SS Mendi’s war grave status means soldiers finally ‘buried’

2009-03-10 00:00

The wreck of the SS Mendi on which 616 South African soldiers lost their lives in 1917 will be granted official war grave status later this year following a campaign by British underwater photo-journalist and shipwreck historian Ned Middleton.

“The wreck site will be designated a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 later this year,” said Middleton. “As a protected place, my understanding is that she may still be visited by scuba divers but not touched.”

According to African traditional religious beliefs, those who died on the Mendi were unable to join their ancestors as they had not been buried. “That these people needed to be buried in order to reach their afterlife was sufficient reason for me to try and do something about getting them buried,” said Middleton.

“Of course, nobody was considering physical burial; all that was required was an official designation to war grave status which has the same effect.”

On February 21, 1917, the crowded troopship the 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. Over 600 men died in the icy waters of the English Channel in one of South Africa’s greatest military disasters.

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 the Avalon graveyard in Soweto, which was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995.

In 2007, the SS Mendi memorial in Cape Town was unveiled on the Mowbray campus of the University of Cape Town.

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