ROYALTY has lavished praise on the people of Portsmouth for their efforts in commemorating the deaths of hundreds of South African soldiers killed in a tragic accident at sea 100 years ago.
Princess Anne has championed the city for its work in marking the centenary of the SS Mendi disaster.
The troop carrier sunk on February 21, 1917, after it was struck by British ship SS Daro in thick fog off the Isle of Wight.
The vessel sank into the icy depths of the Channel in about 20 minutes, claiming the lives of more than 600 men.
Speaking to Portsmouth’s Lord Mayor Councillor David Fuller, at a ceremony in Southampton, the princess said: ‘I want to thank the people of Portsmouth for doing their bit.’
Yesterday saw the finale of the SS Mendi commemorations taking place.
Relatives of the victims sailed out of Portsmouth on South African Navy frigate SAS Amatola, accompanied by Royal Navy destroyer HMS Dragon, to lay wreaths where their loved ones died.
Cllr Fuller was among those paying tributes, laying a wreath on behalf of the people of Portsmouth,
‘It was incredibly raw and emotional – it was like this was a disaster that happened yesterday, not 100 years ago,’ said the Lord Mayor. ‘People were in tears and holding each other, cuddling.’
He comforted one of the grieving South African relatives, hugging her as she wept.
He added: ‘Afterwards the woman came to me and said thank you to the people of Portsmouth for all they have done. The city has done itself proud.’
The men of the Mendi were mostly black and were part of the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps.
Only a handful of the bodies were ever recovered, with most of them – a total of nine men – being buried at Milton Cemetery, in Portsmouth.
Last week, a ceremony was held at the site to mark their deaths. Among the guests at the service included British defence minister, Mark Lancaster.
He said: ‘These are men, who like many thousands from across the British Empire, had travelled far from their homeland to join strangers in their struggle for freedom and sovereignty.
‘They came to help but they died before they had the chance to. They died with dignity and bravery but they did not die in vain.’
Later this year, Portsmouth will commission a new, granite war memorial, in honour to the victims of Mendi on Southsea seafront.