The almost forgotten story of the sinking of the SS Mendi is now being told en-masse in Britain by a dramatic documentary. This film, entitled Let Us Die Like Brothers, was screened for the first time at the South African High Commission in London, at the start of October to launch Black History Month at British Schools. The film, which highlights the role played by Black South Africans during WWI, is due for release in South Africa, next February, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi. When the Mendi was struck by another Allied vessel in the English Channel on February 21, 1917, it soon became apparent that only a few of the 802 Black volunteers aboard could be saved. Among these men was a man with Beaufort West connections. He was Isaac Wauchope Dyobha and he is reputed to have called the Black soldiers of diverse tribes to perform “The Dance of Death” and die together like brothers. He was one of 607 men who drowned that day. Isaac Dyobha, a young Xhosa man, was educated as a teacher at Lovedale Mission in the then Transkei. Soon after he qualified, he answered a call and entered the ministry. After being ordained he moved to Beaufort West where he served the Congregational Church. In 1916 he joined the South African Native Labour Corps as an interpreter and in that role stepped aboard the Mendi. (A remarkable phenomenon surrounding the sinking of this troopship is the fact that news of the disaster reached remote kraals throughout South Africa days before the official report came through by cable.) The new, powerful documentary is part of a campaign to redress the balance of history and acknowledge the role of Common-wealth soldiers, and in this case South African recruits in WWI. CD-ROM versions of the film are now being made available to British school children by the History Channel and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as the histories of WWI and II are very much a part of the national curriculum.

Note: In 1996 a brass plaque, hammered out from shell cases, was made by Colonel B C Gildenhuys of the School of Armour in Bloemfontein and Major D Smit of the Work Farm at Tempe Military Base to honour Padre Dyobha’s bravery. It was presented to the Beaufort West Museum. Isaac Dyobha is also honoured on the Heroes Memorial in Soweto and on the Commemorative Memorial Wall at Southampton in the UK. In March 1997, a South African Navy Warrior Class strike craft was renamed SAS Isaac Dyobha in his honour. It was formerly the SAS Frans Erasmus.


There is a giant piece of the Great Karoo in Antarctica. Experts say that millions of years ago when Africa, Antarctica, Arabia, Australia, New Guinea, India, Madagascar, South America and New Zealand formed the southern part of the Gondwana Super-Continent, this gigantic rocky outcrop was located in the Great Karoo. It is now 5 000 kilometres away from its original Karoo home and South Africa’s newest Antarctic research station, SANAE IV, is perched on top of it. The outcrop, or nanatak, called Vesleskarvet, (Norwegian for “little barren mountain”), is part of the Ahlmann Ridge, about 170 km from the coast. The first SANAE (South African Antarctic Expedition) base was occupied by a team led by J J la Grange, in December 1959, when Norway handed over the station to South Africa, as its work there was finished. Since then there have been SANAE II and III bases. The later, closed in the winter of December 1994, is now buried by 14m of drifting snow. Antarctica was first sighted in 1820 and the South Pole was reached for the first time by Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, on January 18, 1912. Hearing this news Robert Falcon Scott’s team, which had also been aiming for the Pole, turned back and a single bullet fired in the Karoo 11 years before changed polar history. Titus Oates, a member of Scott’s party, never fully recovered from wounds received on March 6, 1901, on the plains near Aberdeen during the Anglo-Boer War. Generally, Scotts’s Polar Party was in poor physical condition when they turned back, but Oates, suffering from malnutrition, depression and pain, had frostbite in his hands and gangrene had set in to his feet. It took him two hours to get his boots on and then he could barely walk. On March 18 he stepped out in his socks to die, saying: “I am just going outside, and I may be some time.” Scot, Bowers and Wilson, who waited for him, died of exhaustion and starvation.


While holidaying on the Welsh border recently Round-up reader Alan Avis visited the quaint graveyard at Peterchurch and laid flowers on a grave with its headstone facing away from all others. It was the grave of Pte Robert Jones, who received a VCs for his action at Rorkes Drift. “We were pleased to also see a regimental wreath on his grave,” says Alan. “The reversed headstone indicates that he committed suicide.” Robert Jones, 21, helped evacuate patients from the little mission hospital at Rorkes Drift, despite a bullet wound and four stabs from assegais. The hospital was ablaze. Sick men, some thrashing about with fever, were hauled to safety through a tiny window. Some had survived a nerve-wracking crawl from room to room through holes hacked into the walls and enlarged with his bare hands by Pte John Williams (Fielding). A heavy man, Connolly, had broken thigh and thought it best if he were left because he was too large to fit through the hole. However, despite his screams Williams “worked” him through breaking his leg again in the process. Robert Jones then lifted the unconscious man through the window and dragged him to safety. One man was still inside, so Jones staggered back through the fire-swept yard and darted back into the flames, groping his way through smoke-filled rooms. He was too late. He scrambled out, leaping to safety as the roof caved in behind him. He was the last man to get out alive. He later served in India, but in 1882 transferred to the army reserve. He returned home a hero, settled in Hertfordshire, got a job on a farm, married a local girl, Elizabeth Hopkins in 1885, and had five children. But the nightmares and headaches never stopped.


Robert Jones was haunted by the memories of Rorkes Drift. They stayed in his head for 20 years. By 1898 he was still was not well and that summer he seemed worse than ever before. On September 6, he borrowed his employer’s shotgun “to go crow shooting” and was later found dead from a shotgun wound. On hearing that Jones was constantly plagued by nightmares following his hand-to-hand struggle at Rorkes Drift, the coroner gave a verdict of “suicide while temporarily insane.” “Today Robert would have received counselling for post battle trauma,” said Alan after laying flowers on his grave. However, in 1898 suicide was a crime and those who took their own lives were excluded from burial in consecrated ground. But his VC was taken into account and he was allowed to be buried in the graveyard provided his coffin did not pass through the gate (it was hefted over the wall) and his headstone faced away from all others to signify the nature of his death.” A hundred years later, in 1998, in an article in the Sunday Telegraph his family appealed for permission to turn the headstone around. They were told this could not be done without overturning the coroner’s verdict. The Victoria Cross, presented to Robert Jones, by Sir Garnet Wolseley, at Utrecht in Natal on September 11, 1879, was sold at an auction in 1996 for £80 000.

Note: The names Williams and Jones caused confusion at Rorkes Drift. Five privates were named Jones and five more named Williams, four of these had the initial “J”. One private was one William Jones, another John Williams, was actually John Williams Fielding, the son of an Abergavenny policeman. When enlisting he left off the “Fielding” part of his name so that his father could not trace him. He was awarded one of the 11 VCs.


The man whose pottery sheep and goats put the Karoo on the map has died. James Parker, a former PACOFS actor and costume designer, made the Karoo his home in the late 1990s, after he left Bloemfontein looking for a quiet place to stay. He chose Richmond because he thought it “an interesting little dorp.” There he started making tiny woolly-looking pottery sheep as a hobby. The locals could not believe their eyes – the potters they knew made mugs and plates – but these strange little creatures were an instant success. Together with his whimsical-looking little pottery goats they found their way into collections in South Africa and abroad. Soon herds of these quirky little creatures were proudly parading along bookshelves and across office desks. Then Richmond’s “Engelsman,” an immensely talented man, created beautiful, delicate and almost translucent little porcelain swans each with a bouquet of miniscule flowers on its back and, just to raise a laugh, he made dinosaur teapots. The locals loved these, so did the tourists. This led to birth of Richmond Arts and Crafts Studio, a project often funded by James’s pension and monies from theatrical ventures. James used this project to encourage the locals to take an interest in tourism. He convinced them it was the key to job creation. He trained his gardener, Jerald Adams, to become an accomplished potter and later when he moved to Murraysburg, to establish Karoo Crafts, Jerald went with him. James’s mission in Murraysburg was much the same as it had been in Richmond and would later be in Graaff Reinet. He constantly endeavoured to pass his talents on to enrich the lives of the people of the Karoo. The Great Karoo is richer for knowing James Parker, who died quietly one night before going to bed. Many will miss him, but no one who knew him will ever forget him.


It is not only in the fairy tales that a handsome young soldier meets a beautiful countess, falls in love and gets married. It can happen in real life as Vincent, son of Beaufort West’s Fred Rice, discovered. Soon after World War I broke out Vincent and some of his friends enlisted. He was sent to the Somme River region in France where on July l, 1914, British soldiers poured out of their trenches and into no-man’s-land expecting to find the way cleared for them. However, scores of heavy German machine guns had survived the artillery onslaught, and the infantry was massacred. By the end of the day, 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 wounded. It was the single heaviest day of casualties in British military history. The disastrous Battle of the Somme stretched on for more than four months, with the Allies advancing a total of just five miles. During this time Vincent was wounded and sent to a field hospital. “While he was recuperating there, he met Lady Stanford, a woman who did a great deal to assist wounded young men,” said his daughter Diana Surtees, who was sharing memories of her family with members of the Bloemfontein Von Prophalow History Society and showing them a variety of trinkets and artefacts. Once Vincent had recovered and was well enough for an outing from the hospital, Lady Stanford invited him to tea. On the same day she also invited the beautiful young Giselle, Contesse de Neuilly, a descendant of Count de Quincieux, one of Napoleon Boneparte’s aides-de-camp, generals and a judge. Lady Stanford had long thought these two an ideal match and she was right. It was a case of love at first sight and within short Vincent and Giselle were married. He brought her back to Mountain View, the Rice family farm on the Nuweveld Mountains outside Beaufort West. It was a far cry from the capitals of Europe and the sophisticated society she was used to, but she loved it and Diana, now 86, remembers many happy and carefree years on that farm. There was much for the Von Prophs to enjoy, from the family crest designed by Napoleon, through citations and certificates, to beautifully monogrammed china.


In 1938 Joan Parsons dreamed of breaking the London to Cape Town flight record. She acquired a Miles Sparrow Hawk, took off from Lympne Airfield on May 7, and became embroiled in a saga of bad luck, fuel shortages and delays. The first stroke of bad luck hit her at Cannes where she was held up for two days because Rome Airport, her next stop, was closed for a visit from Adolf Hitler. When she eventually managed to take off a shortage of fuel forced her to land at Athens, where because she was not expected there were further delays. On landing at Arnseat in Libya she punctured a tyre and was once again delayed. At Cairo she found that the tail of her plane had cracked. She was delayed while repairs were carried out. She ran out of fuel again before Wadi Halfa and had to land near a small town and telegraph for assistance. At Khartoum the Air Force tried to dissuade her from flying alone over the Sudd Swamps and acquiring permission to do this caused a further delay. Near Pietersburg she developed engine trouble and before she could land a pipe burst covering her windscreen with oil. She landed safely but was delayed waiting for repairs to be carried out. Flying over the Karoo the intrepid Joan could not find the Victoria West airfield and landed in a field, which sadly was not large enough for her plane. She hit the barbed wire fence. This badly damaged the wings and fuselage of her aircraft, twined itself around the propeller and damaged the engine and drive mechanism. This put paid to her dream and she had to take the train to Cape Town. Her aircraft was dismantled by a Victoria West garage and railed to Cape Town on another train. Joan arrived at Wingfield on May 29, 1938, booked into the Goodwood Hotel, but was only able to stay there for two days before she ran out of money. Mr and Mrs Williamson took pity on her in her financial plight and invited her stay with them in Kalk Bay. It was an offer they regretted. They reportedly found her a “most difficult guest.” Mr Eddie Ladan, who also came to her assistance, described her at a most eccentric woman. However, when challenged “neither of the parties wished to say more and, when pressed, refused further explanation.”


Do you know any women who have served with the South African Forces? If so, then Anne Lehmkuhl would love to hear from you. A professional researcher specialising in South African history and genealogy, she is at present working on a book about women in uniform in the South African Air Force, Army, Navy, Medical Services, WAAF, etc, from 1912 to the present. “I would love to hear from any women who have served South Africa in uniform, at any time, past or present. If it is not possible for me to contact them, I’d like to hear from family, friends or colleagues. Any snippet, even if it is just a memory or a name, will do. I will do any further research that may be needed. I’m ex-SAAF (1980s) and I recently wrote an article on women in aviation in South Africa, for the Ancestry Website. The reaction was good.”


A Quaker weekly journal, The Friend, of November 11, 1977, tells a fascinating story of a search for Boer Bibles. Many were looted from farms when the Anglo-Boer War went into its second year, and the “scorched earth policy” was introduced. In 1903, after a survey conducted in by a young Quaker, Laurence Richardson, W H F Alexander, secretary of The Friend’s South Africa Relief Fund Committee, and some members of that organisation, decided to try to recover some of the Bibles and restore them to the families to which they had belonged. They placed advertisements in the national newspapers of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They even got co-operation from the War Office and Lord Roberts personally circularised all the regiments, which had served in South Africa, appealing for the return of bibles that had been looted. Before long, Alexander began receiving old Dutch Bibles and he started sending them back to South African families. In total 130 bibles were restored to their previous owners, one as late as 1927. Many moving letters of thanks were received. In 1933, a generation after the initial appeal had been made the Relief Committee decided that the campaign had run its course and they stopped it. They still had 20 unplaced bibles, and according to minutes of the May “Meeting for Sufferings” that year, they decided to pass these on to the High Commissioner for dispatch to Pretoria. This happened and nothing more was heard of these bibles until 60 years later when a Quaker journalist decided to find out what had happened to the bibles. “One day while in Pretoria I called on Anglican Bishop, Michael Nuttall, a historian from Rhodes University and friend of The Friend, to discuss the matter with him. He suggested I try the Transvaal Archives in the Union Buildings. There I had barely mentioned I was a Quaker from London interested in ‘The Boer Bibles’ when I was greeted by smiles, taken to a pleasant room with a large table, and within short a huge trunk of old Dutch Bibles was wheeled in.” There were many more than the original 20 as some had been sent in as a result of an article in The People of June 17, 1934.


The “Quaker from London” was struck by the size of some Bibles. “Many were almost too heavy to lift. My mind boggled at the idea of even the toughest, most souvenir-minded soldier, making off with one of these to the nearest horse, wagon, or gun carriage, before the flames spread or a dynamite charge went off. Some enormous bibles were richly printed and splendidly illustrated. Many had metal clasps. According to letters none was taken by the person who returned it. All had ‘come into the hands’ of a donor glad of the chance to returned it. Two came from a man who saw action at Spioen Kop and who at the time was one of the youngest officers serving with the Army. He stated that he did not know ‘the foolish persons’ who had taken the bibles but had heard that one had died shortly after returning home. According to a note on the flyleaf of one small bible, it was used by Burgers on St. Helena to swear an oath of allegiance to King Edward VII on July 14, 1902. One still contained a receipt from W H F Alexander dated 1913 and another had a letter to W.S. Huxley of Tooting thanking him for a bible, found at Molipohong, on the Kalahari border. We spent hours poring over these bibles thankful to have found such evidence of Quaker concern and service.”


William Burchell mentioned the Karoo “plains abounded with hares.” This observation was made at Dwaal-poort, near the Sak River, 35km east of Fraserburg on August 30, 1811. Generally, however, few people mention these creatures, states C J Skead in Historical Mammal Incidence in the Cape Province, yet they must have been plentiful on the dry plains of the central interior. “Early settlers would not have bothered – after all hares were hares – in fact, it’s a wonder that they didn’t call them rabbits,” says Skead. Lichtenstein mentions killing hares west of Carnarvon in May 1805, and seeing more at Waaifontein, 24 km northeast of Nelspoort, near Beaufort West. De Grevenbroek, another early visitor interested in nature as well as the customs, habits and taboos of the Hottentots, oddly enough states “a boy may eat the flesh of hares only until provided with a wife.” Recently Anita Wheeler of CapeNature explained the difference between rabbits and hares for readers of My Week. “Rabbit are born blind, hairless, immobile and helpless in burrows lined with fur. Even as they develop, they are not very fleet of foot,” says Anita, who has been involved with rabbit research in the central Karoo for many years. “Hares on the other hand are born with their eyes open and all senses fully developed. At birth these animals are fully furred and within 48 hours they are active. They have sleek limbs and bodies built for speed. This enables them to run very fast.”

“It is better to err on the side of daring than the side of caution.”

Alvin Toffler, who after graduating from NYU in 1949, worked as a journalist, writer and editor for Fortune Magazine. In 1970 he burst on the cultural scene with his best-seller “Future Shock.”