NOORDWIJK, THE NETHERLANDS – 17 June, 2022
Five casualties of the sinking of the SS Mendi (*see below), namely, Private Abraham Leboche, Private Arosi Zendile, Private Sitebe Molide, Private Natal Kazimula and Private Sikaniso Mtolo, lie in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of the General Cemetery of Noordwijk, just north of The Hague on the North Sea coast of the Netherlands. Each year, on or about February 21, which now marks South African Armed Forces Day, a remembrance ceremony – which has been very low-key for the past two years due to Corona restrictions – is held at the gravesites in Noordwijk to commemorate those who perished.
The managers of the immaculate cemetery have gotten to know us very well over the years. They tipped us off that some of the rose bushes planted at the graves a few years ago haven’t thrived. Effectively just behind the North Sea dunes, and in spite of constant care by the cemetery staff, plants need to be robust. So the SA Legion sourced some suitably hardy substitutes – the western coast of the Netherlands is wall-to-wall nurseries, so no problem there. When I told the nursery owner that these were destined for war graves, he threw-in some rosemary (for remembrance) bushes to plant in-between.
I mentioned it to the South African Embassy in The Hague, who host the annual 21 February South African Armed Forces Day remembrance at the gravesides, and they were also very enthusiastic to visit the cemetery after the two-year Covid hiatus. So at 11:00 on Friday June 17, H.E. South African Ambassador Vusi Madonsela and 3rd Secretary Jaymion Hendricks joined us at the Algemene Begraafplaats Noordwijk.
Cemetery managers Ben Van Der Zalm and Piet Kraam (these guys are the best!) had wheelbarrows, fresh soil, and spades at the ready, and had identified the best spots to place the new plants.
We enjoyed the shared experience of planting symbols of life, on a gloriously sunny summer’s day, in a place where we remember the Fallen. It was soon apparent that Ambassador Madonsela and Secretary Hendricks are no strangers to gardening!
And as we dug and planted under the summer sun, and shared the joy of the moment, there was a reverence and gravitas about what we were doing. We were ‘leaving something worthwhile behind’ that will hopefully thrive for years to come.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
*In the annals of South African military history, 21 February 1917 is a dark day. It marks the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi after it was rammed in the English Channel off the Isle of Wight, with the loss of 616 South African servicemen, 607 of them members of the South African Native Labour Corps: Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana; the names on the SS Mendi Roll of Honour reflect every corner of Southern African society who embarked in Cape Town en route to support the Commonwealth war effort in northern France, where the First World War was raging.
Alas, only a fraction of the bodies of the SS Mendi casualties were ever found. Of those, 13 lie in the UK. However, another five SS Mendi casualties, namely, Private Abraham Leboche, Private Arosi Zendile, Private Sitebe Molide, Private Natal Kazimula and Private Sikaniso Mtolo, whose bodies were carried by the currents and washed-up on the Dutch coast, lie in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of the General Cemetery of Noordwijk, just north of The Hague in the Netherlands. Though neutral during the First World War, the Netherlands was not spared from hosting the casualties of a war that was fought within earshot.
Text: Lgr Andrew Bergman
Pictures: Johanna Bergman-Badings
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