R.M.S. Mendi

 

R.M.S. Mendi was a steamer in the the Elder Dempster line built by Alexander Stephen and Sons of Glasgow in 1905. She served as a passenger liner between Liverpool and West Africa until requisitioned by the British Government.
 
She made just two trips as a troop carrier, disaster occurring in the English Channel during her second voyage. She left South Africa with a contingent of men of the South African Labour Corps on the 25th January 1917 arriving at Plymouth on the 19th February. The next day she set off across the Channel for France, in heavy fog, with 824 passengers and 89 crew aboard.
 
In the early hours of the morning of the 21st February the Darro, which was later adjudged to be be travelling "at a dangerously high speed in thick fog" collided with the Mendi, which sank in just twenty minutes. As many as 615 of the soldiers and 31 of the crew perished, many dying of exposure in the icy waters.
 
As the Mendi was lost in a collision only one member of the ship's crew - William Joseph Carroll, a member of the Royal Fleet Reserve - is counted amongst the official war dead; merchant seaman are only commemorated by the cwgc if they died as a direct result of enemy action. At least four of these crewmen were from Merseyside.
 
'Deaths at Sea' records the name of two Merseyside men who died whilst serving aboard the Mendi during the war period but who are also not officially war dead.
Cook and Butcher Albert Arnold of 27 Seafield Grove, Seaforth was born at Leeds. He was drowned at Calabar on the 19th October 1914 , aged 27.
Assistant Steward L J Adams of 92 Bridge Street, Birkenhead was born at Hanley. He died at sea of Pneumonia on the 13th February 1917, aged 28.
 

R.M.S. Mendi wikimedia commons

 
The fame of the soldier victims is well documented in South Africa where the highest award for courage is now the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery and the commemoration of the Mendi is held on the third Sunday of February every year.
 
Wikipedia provides a comprehensive list of the memorials and commemorations of the disaster. In particular, In 2007 English Heritage commissioned Wessex Archaeology to produce a desk-based assessment which is available online. The original Board of Trade Wreck Report for Mendi and Darro, 1917 can be found at PortCities - Southampton.
 
The following account of the sinking is taken from 'The Elder Dempster Fleet in the War'.
 
THE LOSS OF THE R.M.S. "MENDI."
  
   THE year of 1917, was one of misfortune for the Elder Dempster Fleet, but none of the disasters exceeded in magnitude the terrible loss of life that accompanied the sinking of R.M.S. Mendi on February 21st.
   The Mendi had been engaged in the regular Liverpool-West Africa Service during the greater part of hostilities, but on the outward voyage of the trip which was destined to be her last, she was ordered on her arrival at Lagos, the terminal port of her West African journey, to embark a contingent of the Nigerian Regiment for Dar-es-Salaam. She was accordingly fitted out at Lagos, embarking there and also at Calabar detachments of Nigerian troops. This part of her work was carried through without adventure and after disembarking the troops she returned to Capetown via Durban, where she was made ready to carry a native labour battalion to France. The battalion consisted mainly of Kaffir boys under white officers. These natives were the last of the South African labour contingents who were to be sent over to France, many thousands having landed previously without a loss.
   With this human freight of somewhere about 800 souls, the Mendi left Capetown on January 25th, bound for Havre via Plymouth. She was in convoy, an uneventful trip was made as far as Sierra Leone, where she called to have a gun fitted.

   After a stay of four or five days, Captain H.A. Yardley, who was in command and who, a year later, was destined to make history on the Burutu, put to sea in company with a number of other ships, which were all convoyed by British destroyers.

 On February 19th the Mendi steamed safely into Plymouth, the voyage so far having been accomplished without the slightest mishap. A few hours’ run across the English Channel would now bring her to the end of a long and nerve-racking journey.
   Major J.W. MacLean, who was in charge of the troops, was landed at Plymouth suffering from appendicitis. In the light of after events, it may be assumed that the Major bore a charmed life.
   At ten minutes part four in the afternoon of February 20th the Mendi left Plymouth for Havre accompanied by a British destroyer. The early hours of the following day were signalized by dense fogs. The exigencies of war forbade that a single light should be shown on ships, but even lights would have been useless in that impenetrable fog.
   Everything was going well,; the pounding of the propellers of the accompanying destroyer could be heard on the port bow, but the think fog blotted her from view; in fact, it was impossible to see the fo’castle head when standing on the bridge.
   At 4-57 a.m. when about twelve miles off the Isle of Wight, the bows of a ship, which proved to be the R.M.S.P. liner Darro, suddenly loomed up and struck the Mendi on the starboard side between Nos. 1 and 2 hatches, causing her to list heavily to starboard, and it was seen that she was damaged beyond all hope of keeping her afloat, if only for a few hours. By the irony of fate the Darro had run in the Elder Dempster service on previous voyages.
   The scene defies the power of the most descriptive pen; the port lifeboats became useless as the Mendi heeled over more and more to starboard. The sea was thick with struggling men and the natives, being unused to such cold elements, perished through exposure. The shrieks of the natives were pitiful, but the fog made it impossible to see them and attempt a rescue.
   The 4th officer was thrown into the water when No. 5 boat capsized, but he was pulled on to the keel of the upturned boat by two natives and hung on with several others until rescued by the escort about an hour and a half after the collision. Quartermaster Hugh James Wilson, who was at No. 4 port boat when it jammed, ran across the deck and jumped into No. 3 starboard boat before she got away. As she was over-crowded with Army officers and natives, Wilson and 4th engineer, J.W. Pascoe, agreed to jump overboard to make more room. They did so, swam to a raft to which they clung, and were afterwards picked up by the escort.
   These men were commended for their gallantry at the subsequent enquiry, and at the close of the case, after the judgement had been delivered, it was recommended that steps should be taken to suitably recognise the deeds that these, and other members of the crew, had performed.
   Twenty minutes after being struck the Mendi took the final plunge, and in that cold wintry weather, with impenetrable blackness for a setting for this terrible drama, men fought with death. In many cases death proved to be the stronger – it proved the stronger six hundred and fifty-six times.
   Captain Yardley was picked up after being in the water for an hour and a half; many others were picked up only to succumb to the after effects of the trying ordeal through which they had passed.
   At about 6-30 in the morning of February 21st, the fog lifted, showing a calm and untroubled sea, which had taken its toll of human life while this hemisphere was asleep.
   The picture of those men struggling for dear life, a few of whom were picked up by the destroyer and others by the Darro, is one for silent imagination, but, alas, hundreds struggled in vain until, exhausted by their own efforts, they sank beneath the waves.
Crewmen lost
Chief 2nd Cabin Steward Joseph A BAILEY of 124 Grosvenor Road, Hoylake was 56 years old at the time of his death. He was picked up from the sea but died of exposure. An inquest was held into his death at Portsmouth on the 23rd February 1917. He was a native of Shorncliffe.
 
Assistant Steward W BOGIE was born at Liverpool and was 18 years old at the time of his death. His home address was 19 Windsor Road, Douglas.
 
Deck Boy R BOWEN was born at Liverpool and was 16 years old at the time of his death. His home address was 27 Upper Stanhope Street, Toxteth Park.
 
Trimmer (Fireman) J BROWN was born at Sierra Leone and was 23 years old at the time of his death. His home address was 46 Mill Street, Toxteth Park.
 
Leading Seaman (Gunner) William Joseph CARROLL was born at Bedminster, Somerset on the 3rd September 1875, the son of John Carroll and Emma (nee Buckler). His widowed mother was keeping a shop at 76 Wilder Street, St. Paul's, Bristol in 1911 and also at the time of her son's death.
 
William was 'Mentioned in Despatches' some months after his death [London Gazette 11th August 1917].
 
As a member of the Royal Fleet Reserve - 156667 (RFR DEV/B/1716) - he is the only member of the Mendi's crew who is commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission He had previously served aboard H.M.S. Cornwall.
 
Book & Baker W COOPER was born at Birkenhead. He was living at 55 Beatrice Street, Bootle and was 35 years old at the time of his death. His body was recovered from the sea at Littlehampton, West Sussex and returned to Bootle for burial. [see Great War Forum]
 
Chief Saloon Steward R CROSS was born at Woolton and was 43 years old at the time of his death. His home address was 19 Ponsonby Street,
 
Chief Bedroom and Linen Steward John Albert EVANS was born at Glasgow and 33 years old at the time of his death. His death was registered in Scotland but his home address was 56 Croxteth Avenue, Bootle.
 
Assistant Steward A FARGHER was born at Southampton and was 43 years old at the time of his death. His home address was 22 Nelson Road, Litherland.
 
Able Seaman R FEARNLEY was born at Birkenhead but was living at Capetown at the time of his death. He was 46 years old.
 
Deck Boy W FOSTER was born at Northampton and was 16 years old at the time of his death. His home address was 6 Great George's Square, Liverpool.
 
Deck Hand S D FRIDAY was born at Grand Bassa. He was 23 years old and was living in Sierra Leone at the time of his death.
 
Assistant Steward F HARRIS was born at Bristol. He was 25 years old and was living at 23 Clyde Road, Knowle, Bristol at the time of his death.
 
Assistant Bedroom Steward W HENNESSEY was born at Liverpool. He was 42 years old and was living at 42 Priory Street, Everton at the time of his death.
 
Assistant Steward A HOLMES was born at Acton, Suffolk. He was 25 years old and was living at 51 Lightwood Street, Liverpool at the time of his death.
 
Trimmer J JAMES was born at Sierra Leone. He was 25 years old and was living in Sierra Leone at the time of his death.
 
Assistant Cook & Baker Thomas JAMES was born at Sierra Leone. He was 41 years old and was living at Lagos at the time of his death.
 
Trimmer (Fireman) Tom JAMES was born at Benin. He was 19 years old and was living 12 Stanhope Street, Toxteth Park at the time of his death.
 
Fireman C JOHNSON was born at Sierra Leone. He was 30 years old and was living in Sierra Leone at the time of his death.
 
Fireman D JOHNSON was born at Sierra Leone. He was 27 years old and was living in Sierra Leone at the time of his death.
 
Fireman J JOHNSON was born at Forcados, Sierra Leone. He was 21 years old and was living at 21 Moore Place, Liverpool the time of his death.
 
Marconi Operator (Telegraphist) Harold MOLE was born at Marple, Cheshire in 1891, the only child of Charles Mole and Fanny (nee Dixon). His parents were living at 20 Arley Avenue, West Didsbury, Manchester in 1911 and also at the time of their son's death.
 
Probate of Harold's estate was obtained at Manchester by his father Charles Mole, a club caretaker. His effects were valued at £182 6s 11d (£13,000 at current values.)
 
Scullion William Bernard Vivian MORRIS was born at Walsall, Staffordshire in 1899, the son of William Morris and Louisa (nee Lashford).
 
His parents and his only brother, Claude, were born at Stourbridge, Worcestershire. In 1901 the Morris family were living at 3 Hanbury Hill, Stourbridge and William Morris was working as a "Railway Lighter up at Locomotive Shed."
 
By 1911 they had moved to Liverpool and were living at 116 York Street, Garston. William Morris was an Assistant Foreman Packer at [Wilson's] Bobbin Works. The family were still living at 116 York Street at the time of William's death.
 
William is commemorated at Garston Roll of Honour and St.Michael's C.of E. Church, Garston
 
His only brother, Claude, married Eunice M Edwards at Garston, Methodist Chapel, Chapel Road in 1931. He died at Liverpool in 1988.
 
Fireman J NICOL was born at Sierra Leone. He was 24 years old and was living at 31 Pitt Street, Liverpool at the time of his death.
 
3rd Cook W OBORN was born at Liverpool. He was 38 years old and was living at 9 Gill Street, Liverpool at the time of his death.
 
2nd Cook H OKILL was born at Liverpool. He was 56 years old and was living at 9 Oakey Road, Everton at the time of his death.
 
2nd Officer Herbert RAINE was born at Durham. He was 28 years old at the time of his death. He was picked up from the sea but died of exposure. An inquest was held into his death at Portsmouth on the 23rd February 1917. which gave his address as Milton Road, West Hartlepool. 'Deaths at Sea' gives his address as South View, Thornton Street, Liverpool.
 
Surgeon Arthur Robert STEEL was born at Aldershot. He was living at of The Villa or Waterloo House, Thornley, County Durham and was 54 at the time of his death. His wife Flora Janet Steel died in 1916.
 
The Edinburgh Medical Journal (1917) has the following brief notice:
Lost at sea, Dr. Arthur Robert Steel, Surgeon in the Admiralty Transport Service, on 28th February. Dr. Steel was educated at University College, London, and at Edinburgh, where he took the diplomas of I.R.C.S. and L.R.C.P. in 1885. Before the war he was in practice at Thornley, Co. Durham.
 
Probate of his estate was obtained at Manchester by Jessie Oliver, widow. His effects were valued at £1,185 4s 11d (£87,000 at current values.)
 
3rd Officer William Windsor SWALL was born at 44 Needham Road, Kensington, Liverpool on the 14th July 1895 the younger son of Matthew Swall and Mary (nee Windsor). His parents were married at Tranmere, Cheshire in 1890.
 
Their elder son, John George C Swall, was born at Rock Ferry on the 30th December 1893.
 
William was picked up from the sea but died of exposure. An inquest was held into his death at Portsmouth on the 23rd February 1917. His body was returned to his family for burial at Rake Lane Cemetery, Wallasey.
 
He is commemorated at:
Liverpool Collegiate School, Everton
Wallasey Civic Memorial (Roll of Honour)
Wallasey Civic Memorial (Hospital)
 
On the first anniversary of his death, the following appeared in the Liverpool Echo on the 21st February 1918. His photo appeared in the report and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.
 
DIED OF EXPOSURE AT SEA.
   The photograph is of Third-officer William Windsor Swall, the youngest son of Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Swall, of The Haven, Claredon-road, Egremont, who lost his life through exposure on a raft, following the collision between the Mendi and the Darro. The anniversary of his death is to-day. Third-officer Swall was twenty-one years of age at the time of the disaster. He was educated at Shaw-street College, and on leaving there entered the marine service.
Trimmer S THOMPSON was born at Sierra Leone. He was 28 years old and was living at Sierra Leone at the time of his death.