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SS Mendi

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Brine.)

A hundred years ago today, just before 5 o’clock in the morning, the troop ship Mendi—on its way from Plymouth to Le Havre, in the company of HMS Brisk—was rammed by the freighter SS Darro in thick fog off the Isle of Wight and sank within just a very few minutes. More than 600 mainly black South African Native Labour Corps volunteers were killed in what remains one of the biggest maritime disasters in our waters in our history. On average, about 6,000 men were killed each day throughout the great war, which might explain why the death of 600 men in one incident, dreadful though that is, went unremarked in the House at the time. A search of Hansard will find no contemporaneous reference to it. I am very pleased to be able to rectify that this evening.

It is said that, as the Mendi slipped below the waves, the 65-year-old Reverend Isaac Dyobha steadied the men with these words as they conducted the death dance on the sloping deck:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.”

Now, that is probably apocryphal, but the event became an iconic moment in South Africa—a rallying point for black consciousness in the years that followed. Post-apartheid, the Mendi has become a staple in the South African national story: monumentalised, used to name warships, and used to name this day—South Africa’s armed forces day. It is the inspiration for South Africa’s principal civil award for courage, the Order of Mendi. Still deeply and uncomfortably controversial in South Africa, we will probably never know the full details of what exactly happened on that cold foggy night, but the fortitude and dignity of the labour corps volunteers is beyond doubt. War is never glorious, but those who serve in it often are, as this episode so clearly demonstrates.

John Gribble and Graham Scott, in their excellent account of the sinking published this month by Historic England, describe what happened after the collision. There was, of course, a Board of Trade inquiry, conducted over five days in London. The penalty handed down to the Darro’s master seems unduly lenient, given that he was going much too fast in thick fog and failed to observe the rules for the prevention of collision at sea. Worse still, he stood off as men drowned, giving rise to a much circulated story that he was disinterested in rescuing men of colour. It has to be said that that allegation is unsubstantiated. The wreck was rediscovered in 1945 by a Navy hydrographer, and was explored by the Isle of Wight diver, Martin Woodward, in 1968.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for commemorating the centenary of the sinking of SS Mendi. He will be aware that the SS Mendi was positively identified by one of my constituents, Mr Martin Woodward. Mr Woodward has a museum in Arreton, where the bridge telegraph from SS Mendi is exhibited—it is a very great memorial.

Indeed. We have to be very grateful to Mr Woodward. He was, I believe, a self-taught diver who dived in an old hard hat rig. In those days—the 1960s—diving off the Isle of Wight was quite something. It would have been difficult work. I am yet to visit his museum in Arreton, but I will certainly make it my business to do so when I am next on the island.

In 2009, the Mendi was designated as a war grave by the Ministry of Defence. In 2012, English Heritage commissioned the excellent Wessex Archaeology, which is based near my constituency, to research the wreck and produce a report.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this subject forward for debate. Does he agree that it is only right and proper to remember those who sailed off to fight in a war that, it could be argued, was theirs not by fact, but by the principles of freedom and democracy? It is fitting that we in this House play our part by commemorating the souls lost on that fateful night.

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. These volunteers—they were all volunteers—could have seen this as somebody else’s war on the other side of the world, but they did not. For whatever reason—I suspect there was a mixture of reasons and motives—they travelled 6,000 miles to serve in the conflict on the western front, while others served in other theatres of the great war. We have to be extremely grateful to them for their work and, in many cases, their sacrifice.

The Wessex Archaeology report produced in 2012 and the board of inquiry report serve as the authoritative primary sources on this tragedy. It is good to note that from today, the 100th anniversary, the Mendi qualifies under the 2001 UNESCO convention on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage.

Today’s centenary is an occasion, first and foremost, for us to commemorate brave men who lost their lives in Britain’s icy waters, but it also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the world as well as the war, since the war to end all wars drew many thousands from around the globe to its killing fields. The historiography and remembrance of the great war have, for 100 years, been overwhelmingly of the white war fought by white men in Europe, but the jigsaw has some missing pieces. The centenary is an opportunity to find them and fit them. Drawn from India, China, the Caribbean, Egypt and across Africa, as well as the UK, the labour corps were an essential part of the great war story. Neglected for too long, they must now be heard.

Some 100,000 men served in the Chinese Labour Corps and 40,000 in the French equivalent under arrangements with the Chinese Government. They were seen as cheap labour and dismissed as “coolies”, and the UK trade unions resisted their employment in the British Isles. In 1917, there was a reluctance to allow black men to raise a hand against whites, even against the enemy on the western front—they might, after all, develop a portable taste for it, which was an alarming prospect for the Union Government of Louis Botha.

The South African Native National Congress, the predecessor of the African National Congress, sensing an opportunity to advance the prestige of black people and further its political ambitions, offered to raise combatant troops but was rebuffed by Pretoria. So although non-whites did fight in theatres where the enemy, too, was likely to be non-white, they served on the western front as unarmed labourers. In France and Flanders, they were treated as second class and were penned up in compounds like prisoners of war. When they returned home, the Government in Pretoria failed to live up to earlier promises, denying them campaign medals bearing the relief of a monarch in whose name they had been prepared to sacrifice all. One veteran said he felt

“just like a stone which, after killing a bird, nobody bothers about, nobody cares to see where it falls”.

None the less, South African Native Labour Corps members returned to their homeland utterly changed, with perspectives, horizons and ambitions that would not suit their rulers. One white officer told his men:

“When you people get back to South Africa, don’t start thinking that you are whites, just because this place has spoiled you. You are black, and you will stay black.”

Some will say that this is inconvenient history, that we must not judge yesterday by the standards of today, and that we have no business raking it all up, but I would argue that the great war centenary is the last opportunity to shine a light on the unremembered. The story will be incomplete and partial for as long as they remain in the shadows.

The experience of the great war centenary so far has been that the candid and respectful exploration of shared history, however uncomfortable, has not driven people apart or reignited hurt and grievance, but brought them together. We saw that so well last year in the island of Ireland, in the commemorations surrounding the centenary of the Easter Rising and the Somme offensive. To my mind, the Mendi tragedy is primarily a heartrending story of stoicism and bravery in the face of adversity, but inevitably it also prompts difficult questions about attitudes to race in the early 20th century, the progress made over 100 years and where we are today.

The story of the SS Mendi, like the battle of Delville Wood during the Somme offensive of 1916 has, of course, particular resonance in South Africa, but we must commemorate it, too, in the United Kingdom. There is a danger—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Brine.)

We must commemorate it, too, in the UK, because there is a danger that some communities in modern Britain may get the impression that they have little equity in what we as a nation are commemorating during this four-year centenary, and that it has nothing to do with them.

On Friday, in the presence of the South African high commissioner, I had the great privilege of launching an engagement project funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government, called “The Unremembered: World War One’s Army of Workers”. Created by the Big Ideas Community Interest Company, it ensures that communities across the UK will remember the 616 brave men of the South African Native Labour Corps and 30 crew members who lost their lives on 21 February 1917. Over the coming months the project will explore men from across the globe, as well as from the UK, who went to theatres of war not to fight, but to dig trenches and latrines, build hospitals and roads and carry food, water and the wounded. Unremembered will encourage and support communities to explore the role of labour corps during the great war and after it in the great clean-up operation that set about restoring normality to the battlefield and reburying the dead under the supervision of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

My hon. Friend is making very powerful points, for which I pay tribute to him. Is he aware of the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton, which is dedicated to those who died on the SS Mendi? It might be a good idea for the Royal British Legion and local schools to remember this date in future years, so that those who died on that day 100 years ago will never be forgotten.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Yesterday, a commemoration was held in Southampton to mark the loss of people on the Mendi. A service is held every year, with this year being particularly special, given the fact that it is the 100th anniversary.

Unremembered will reach out to Britain’s diverse communities, bringing to mind the world as well as the war, and reminding everyone that the events of 100 years ago are very much to do with them today. The Basotho, Pondo, Swazi, Xhosa and Zulu volunteers of 1917, some of them high born and educated, most far more modest men, believed that what they were going to 6,000 miles from home had everything to do with them. That was despite the political ambivalence at home of many in the already fractious Union of South Africa, despite the complex motives of some in relation to the nascent struggle for political and constitutional change and despite the second-class status labourers were given by those they came here to help. Denied the respect and recognition due to them in their time, we must honour them today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on securing today’s debate today on the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi. I should also like to commend him for the substantial role he has played in ensuring the success of the Government’s first world war centenary programme so far. The centenary programme provides an opportunity for us all to come together to honour the sacrifices made 100 years ago, and I am delighted to have taken over ministerial responsibilities for the programme.

I look forward to the national commemorative events planned to mark the centenary of Passchendaele—the third battle of Ypres—in Belgium this July, as well as the centenary of the Armistice in 2018. I am also grateful for the contributions that other hon. Members have made tonight, which have highlighted how important this subject is to the House. Every Member’s constituency contains many families who have lost loved ones in that war.

As my hon. Friend said, the sinking of SS Mendi was one of the worst maritime disasters in British waters, but it was also among the darkest moments of South Africa’s war. More than 600 men lost their lives, a figure second only to the number of casualties suffered by the 1st South African Infantry Brigade at Delville Wood during the battle of the Somme in 1916. The Mendi was carrying members of the South African Native Labour Corps, bound for the western front. The centenary gives us an opportunity to honour those who lost their lives that day, and to recognise the significant contribution of the various labour corps to the wider war effort.

Numbering more than 20,000 men, the South African Native Labour Corps was one of the most significant of the groups that served. The labour corps were drawn from the UK and from around the world: from South Africa, Egypt, India, Canada, China and elsewhere. At the beginning of the war, tasks such as moving stores, repairing roads and building defences were carried out by soldiers who had withdrawn from the frontlines for rest, but by early 1917, the need for labour on the western front had become critical as a result of the unprecedented scale of casualties suffered: I think my hon. Friend said that there were about 6,000 a day during the war. That was the catalyst for the creation of the labour corps. Maintaining the vast military infrastructure of camps, transport routes, stores and supply dumps and communications networks was a mammoth undertaking. Without the efforts of the labour corps, the Army and other fighting forces simply could not have functioned.

It is right for the events of 100 years ago not to be forgotten. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) —who has ministerial responsibility for Africa—was able to represent Her Majesty’s Government at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Hollybrook cemetery in Southampton yesterday. In the presence of Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, those brave men were honoured with the respect and recognition that they fully deserve on the 100th anniversary of their deaths. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important for us not to forget the discrimination faced by many who served in the labour corps. This anniversary is an opportunity for us to recognise our nation’s past, and to strengthen our ties with the nations that supported us and fought beside us. The Government are commemorating the centenary, as well as the wider role of the labour corps, in a number of ways.

The CWGC cares for the graves and memorials of the 1,300 members of the South African Native Labour Corps who lost their lives in the first world war. We know that the majority of those who died aboard the Mendi were never found, but nearly 600 are commemorated by name on the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton. As is the case with all the Commission’s cemeteries and memorials, every one of those named at Hollybrook is commemorated in the same way. In life they had very different experiences, but in death they are honoured with equal respect. The remains of 19 who died aboard the Mendi were recovered, and buried in cemeteries and local churchyards. Today their graves can be found along the coastlines on either side of the English channel. There are graves at Milton cemetery in Portsmouth—where a commemorative event took place on Friday—and also in France and the Netherlands.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Government are funding a community engagement project called “The Unremembered: World War One’s Army of Workers” to recognise the contribution of the tens of thousands of labourers who served in the first world war. I urge schools and communities throughout the country to take part in that important project, which will focus on the role of labour corps including the South African Native and Chinese Labour Corps, and will provide educational resources to enable schools and communities to learn more about them. Its aim is to further understanding of the impact of the first world war, to achieve positive community impact, and to raise awareness of local heritage sites, particularly the labour corps war graves and memorials that can be found in the UK. I would also like to remind organisations that the Heritage Lottery Fund has funding available to explore, conserve and share local first world war heritage. Thousands of young people and communities throughout the UK have already been involved in activities marking the centenary, and I encourage local communities to apply to this fund.

The centenary programme aims to commemorate all who served in the first world war and were impacted by it, and to provide opportunities for the public to rediscover our shared history. I therefore conclude today by paying tribute to all who lost their lives in 1917 at the sinking of the SS Mendi and all who were affected by it. Together, we will ensure that they have not been forgotten.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.