This year, 100 years since the beginning of the War to end all Wars and 96 years since the first Armistice is particularly poignant. One of the most interesting articles for me has just been published in the Guardian relaying a story of one devastated community. It is of great significance to me as this Summer I had the privilege of visiting the Islands of Harris and Lewis with my family. According to the article, Lewis ‘gave up’ more of their men folk than anywhere else in the UK or most of the Commonwealth. The greatest tragedy of all was the loss of life as a result of the HMY Iolaire (Gaelic for Eagle) which sank on 1st January 1919 leading to the death of 205 men from Harris and Lewis including 11 from North Tolsta. This town had only 100 homes and 41 of their men died during the war including those lost on the Iolaire. The ship was a mere 20ft from the Harbour in Stornaway when it was lost nearly 2 months after the Armistice. Lewis and Stornaway are places of great significance for other reasons as a result of the Ministry of Duncan Campbell 1898-1972. Campbell a Scottish Preacher is recognised by many as the Father of the Hebridean Revival and the Stornaway Convention in the early 1950’s.
The tragedy of the men lost in the Iolaire, months after they had finished fighting is mirrored in the story of the loss of the SS Mendi less than 2 years beforehand. On 21st February 1917 616 men from Pondo rural area of South Africa drowned on the Mendi after being struck by a British Mail Ship. These men like those from Harris and Lewis were drawn from a small number of communities and their loss led to a dreadful impact on the area concerned. This same area in subsequent years experienced a level of revival. As a result of this South African revival, members of my own Church travelled to the Transkei area in the mid 1990’s and have continued to forge links between Brighton & rural South Africa ever since. On one of the visits to the area, the story of the Mendi and the almost complete failure by our own nation to acknowledge these men and their loss of life to the communities from where they came was raised with church members. Following this the events described in this Independent article took place and a memorial was set up in the South Downs outside of Brighton & Hove, in the grounds of the Parish Church in Newtimber. The current Lord of the Manor in Newtimber is a descendant of the Governor of South African at the time that the men set sail from Cape Town.
Whereas the men from Lewis and Harris died after fighting on the Western front, the men from South Africa had not even arrived. They would in any case not have been allowed to fight. Their contribution to the war effort was to dig trenches for men like those from Lewis to fight in. The South Africans, unlike the Scots were not deemed to be worthy of fighting for the war effort, even though in their own communities they were noble warriors and princes. As we acknowledge the first World War, and those who died to help our nation, we should not ignore the tragic symmetry of these two ships and their precious cargoes. We should also not ignore the subsequent revivals in both the Hebrides and the Transkei.