They Stood Fast: The Loss Of H.M.S. “Birkenhead”

A reader of Rudyard Kipling’s collected verse may find his 1893 poem “Soldier an’ Sailor Too.”  It contains the following lines:

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you’ve cover to ‘and, an’ leave an’ likin’ to shout;
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An’ they done it, the Jollies — ‘Er Majesty’s Jollies — soldier an’ sailor too!

On first reading these lines, I wondered what the “Birken’ead drill” was.  With a little bit of digging, I was able to learn much more.  It is a story that encapsulates the ideal of selfless heroism in the face of certain death:  an ethic that our own selfish, self-centered times can only look upon with wistful admiration.

In the early 1850s the British Army was involved in one of its innumerable incursions into Africa.  In 1852 a conflict had erupted against Caffre tribesmen in the eastern part of Cape Colony (the so-called “Kaffir War”).  London was finding the war to be tough going, and there was a pressing need for reinforcements.  A troopship called the Birkenhead (launched in 1845) was chosen to deliver men and supplies; she weighed in at 1400 tons and was the Royal Navy’s first iron steamer.  Under the command of Robert Salmond, the vessel left Portsmouth in early January 1852, stopped in Cork, Ireland, to pick up more men, then steamed directly for the Cape of Good Hope.  After some additional outfitting, the Birkenhead set out once again–this time for Algoa Bay–and had chosen to follow the course of the African coastline.  As events would show, this navigational technique proved to be disastrous.  Following coastlines is difficult even for experienced mariners, as shoals and reefs often do not appear on maps, and can change location even when they do.

Disaster struck on February 25, 1852.  There were about 630 people aboard the ship, but the exact number is not known since the ship’s manifests were lost in the wreck.  It was not unusual in those days for troopships to carry women and children as well as soldiers.  On deck that night, several army officers thought they saw a lighthouse in the distance, but were confident that the navigators knew the area well enough.  The weather was calm, and the sea was undisturbed.  At around two o’clock on the morning of February 26, the Birkenhead (steaming at a speed of about 8 knots) ploughed directly into a shoal of rocks that had been lurking just below the water’s surface.  The collision ripped a gash in the ships hull, and water began to pour into the hold.  As the passengers began to appear on deck, Captain Salmond issued orders to take emergency measures.

The British Army commander aboard, a man named Lieutenant Colonel Seton, issued orders for his men to preserve unit discipline and remain silent.  Soldiers queued up silently, with no hint of panic or commotion.  Since horses could not be saved under any circumstances, it was standard procedure to push them overboard.  The ship was about 2 miles from the coast, and five of the horses did actually swim to shore.  The ship began to break up quickly as it lay stranded on the rocks:  the bow broke off, the smokestack plunged into the deck, and the paddle box sank beneath the waves.  The women and children were given the spaces available in the lifeboats, and it was clear that there would not be enough space for the soldiers.

The soldiers of the British Army kept the pumps going, and stood fast in the ranks as ordered, even though everyone by now knew the ship was doomed.  Officers remained on deck directing the effort.  No one complained or shirked his duty.  At some point the ship’s commander gave the order for everyone to jump in the water and abandon the ship.  There were at this time three lifeboats in the water.  Had there been a rush of men for the lifeboats, the boats probably would have capsized.  So the ranking army officers aboard–Lieutenant Colonel Seton, Captain Edward Wright, and Lieutenant Girardot–told the men on deck to stand fast.  There would be no mass swarming of the lifeboats.  As the ship went down, the men assembled on deck never wavered, preserving complete discipline.  Then the ship sank completely.  Some men, finding pieces of debris to hang on to, made it to shore near Point Danger; others swam unassisted.  Many died of exposure or were carried down by the suction of the sinking vessel.

The women and children had been saved, but there was great loss of life among the soldiers.  Of the 630 passengers, 438 had perished.  And not a single one of the dead had been a woman or child.  The inquest that was conducted later did not affix blame on any one person.  Captain Wright spoke the following famous words at the hearing:

The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be effected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service.  Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion.

It is a sense of duty decidedly different from what prevails today.  In our modern era–with its unwillingness to acknowledge any ideal higher than that of service to the individual ego, its fraudulent idols of bombast and braggadocio–the Birkenhead ethic is one worth reflecting on.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “They Stood Fast: The Loss Of H.M.S. “Birkenhead”

  1. I read about this sinking a few years ago in a book by a young man who had been taught it in school as an example of how men should behave in the face of certain doom.

    Whether the women and children first policy was practical in terms of the number of lives saved is one thing, but a civilization can survive such policies. It can’t survive when its men have no sense of duty to anything beyond themselves, either because they don’t care or they’ve been offered no reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a popular story taught to schoolchildren in South Africa, or at least it was when I was at school. It was taught with the purpose of emphasizing duty and discipline. A lot of the soldiers who died were taken by sharks. From a letter from an officer as quoted in Charles Dickens’ Household Narrative of Current Events:

    “I remained on the wreck until she went down; the suction took me down some way, and a man got hold of my leg, but I managed to kick him off and came up and struck out for some pieces of wood that were on the water and started for land, about two miles off. I was in the water about five hours, as the shore was so rocky and the surf ran so high that a great many were lost trying to land. Nearly all those that took to the water without their clothes on were taken by sharks; hundreds of them were all round us, and I saw men taken by them close to me, but as I was dressed (having on a flannel shirt and trousers) they preferred the others. I was not in the least hurt, and am happy to say, kept my head clear; most of the officers lost their lives from losing their presence of mind and trying to take money with them, and from not throwing off their coats.”

    This makes sense, as the ship sank off Gansbaai, which is where all the tourists come to cage dive with great white sharks. Terrifying stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

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