100 years since World War 1 tragedy in which more than 600 SA troops died
On February 21 1917, Captain Lewes Hertslet of the Royal Army Medical Corps was sailing on board the SS Mendi with 823 men of the 5th Battalion, the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), when the SS Darro rammed into it.
Of those on board the 4 200-ton Mendi, 616 South Africans (607 of them black troops) and 30 crew did not survive the collision with the 10 500-ton Darro.
Hertslet was pulled out of the water by black South African troops and gave his account of the incident in 1940.
“The memory of that cold, foggy morning is still keen in my mind, though 23 years have now passed,” he said.
“I [heard] the crash as the other big ship ran into us in the darkness.
“I [saw] the officer in charge of the Bantu who thought only of his men and their safety go running around all the sleeping places, shouting ‘All on deck’.
“I [saw] hundreds of them coming up quickly and quietly from below and each man finding his own appointed place on the deck notwithstanding the blackness of the night.
“There [was] no fear or panic; they put on their clothes and life-belts as they [fell] into position.”
The men had been given lifebelts to use as pillows during the night so they had easy access to one if they needed it.
“I [heard] the warning hoots of our steamer, and standing on the deck, I [saw] two boats being lowered into the sea alongside us,” Hertslet said.
“I [heard] the shout, ‘All overboard! She’s sinking!’ and every man who [could] do so [jumped].”
The water temperature in the English Channel in February averages an extremely cold 9°C.
After 15 minutes immersed in such cold water, symptoms of hypothermia start to appear, followed by death within a few more minutes. Probably most of the 616 deaths were caused by hypothermia.
“I remember the jump into the bitter cold sea, the sinking below the surface, and the coming up again, the swimming to the boat that had been let down from our ship, and then cut adrift,” Hertslet said.
“I [felt] my hands gripping the side as the rowers drew alongside us.”
As blood moves away from your hands and feet to protect your vital organs, the muscles start to weaken, causing the ailing person to lose coordination and strength.
Hertslet remembers himself saying “Goodbye, my strength has gone” and then feeling the strong hands of a black trooper gripping his wrists and holding him up.
“Then several others [caught] me around the chest and shoulders and dragged me, nearly dead, into the boat and so I am saved.
“Nearly 200 others were also saved, and all of us who are still alive remember the Bantu and Europeans who went bravely to their deaths on that black day of the last war.”