SS Mendi ‘deserves war grave status’

2008-10-26 00:00

A British underwater photo-journalist and shipwreck historian is seeking to have the wreck of the SS Mendi, on which 616 South African soldiers died in 1917, granted official war grave status.

Ned Middleton, recognised as an authority on the subject of shipwrecks, in a letter to John Hutton, the British defence secretary, says the application is “not just another request about another ship. This is about an injustice that has been allowed to continue for over 91 years.”

“These people volunteered in response to a request for a force of 10 000 men by the British Prime Minister at the height of the Great War,” says Nettleton. “The only way these men can be finally put to rest is by granting the SS Mendi exceptional status as a War Grave.”

He says that had the Mendi been the final resting place for over 600 British soldiers, “she would have been designated a War Grave many years ago”.

On February 21, 1917, the crowded troopship SS Mendi was heading for France when it collided with the SS Darro. The Mendi was carrying a contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps.

When news of the accident was relayed to the South African government, the House of Assembly stood in tribute.

“It has never happened in the history of South Africa … that in one moment, by one fell swoop, such a lot of people have perished,” said Prime Minister Louis Botha, noting that all the men were volunteers. “What they have done will redound to their everlasting credit.”

The names of the men who died appear on war memorials at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southhampton, England, and at the Delville Wood Museum in France. In South Africa there are memorials in Port Elizabeth and at at the Avalon graveyard in Soweto, which was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995.

Last year saw the unveiling of the SS Mendi memorial in Cape Town on the Mowbray campus of the University of Cape Town.

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