Valour, loss: remembering the SS Mendi

Jacques de Vries, with his great-grandfathers medal group, with the two World War 1 medals; the British War Medal and the Victory Medal on the right.

Jacques de Vries was studying in Germany when the documents arrived from the South African National Defence Force archives.

It was a life-changing moment.

“It was like the hammer hitting the anvil,” he says, sitting outside the canteen at Unisa where he tutors early South African colonial history. “The ambiguity about my great-grandfather’s war record had been finally resolved.”

For years the family had thought he’d been at Delville Wood or on board the ill-fated SS Mendi.

Colour Sergeant Fitzclarence Jarvis Fitzpatrick of C Company, the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), had been on the Mendi. “Shipwrecked English Channel” reads the entry into his records.

It’s a terse statement that doesn’t tell the back story – of being invalided out of the army five months later, his health severely strained after treading water for an hour and a half in the icy water of a late winter English Channel.

He was lucky, 616 of his fellow soldiers and all 31 crew perished.

“His life was ruined,” says Jacques, who was born in Somerset West, and studied at Stellenbosch University after completing high school at Paul Roos Gymnasium.

His great-grandfather came back to Cape Town after the tragedy, and was demobilised at the same spot he’d attested in December the year before, at the old Rosebank Showgrounds.”

Today, it’s part of UCT’s lower campus and home to the Mendi memorial, marking the site where the men of the SANLC were billeted before being shipped out to France in World War I.

Fitzpatrick’s military records sparked a hunger in Jacques to find out as much as he could about his great-grandfather and the ill-fated ship, developing into a parallel military career as a member of the South African army’s reserve force pool of specialists, lecturing to junior officers, and latterly as a battlefield guide to the official South African delegation to the Delville Wood Centenary commemoration last year.

There, he and his fellow SANDF reserve officer, second Lieutenant Sam Ntlombe, stumbled over the grave of Ntlombe’s ancestor Private Seventeen Tuse of the 14th Battalion, SANLC, who died on August 12, 1917 and is buried at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Arques-la Batailles.

“My ancestor had been on the Mendi and survived; Sam’s great-grandfather hadn’t been on the Mendi but had been in the same corps as my great grandfather.

“The world in which Sam and I exist 100 years later is much different than then.

“We live in a country where we can both serve as officers in the reserve, yet the SANLC was a grouping where black South Africans were denied the right to bear arms and only able to work as labourers under very difficult conditions, yet their contribution was critical to the success of the war effort as a whole, creating the proper environment for the combat soldiers to go on and fight the war,” said Jacques.

Fitzpatrick was 37 when he joined up. He was a veteran soldier having served in the Cape Colonial Forces during the Bechuanaland Campaign and as a private in the Cape Police during the second Anglo Boer War, before he had his upper body crushed between two railway carriages in an accident that saw him invalided out before the war ended.

That and his age precluded him from serving on the front line when he signed up in December 1916, but the fact that he could speak Xhosa made him an ideal candidate for the SANLC.

Jacques’ grandmother Sheelagh Fitzpatrick was born on February 3, 1922 – almost five years to the day that the Mendi was sunk.

Fitzpatrick would live on for another five years before dying on July 14, 1933, at the age of 55, despite having moved to the suggested healthy climate of the dry Karoo when he returned home in a bid to prolong his life.

Jacques is now among a group of 10 descendants selected by the Department of Defence and Military Veterans, who will be on board the SAS Mendi’s sister ship, the SAS Amatola, when it steams on Tuesday February 21 to the point 10 nautical miles off the English coast on where the remains of the SS Mendi lie in perpetuity.

“I’m incredibly excited and moved to be going there. I’m going to stand on the deck and think about a family member who was there who I never knew, who nearly froze to death in that water, who could have perished and if he had I would not be there on that deck,” said Jacques.

“I’m going to think about a time when we were segregated as a society and how a member of my own family could possibly have served in a situation like that, commanding men who would have been segregated in different camps, not given the same freedoms as other soldiers or the same respect.

“And I’m going to think about how wonderful it is that we have moved so far as a society, that this will never be the case again, but that the heroism of those men in that early morning have been given the recognition they properly deserve both at home and abroad,” said Jacques.