Accessibility links

New Documentary Honors Doomed WWI South African Expeditionary Force

  • Suzanne Chislett

The forgotten role that black South Africans played in World War I is finally being told. Almost 90 years after the sinking of a ship carrying black South African troops, the story has been turned into a documentary. The film got its first screening at the South Africa High Commission in London - and reporter Suzanne Chislett was there.

Let Us Die Like Brothers is the story of the loss of 607 members of the South Africa Native Labour Corps. They were among 800 soldiers who traveled from South Africa to Britain to join the allied fight in World War I.

On February 21, 1917, their ship, the SS Mendi, sank in the English Channel after it was hit by another Allied vessel.

The story is little-known. Even in South Africa itself, the role of the so-called native fighters in the war was largely ignored by the country's white leaders, while in Britain only names on a memorial in the port of Southampton commemorate their sacrifice.

In collaboration with American cable television's "History Channel", the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has launched an educational resource on CD-ROM which is being distributed to high schools across Britain.

Sir Peter Squire is Vice-Chairman of the Commission, which was established in 1917 and commemorates the 1.7 million Commonwealth troops who died in the first and second World Wars. "The first and second world wars are now very much a part of the national curriculum, and so this is a golden opportunity to make sure that our youngsters are aware of the 20,000 South Africans who died in both world wars," he explains.

Launched at the start of Black History Month in Britain, the documentary is part of a campaign to correct the record, and acknowledge the role played by soldiers from the Commonwealth, and in this case South Africa.

"We all celebrate war heroes all over the world," said Lindiwe Mabuza, South Africa's High Commissioner to London, "but these were black, and got forgotten in the process of marking the bravery of others."

The SS Mendi sank in just 20 minutes, but it has taken nearly a century to recognize the sacrifice of those lost souls.

XS
SM
MD
LG