WARTIME historians who discovered the poignant story of three South African soldiers buried in Littlehampton Cemetery paid their own tribute this week to the men resting in a foreign grave many miles from home.
Nick Ward and Jim and Rachel Stapleton laid a wreath at the grave shared by the men, named only as Simon, Jim and Smith on their headstone.
With a couple of other friends, they observed a minute’s silence on Tuesday, the 95th anniversary of the sinking of the troop ship SS Mendi, in a disaster regarded at South Africa’s equivalent of the Titanic.
More than 600 men from the Mendi died in the collision in the Solent, off St Catherine’s Point, but only 14 bodies were recovered from the sea, like the three men buried in Littlehampton, or washed up on beaches in Hampshire and Sussex. It remains South Africa’s worst maritime disaster.
The ship was on the final leg of its journey from Cape Town to Le Havre on the French coast, having refuelled at Plymouth. The troops on board were on their way to reinforcing Allied forces fighting Germany on the Western Front.
A fourth body, of a white crew member, was found with the three black men three miles off the coast of Littlehampton, but he was buried in his home town of Bootle, near Liverpool.
Nick, of Angmering Lane, East Preston, came across the gravestone by accident while he was researching other First World War graves nearby in the cemetery.
The men are referred to on the headstone, set up by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, (CWGC) as members of the South African Native Labour Corps.
Said Nick: “When I saw the gravestone, I asked myself why there would be three black men from South Africa buried here in Littlehampton?”
Jim and Rachel, from Littlehampton, joined Nick in researching the background of the three soldiers and discovered they had been victims of the Mendi disaster, on February 21, 1917.
Further research revealed the full names of the men, Private Jim Mbombiya, Private Smith Segule and Private Simon Linganiso, and now the CWGC has agreed to replace the original headstone with one giving their names.
“We have been in touch with the Port Elizabeth branch of the South African Legion of Military Veterans and with the authorities in South Africa, and we very much hope that the country’s president will arrange for dignitaries to visit here when the new stone is in place.
“The sinking of the Mendi is a very big thing in South Africa and on the anniversary, thousands of people attend the commemorations there.
“Hopefully, with the publicity which is now increasing about the grave in Littlehampton, and with the help of the legion there which is becoming involved, we can trace some members of the families of these three men.
“It is very important for them to have closure over this. When people know where their loved ones’ bodies are, it is a great comfort to the relatives.
“One day, perhaps they might be able to come over and see the grave for themselves.”
Nick will be giving a talk about the Mendi sinking and the three men buried in Littlehampton Cemetery on Friday next week at a meeting of the Littlehampton Civic Society, at the Dairy Community Centre, Church Street, Littlehampton, at 10.30am. Non-members are welcome.