numbed by war, the loss of the Mendi briefly caused a stir but was then forgotten.
In South Africa, the loss of so many men might have been expected to be more acutely felt. However, the ship was not carrying white fighting troops, but non-combatant labourers of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). The government of the Union of South Africa, a recent dominion of the British Empire, was not greatly concerned for the interests of its poor and disenfranchised black citizenry. It was not about to acknowledge their contribution to the war effort for fear of upsetting the delicate balance of power that ensured the privileged position of the white minority. They maintained a stony silence towards SANLC and the men of the Mendi. Aided by cynical British indifference, they ensured that black South African veterans did not even receive the British War Medal given to other participants in the war.
Despite this, memory of the Mendi disaster was preserved in black communities and commemorative events were held which became the focus of growing black political activism. An inspiring story emerged that one of the black leaders on-board, the Reverend Dyobha, had instilled courage in the men on the sinking ship by exhorting them to carry out a ‘death dance’ and to “Die like brothers”.
The wreck and the Commemoration
The wreck of the Mendi was rediscovered in 1974 by the Isle of Wight diver Martin Woodward. It became a happy hunting ground for divers looking to recover interesting souvenirs such as brass portholes. It did not receive any significant archaeological attention until 2006-8, when a desk-based assessment and geophysical survey were undertaken by Wessex Archaeology, with support from the then English Heritage. The site was subsequently designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act. Whilst this provided some assurance that the site was protected from interference, the site then fell into something of a no-man’s land in terms of funding. No further work took place.
Archaeology had not, however, forgotten the site. The impetus for further work proved to be the 1914-18 Centenary Commemorations. Since the end of Apartheid, the story of the Mendi had been embraced by the government of the new ‘rainbow nation’ as a major commemorative event. The injustice done to the survivors and the Mendi’s association with the fight against white minority rule meant that it became a symbol of the fight for equality. This association between the Mendi and themes of equality and social justice were not lost upon the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who chose the Mendi as an example of how our First World War heritage could be used to speak about contemporary social issues and reach audiences that heritage traditionally struggled to connect with.
In 2014-15 Historic England had the foresight to support, with the endorsement of both national governments, a voluntary group of heritage and creative professionals and avocational divers who were intent on helping the much-visited South African National War Memorial at Delville Wood on the Somme to create ‘We Die Like Brothers’, a permanent exhibition on the Mendi. Opened in 2015, this was the precursor to a much-needed replacement of the memorial’s disrespectful Apartheid-era displays.
The exhibition’s web presence, a free education resource pack designed by Wessex Archaeology for UK and South African schools, subsequently went on to be short-listed for the Europa Nostra awards and was praised by the South African Ambassador to Paris as an exemplar of how Europe and Africa could co-operate over their shared heritage.
Marking the centenary
This success encouraged Historic England to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Mendi with a new book. Published in February 2017, We Die Like Brothers: The Sinking of the SS Mendi has been written by the two archaeologists who had written the original assessment and who had been closely involved in the subsequent exhibition project, John Gribble of the South African Heritage Resource Agency and Graham Scott. Although books have been written about the Mendi and SANLC before, this is the first to integrate what is known about the archaeology of the wreck.
The centenary commemorations have involved a major series of events organised by the South African and UK Governments and the CWGC, involving a wreath laying ceremony on site and fighting ships of both navies.
The involvement of the Royal Navy has also meant that archaeologists have could restart their investigations. Naval hydrographers have carried out a high resolution multibeam bathymetry survey of the wreck, the first significant archaeological data set to emerge since 2008. John and Graham, who became the ‘talking heads’ for heritage during the intense media interest that surrounded the commemorations, hope to maintain this momentum.
By working with other assets of the MoD and with local groups, including the Shipwreck Project of Weymouth, they hope to carry out further ROV and diver surveys before the centenary of the Armistice. In the meantime, Historic England is supporting an enhanced education pack, to be rolled out to all Key Stage 3 and equivalent South African schools.
Project Curator with the National Trust
Susan is co-leader of the We Die Like Brothers exhibition project and is a senior museum professional, currently working asa project curator for the Nationa ltrust.
Senior Technical Specialist and Dive Superintendent with Wessex Archaeology
Graham is a highly experienced marine and aviation archaeologist. He has been involved in Mendi Project work since 2006.
Also of interest...
In February 1917 the SS Mendi, a First World War troopship carrying 802 men of the South African Native Labour Corps, was sunk with the loss 618.
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