223 : South African military graves from 1917-1918 in England

The Hollybrook memorial to the missing at sea of the first world war is in the civilian section of Southampton cemetery and it has 1,868 names. Military chief Field Marshall Lord Kitchener’s name is in the same size lettering as the others – including 596 members of the South African Native Labour Corps. Their transport ship Mendi was in a collision near the Isle of Wight on 21 February 1917. This has been documented by John Gribble and Graham Scott in their We Die Like Brothers: The Sinking of the SS Mendi (Historic England, 2017). The role of black South Africans has been documented by Albert Grundlingh in Fighting Their Own War: South African Blacks and the First World War (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1987). Some of the Labour Corps men were from Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana – British imperial dependences, not the Union of South Africa.

Bodies from the Mendi disaster drifted eastward along the English Channel, and so individuals are buried in Sussex and Kent. Some reached the Dutch coast, and they too have official war grave memorials, at Noordwijk. Death through disease and accidents led to SANLC graves in war cemeteries in France and Britain including the hospital cemetery in Etaples and locations where the Africans worked. In Britain there are SANLC graves in Bristol, at Wembury (St Werburgh) near Plymouth, where Jeremiah Siyabi died aged 45 in March 1918, in the hospital cemetery at Netley near Southampton where E. Mbenyasi died in August 1917, and at the army training camp in Shorncliffe, near Folkestone where Busack Mvinjeluwa died in June 1918. Like the graves of British West Indies Regiment soldiers in Seaford (see this website’s page 007) this latter was also a major Canadian army centre.

More lonely are the victims from the Mendi washed up on the shore or found by fishing boats. Littlehampton has Simon Linganiso, Jim Mbombiya and Smith Segule, and the parish churchyard at East Dean (near Eastbourne) has Willie Elijah Tshabana from Natal whose relatives paid for the inscription “God took him to bloom in his garden”. Three men who died in the second world war are in that cemetery too. Jabez Nquza is buried in Hastings.

The story of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Courage Remembered by Gibson and Ward was published in London by HMSO in 1989 and David Ware’s study of commission founder Fabian Ware, Empires of the Dead was published by William Collins, London, in 2013.

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