THE SOUTH AFRICAN NATIVE LABOUR CORPS AND THE SINKING OF THE SS MENDI
As the casualties on the Western Front and other areas of conflict increased, the need to sustain the manpower of the fighting forces became critical. There were many roles which had been done by soldiers which could be carried out by others. These included unloading supplies, building defences, repairing roads and railways, and a host of activities around the ports. The British authorities looked to the Empire, from Africa and Asia to provide some 300,000 men to perform these tasks.
The South African Prime Minister, Louis Botha, agreed to the formation of a native labour force which would have no combat role, and which would work in the ports and railways and in quarrying and forestry. All the costs were to be met by the British Government, but a key requirement of the South Africans was that there should be no breakdown of their strict policy of racial segregation. The men were to be offered a one year contract, and £3 a month, which was about 10% above the usual rate of pay in South Africa.
Black leaders, including the South Africa Native National Congress, supported the scheme as they believed it would demonstrate their support for the King and Empire which might prove useful in any future struggle to achieve political rights. Black opposition centred on the fear of losing land in their absence, and there were also fears relating to the dangers of long sea journeys. Very few of those recruited could swim.
White South Africans feared a shortage of labour for the mining industry and for the farms and possible wage demands. There was also a fear of the possible impact their experience in Europe might have. Colonel Sam Pitchard, Officer Commanding the South African Native Labour Force laid down the criteria for operations before the 1st Battalion arrived in France in November 1916.
· to maintain South African Control
· to have their own white officers
· to maintain segregation from French society
· to be kept away from the front
to control job choices allocated to the men
The overall aim was to reduce the mens’ access to other social and work conditions, and the men worked longer hours than any of the other labour units.
A new British Directorate of Labour was set up in December 1916 to manage all Empire Labour Units, breaking the Battalions down into smaller units. This not only broke down the strict South African control, but also found the men working closer to the front.
Over 20,000 men were recruited, mainly to work in the ports. The main South African base was at Arques-la-Bataille, six kilometres east of Dieppe. Alongside the camp was the No.1 General Labour Hospital.
The last contingent of 823 men of the 5th Battalion Labour Corps left Cape Town on 25th January 1917 on board the SS Mendi. She was a passenger steamship which had been requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1916 as a troopship. On 21st February with HMS Brisk, a Royal Navy Destroyer escorting her, she was making her way towards France. There was thick fog in the Channel and off St Catherine’s Point at the southern tip of the Isle of Wight; the Mendi had slowed down when she was hit by the much larger steam ship the SS Darro. Despite the conditions it was sailing at full speed.
The damage to the Mendi was fatal, the Darro cutting into the hold where many men lay asleep. No boats could be launched from the starboard side, and although others were launched, few of the African labourers could swim. The Mendi sank in 25 minutes, the Darro offered no help, but survivors were picked up by HMS Brisk and other ships.
The Reverend Isaac Wanchope Dyobha was one of the men of the Labour Corps who died on the Mendi. It is said that as the ship was sinking he performed a Xhosa death dance. It included the words ‘Be quiet and calm my countrymen, I a Xhosa say you are my brothers, let us die like warriors. We are sons of South Africa, raise your war cries my brothers for though they made us leave our assegais back in our Kraals our voices are left with our bodies’. He, like all the others with no known grave, is commemorated on the CWGC Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton. It commemorates the 1,900 servicemen lost in home waters who have no known grave. A third of the names are from the SS Mendi. Only 19 bodies were recovered and their graves can be found on both sides of the Channel, from Portsmouth, to Wimereux in France and Noordwijk in Holland.
A total of 646 men were lost. Of these 607 were members of the South African Native Labour Corps, and nine of their officers and NCO’s. SANLC men came from across South Africa, the largest numbers from the Transvaal and the Eastern Cape. Thirty members of the crew were also lost. The loss of life on the Mendi was not only one of the greatest maritime disasters in British waters but for South Africa second only to those lost at Delville Wood.
The survivors were assigned to other Battalions and continued their work in France, but by April 1917 all were withdrawn to the northern French towns of Le Havre, Rouen and Dieppe. Despite the British hope that the numbers would rise to 50,000 men, the South African Government had withdrawn all the labourers by May 1918. They claimed it was a military issue, but it was most likely political as they came under pressure from the opposition.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records the graves of 1,304 men of the South African Native Labour Corps in France, the UK and South Africa. Most of the burials are at the cemetery close to the site of the former camp at Arques-la-Bataille. Many are of SANLAC men who died at the base hospital and others have been reinterred from French Municipal cemeteries near to the coast. B.P.Willan (1978) writing In The Journal of African History claims that 13 black servicemen were shot by their white Officers and NCO’s when they mutinied over the imprisonment of a colleague. The incident was kept quiet.
The South African Government issued no war service medals to black servicemen, and none were allowed to receive the special medal issued by King George to native troops that served the Empire.
Private Myengwa Beleza who died on 27th November 1916 was one of the first members of SANLC to die in France and became, on 7th July 2014, the first black soldier to be buried alongside his white compatriots. On the 98th anniversary of the battle at Delville Wood, Beleza’s remains were exhumed from the French civilian cemetery near Le Havre and reburied at the Delville Wood Memorial.
The South African Deputy President said that it restored’ the human dignity and affirmed the citizenship of those who served with SANLC. Beleza was just one who volunteered to serve ‘despite the humiliation and discrimination they were subjected to daily’.
At the Memorial at Hollybrook in Southampton, alongside the names of the 600 men from the South Africa Native Labour Corps who lost their lives on the SS Mendi, is that of Lord Kitchener who died on HMS Hampshire off Scapa Flow.