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CWGC Director General pays tribute to SS Mendi casualties

17 February 2017

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Director General, Mrs Victoria Wallace has delivered a moving speech at a remembrance service marking the 100th anniversary of the loss of the SS Mendi.

During the ceremony at Milton Cemetery, in Portsmouth, she paid tribute to those were lost when the SS Mendi sank on February 21, 1917.

Below is the full speech:

"It is a privilege to represent the Commonwealth War Graves Commission today, at this centenary commemoration of the loss of the SS Mendi. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was also established one hundred years ago, on behalf of six Governments, including South Africa and Great Britain, to care for the fallen of the two world wars. Today we care for the graves and memorials of 1.7 million men and women, across 153 countries. 

"We have had the honour, for the last hundred years, of caring for the final resting places of these victims of the terrible tragedy that took place on 21st February 1917, in the freezing cold waters of the English Channel. 

"The events of that night have become a matter of legend. Mown down in the fog, after a long and arduous journey, the men of the SS Mendi, died like brothers, like the warriors they were, having left their homelands for an uncertain future. Here at Portsmouth we remember all of those who came to this part of the shore; next week in Southampton we will commemorate those with no known grave, who are commemorated on the same stone as the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener who was also killed at sea, some eight months before. 

"Who knows what these men thought they were heading for when they embarked. I know many people have questioned whether they genuinely came of their own free will, and whether they or their families were ever adequately compensated. The answer is almost certainly not. 

"Life in the early 20th century was hard for most people who lived in poverty, wherever they came from. Their choices were often driven by the need for food, shelter and immediate survival. For thousands, including my own ancestor who died in the great war, the decision to join up to serve may have been more motivated by hunger, and lack of other options, than the desire to serve a distant king, or to help their country. But whatever their motivation, and whatever their compensation, and however poorly they were treated in life, the sacrifice of each man and woman we commemorate was an equal one, and has ever since been treated as such. 

"Here in Portsmouth we remember the men of the SS Mendi, the members of the South African Labour Corps, who in life had an experience very different to that of their white counterparts.  Today they lie here, and in other Commonwealth Cemeteries, alongside not just men from different tribal lands and communities in South Africa, but together with officers and men from the British Royal Navy, the Australian and Canadian Infantry, and from the Royal Air Force. Their graves are identical, as is the honour each man is accorded when we come here to remember them.  

"Out of the war came a lesson which transcended the horror and tragedy, the terrible mistakes and the huge losses. It was a lesson about ordinary people – and the lesson was that they were not ordinary. They were the heroes of that war; not the generals and the politicians but the soldiers and sailors and labourers – those who taught us to endure hardship, to show courage, to be bold as well as resilient, to believe in ourselves, to stick together. Each one of the men we care for proved that real nobility and grandeur belong not to empires and nations but to the people on whom they, in the last resort, always depend. We together lost more than 1.7 million lives, and with them all their love of their countries, and all their hope and energy. Here we honour just nine of those lives. They died as brothers, and joined the great family of men and women who are remembered forever with gratitude, by the people of all nations. To their families and countrymen in South Africa, I hope it is some comfort that they are cared for in death by our team, and by the people of Great Britain, where they lie, with gratitude, and respect.  

"They are not, and never will be, unremembered."