South African Military History Society



In recognition of Armistice Day, Moth Chris McCanlis opened the 11 November meeting by leading The Act of Remembrance.

Mr Deryck Langman's curtain raiser on the Port Elizabeth Cenotaph coincided with the 75th anniversary of its unveiling on 11 November 1929 as a memorial to the Port Elizabeth men who died in the Great War. Erected by the firm of Pennachinni Bros, the design by Mr James Gardner of the Port Elizabeth Art School has an urn-topped pillar representing the transition from this life to the next, rising from a sarcophagus-like base. It is flanked on two sides by large statues symbolising a mother's protection of her children and St George unbuckling his accoutrements after victory. Four side panels depict the various services. The names of the dead are recorded on the sides. The unveiling was to have been by two Port Elizabeth mothers, both of whom had lost sons in the war, but one of them was prevented by illness from being present. After the Second World War, memorial panels were added to the walls behind the Cenotaph. It was evident from the discussion which followed the presentation that the present condition of many of the Port Elizabeth War Memorials leaves much to be desired.

The recent visit to Port Elizabeth by the SA Navy's new corvette, the SAS Mendi, provided a suitable backdrop for the main lecture by Brig Gen (Ret) Malcolm Kinghorn on his compilation of a Roll of Honour for a proposed new memorial to the South Africans who died in the sinking of the Mendi on 21 February 1917. In terms of South African casualties during the First World War, the Mendi incident was second only to the Battle of Delville Wood.

Almost 21 000 black South African volunteers served in France with the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) between 1916 and 1918 as part of a labour force which also included French, British, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian and Canadian labourers, as well as German prisoners of war. Most of the South Africans were employed in unloading ships and loading trains in the French harbours of Le Havre, Rouen and Dieppe.

The 4 230 ton Mendi sailed from Cape Town for France on 16 January 1917 with members of 5 Battalion, SANLC on board. At 0455 on 21 February, in fog off the Isle of Wight, the 11 484 ton Darro collided with the Mendi's starboard side, causing the Mendi to sink within 25 minutes. Of the 823 SANLC troops on board, 616 died. A number of them performed a 'Death Dance' on the deck of the Mendi before she sank.

The relevant Commonwealth War Graves Commission register transposes the surnames and first names of the majority of black casualties and lists a number by first name only. By comparing this register, the Roll of Honour in the book Black Valour by Norman Clothier and the official Mendi casualty list from the Department of Defence Documentation Services, certain discrepancies were found that required further investigation. The attestation cards of the Mendi casualties and the Mendi embarkation list were then scrutinised at the SANDF Personnel Record Archives. Cases where still further investigation was needed were referred to a lecturer in African languages at UNISA. As he was of Sotho origin, his knowledge of Xhosa names was, by his own admission, subject to correction. Input from a Xhosa cultural consultant was then sought, one of whose valuable insights was the Xhosa reluctance to call a person's name out loud, thereby raising the possibility of noms de guerre having been used.

Examples of the difficulties encountered in the compilation were displayed, including the case of Isaac Dyhoba (Dyoba?), who is reputed to have lead the "Death Dance" and who is listed in all of the sources as Isaac Wauchope.

Various factors make it unlikely that an accurate roll of the Mendi casualties can be compiled. These include our insistence on correct spelling of names of persons and places being a relatively recent phenomenon, unfamiliarity with African orthography, the level of illiteracy amongst SANLC recruits and the possible use of noms de guerre. In at least some cases, therefore, the man and his sacrifice will have to be remembered rather than his correct name.


Application forms for membership of the South African Military History Society for the year starting on 1 January 2005 are available from the branch convener.


The first AGM of the South African Military History Society Eastern Cape Branch is to be held during the meeting on 10 February 2005. Persons available to serve on the branch committee are invited to contact the branch convener.


The next meeting is to be held at 1930 on 9 December 2004 in the Prince Alfred's Guard Drill Hall in Prospect Hill, Central, Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be by Mr Ian Pringle on Commandant Pieter Kritzinger in the Bedford and Adelaide districts during the Anglo Boer War and the main lecture by Mr Andrew Cook on Great Last Stands.

Eastern Cape Branch convener: Malcolm Kinghorn 041 373 4469, 082 331 6223,, 15 Conyngham Road, Parsons Hill, Port Elizabeth, 6001.

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