It was a cataclysmic loss among many during World War I. On the foggy early morning of Feb. 21, 1917, in the channel between Britain and France, a British steamship accidentally rammed the smaller SS Mendi, sinking the vessel in about 20 minutes and killing more than 600 southern African troops on board, the vast majority of them black.
The deaths in the service of Britain’s colonial empire elicit conflicted feelings in modern South Africa, where the men are viewed as heroes but also as pawns, assigned to digging and other non-combat tasks and denied the right to carry weapons in a distant war.
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