On the night of 21 February 1917 there was a fog in the English Channel. The SS Mendi had set out from South Africa to take men to the Western Front. It set sail from Plymouth and was making its way to Le Harvre when it was rammed by a mail boat just eleven miles south of the Isle of Wight.
The story goes that the Reverend Isaac Dyoba spoke to the men:
Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what we came to do. We are going to die, but that is what we came for..... I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa....
Over 600 men died.
After all this time, some attention is being paid to the tragedy.
- The Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Southampton has updated the Hollybrook Memorial to the men who died with their correct names .
- A CD was produced in October 2006 and distributed to schools to highlight the role of black soldiers in World War I.
- English Heritage has commissioned a study of the Mendi from Wessex Archaeology.
- This weekend, senior South African officials marked the 90th anniversary of the sinking by laying wreaths in the sea on the spot where the ship sank. There is a link to a short video, but I am not confident of it remaining live.