It was 102 years ago that 649 souls perished in the English Channel after the troopship was rammed, sinking within 25 minutes.
The conduct of the men of the South African Native Labour Contingent was written into South Africa’s military annals, a byword for courage in an impossible situation forever encapsulated by the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha’s stirring exhortation on the deck: “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill.”
There were 21 000 black South Africans who volunteered to serve as non-combatants in World War I. It was a war that wasn’t theirs. It was the British empire’s war, the same empire that had allowed them to become wholly disenfranchised and landless in the land of their birth.
These men served the king though with loyalty in the hope that it would be repaid when peace returned. It never was. South African members of the empire’s labour battalions were denied the basic war medal granted to other black African members of similar units.