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The Great War (WWI)

The Great War of 1914-1918 ranged the British, French and Russian empires against the German, Austrian and Turkish empires. The Botha-Smuts policy prevailed and a revolt by Afrikaner separatists was quickly crushed though many Afrikaners were never reconciled to participation on the side of the British. By contrast, large numbers of African men were recruited to serve as pioneers; those who drowned on the ss Mendi on their way to France in 1917 were seen by the great Xhosa poet S E K Mquayi as having been the sacrifice offered by the African people as a whole:

And when you left behind these hills, this earth,

Your backs turned to the rivers of your birth,

Black men of our blood, we said this thing –

‘On that far-off field you are our offering’.


Mhla nazishiy’ ezintaba zakowenu,

Nayinikel’ imiv’ imilamb’ ezwe lenu –

Asitshongo-na kuni, midak’ akowetu’,

Ukuti’, “kwelozwe nilidini letu?”

by SEK Mqhayi [6]

[6] SEK Mqhayi is considered the greatest Xhosa poet and was a famous imbongi in his time. From “The sinking of the Mendi”. The Mendi, carrying black recruits from South Africa, sank off the coast of France during the First World War. Many of those on the Mendi came from PE and there is a memorial in New Brighton. From “The sinking of the Mendi”, Ophir, Ad. Donker or David Philip.