A wreath floats in the English Channel to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi. Picture: Kevin Ritchie
A wreath floats in the English Channel to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi. Picture: Kevin Ritchie

SS Mendi: Callous captain led to loss of lives

By Brenda Shepherd Time of article published Feb 22, 2017

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This is an extract from Men of the Mendi, South Africa’s Forgotten Heroes of World War I, by Brenda Shepherd.

By the fourth day, all the facts had been heard, all the relevant testimonies presented and the magistrate was ready to present his findings to the court.

“Will the captains please rise?” Halkett opened the Report of the Court, his face an impassive mask.

Yardley was on his feet before his counsel, Mr Laing, had even stirred in his seat.

Clamping his cap firmly beneath his arm, his dark uniformed figure stood erect; the gold epaulettes of his rank squarely in place on his broad shoulders.

Stump rose slowly, beside Mr Bateson. His eyes had the dead, flat look of a trapped animal with nowhere to hide.

“The court has every desire to make the fullest allowance for the anxious position in which masters are placed by the dangers with which they are beset at the present time,” Halkett began, his pale blue eyes moving from Stump to Yardley.

“But it is the opinion of the court, these dangers, frequent as they are, do not justify masters taking the responsibility of running their vessels into other dangers, and more certain, in the absence of authoritative Admiralty orders compelling them to do so.

“The facts of the case are such that the court is unable to find any excuse for the master’s inaction.” Halkett glared across at Stump. “He knew that his powerful ship, going at full speed, had struck another vessel a heavy right-angled blow and, very soon afterwards, that this was the Mendi, with troops on board, the crew of which had been compelled to take to her boats.”

Stump’s shoulders slumped visibly, his hands reached out to grip the back of the chair in front of him but there was no stopping the magisterial flow of words.

“He must have heard, for much longer than he admitted, the cries proceeding from the water, as they were heard generally on board his ship, for hours, by competent witnesses on duty.” The magistrate had as good as called Stump a liar but there was still more to come.

“There was nothing to have prevented him from sending away boats, in the then smooth water, to ascertain what had happened to the other vessel and what the circumstances were, for those whose cries were heard.

“He waited until a second boat had come alongside and until the occupants of a raft had been taken off by his emergency boat, and although the occupants of the two boats and of the raft were in an exhausted condition, he made no enquiries, and took no steps, even then, to ascertain the result of the casualty; remaining in the vicinity and doing nothing, in all for nearly four hours.

“Had he sent boats out as soon as he knew his vessel was safe, many more lives would, in all reasonable probability, have been saved. In the opinion of the court, his inaction was inexcusable.”

With damning accuracy Halkett had summed up the four days of testimony.

He then paused, allowing the impact of his words to strike home, before he added, in a kinder voice, “The court desires to express its sympathy with the relatives of all those who lost their lives in this lamentable disaster, and its appreciation of the good discipline maintained by those on board the Mendi, her master, officers, crew, military officers, non-commissioned officers and African troops alike, under most trying circumstances, and of the generous spirit of self-sacrifice shown by members of the crew whose acts of gallantry are to be mentioned.”

The magistrate then read out the names of Quartermaster Wilson and Fourth Engineer Pascoe who, together, had jumped from an overcrowded lifeboat to make room for others; and Ordinary Seaman Capner, who had remained on board the sinking ship after his lifeboat was lowered to the water and who had gone forward to make sure all his comrades were safely out of the forecastle.

Halkett lifted his head and with eyes devoid of any expression, he looked directly at Stump, but the captain of the Darro stood with his head bowed, his eyes firmly fixed on the floor.

“The court, having carefully enquired into the circumstances surrounding the casualty and consequent loss of life, the loss of the SS Mendi and the material damage to the SS Darro, has found that they were caused by the wrongful act and default of Mr Henry Winchester Stump, the Master of the SS Darro, by not complying with regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea as to sound signals and speed in a fog, and by his more serious default in failing, without reasonable cause, to send away a boat or boats to ascertain the extent of the damage to the Mendi, and to render her, her master, crew and passengers, such assistance as was practicable and necessary, as required by section 422 (1) of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894.

“The loss of the SS Mendi and the loss of life, as well as the material damage sustained by the SS Darro, were caused by the wrongful act and default of the Master of the SS Darro,” Halkett concluded, placing the blame firmly on Captain Stump.

“The Court suspends his certificate, for twelve months from the date hereof.”

McLean finished reading the report and looked up. Hertslet had a strange expression on his face. “Twelve months!” he repeated slowly. “Did you say twelve months?” There must be a mistake; he could not have heard correctly.

“His certificate is suspended for twelve months,” McLean confirmed in a flat voice. “A common felon would not receive such a sentence for a petty crime,” he added with anger. “It is a travesty of justice, that’s what it is!”

“We are in a time of war” began Hertslet but before he could continue, McLean interjected vehemently, his eyes blazing. “War does not condone murder!

"What of Richardson, what of all those officers and African soldiers who were left in the freezing water until they succumbed? It’s cold-blooded murder, that’s what it is!”

Rising to his feet, he strode to the window.

Outside, a small procession followed four stretcher bearers making their way in silence, up the dirt road and through the open wooden gate of the cemetery. There was peacefulness about the place, and birds sang from among nearby trees. But, at the sight of the rows of wooden crosses marking the neat mounds of dirt, Tsebo became all the more conscious of the weight he carried on his shoulder. Many times now he had seen the face of death but this was different. During the long months Mpitso had spent in hospital, they had become good friends.

Beside the newly dug grave, two soldiers stood, leaning on their shovels. They watched as the stretcher was lowered to the ground, as the trussed-up contents were lowered into the hole. Tsebo straightened up. The smell of decayed leaves and fresh soil hung heavy on the air. It brought moisture to his eyes.

“We are gathered here today to lay our brother to rest,” the minister intoned, his eyes passing over the small gathering. His instructions were to keep it brief. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust ” Tsebo did not hear the rest of his words; he was staring across the valley. He decided then that he would write a letter to Mpitso’s father.

He would tell him his son had died a brave death and that he was not alone in this faraway land; his body lay buried amongst other African soldiers in the cemetery on the hillside, overlooking the confluence of the Bethune and Eaulme rivers and backing into the Forest of Arques. The scrape of shovels made him turn; clods of earth were raining down into the grave, sealing Mpitso into the French soil.

* Men of the Mendi, South Africa’s Forgotten Heroes of World War I, by Brenda Shepherd is published by 30 Degrees South at a recommended retail price of R250.

The Star

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