21 February 2017

CWGC Vice Chairman Sir Tim Laurence delivers commemoration speech

As part of the SS Mendi centenary commemorations at CWGC Hollybrook Memorial, the Commission’s Vice Chairman Sir Tim Laurence paid tribute to the members of the South African Native Labour Corps who lost their lives one hundred years ago.


Sir Tim also reiterated the Commission’s founding principle that all those who served and died for the Commonwealth in both world wars are remembered equally in perpetuity. He promised that descendants of those who died on the SS Mendi will always be able to visit the graves and memorials of their loved ones, cared for by the CWGC.

Below is the speech, delivered by Sir Tim, at CWGC Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, on Monday February 20, 2017.

“Lord Lieutenant, Minister, Your Excellencies, Family Members, Ladies and Gentlemen,

“Welcome to this Commonwealth War Graves Commission site at Hollybrook. We are gathered here to remember a great tragedy that took place some 35 miles south of this place in the waters of the English Channel, 100 years ago tonight.

“Those of us who have spent many years at sea can perhaps imagine better than most the panic and confusion caused by the accidental collision of two merchant ships at night.

“The freezing cold temperatures; the thick fog disorientating both the survivors of the collision and their rescuers; the threat of attack by enemy submarines.

“All this would have been bad enough for experienced sailors. But for men of the land, as most of these were, it must have been particularly terrifying – an appalling way for the long sea voyage from South Africa to end.

“Amidst all the chaos, there was one rallying call on the deck of SS Mendi before she sank. The Reverend Isaac Dyhobha’s words have rightly become a legend:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen…..Let us die like brothers; ……we are the sons of Africa.”

“The dignity with which those men met their death that night echoes the bravery shown by all those who served South Africa throughout the Great War. Some 25,000 men enlisted in the South African Native Labour Corps. They made a vital contribution to the war effort – a contribution which was not properly acknowledged at the time, but which we fully recognise now.

“More than 1,300 of them lost their lives during the war, nearly half of that number in the SS Mendi disaster. Of the others, 138 are buried in South Africa; and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cares for those graves, as it does for those who died in France or elsewhere around the world.

“For those who lost their lives at sea, and who have no known grave, the Commission records their names on memorials, like this one here at Hollybrook. About a third of the names on this memorial are of the men lost in the Mendi.

“Also listed on this memorial is Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War - one of Britain’s greatest soldiers and greatest leaders. He too was lost at sea.

“Whatever the rank and status of the victim, whatever their origin or their religion, the Commission looks after them in the same way, and will continue to do so in perpetuity. Their descendants will always be able to come to this calm and peaceful place to pay tribute to their lost ancestors – as we do today.”