The sinking of the SS Mendi on 21 February 1917 became one of South Africa's worst tragedies of the First World War (1914-1919). A total of 616 South Africans, including 607 black troops serving in the South African Native Labour Contingent, died when the steamship sank in the English Channel on the way to France. The incident happened in the early hours of 21 February 1917, when another ship, the SS Darro (10 0000 tons) travelling at full speed and emitting no warning signals, rammed the SS Mendi.
The SS Mendi sailed from Cape Town on 16 January 1917 en route to La Havre in France, carrying the Fifth Battalion of the South African Native Labour Contingent. On board were 805 black privates, 22 white officers and a crew of 33.
In his attempt to calm the panicked men, Rev. Isaac Wauchope Dyobha said: "Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do ... you are going to die, but that is what you came to do ... I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers ... Swazis, Pondos, Basotho ... so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa ..."