Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Loss of the "Birkenhead" - On this day in Scottish military history - 1852

“Women and children first”. You may not know it but this chivalrous shout when disaster strikes has a name. It is known as The Birkenhead Drill.

It’s so called because on this day one hundred and sixty years ago the actions of the soldiers and sailors on board a Royal Navy transport ship called the ‘Birkenhead’ changed the way men behaved when a passenger ship foundered. Although never enshrined in maritime law, for decades after the H.M.S. ‘Birkenhead’ sank off Africa in 1852 it would have been unheard off for a gentleman to board a lifeboat if there were women and children still on board the sinking ship.

The ‘Birkenhead’ had sailed from Cork on 17th January 1852 with five hundred and two soldiers from ten regiments. (Over two hundred were from three Highland regiments. The 73rd Highlanders, 74th Highlanders and 91st Highlanders) Most were destined for service in the 8th Cape Frontier War in Cape Colony but because some were heading on to India for garrison duty there were twenty five wives and thirty one children on board too.

On 26th February the ship had called in at the Cape naval base at Simon’s Town to drop off some passengers and take more on for the short journey round the coast to Port Elizabeth. That was the town nearest the Xhosa homelands where the Cape Frontier War was in progress and where the 74th and 91st were going to disembark. The ‘Birkenhead’ left Simon’s Town with six hundred and thirty one crew and passengers on board, but soon ran into trouble.

The Captain had taken the ship nearer the Cape Colony coast than usual to cut down his voyage time. This was at the urging of Governor Sir Harry Smith in Cape Town because the new recruits were urgently needed for the war. Unfortunately a large swell forced the ship even nearer land and it hit a submerged rock* about a mile offshore at the aptly named Danger Point in Gans Bay. The situation at that stage was not hopeless but a decision by the captain to order his ship astern to get it off the rocks broke the back of the ship.

It was obvious to all that the ship was doomed so the priority was to launch the three small boats the ship carried and get as many people off it as possible. Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton of Mounie of the 74th Highlanders had the most recruits on board (seventy -three 74th Highlanders) and was also the most senior army officer on the ship, so was in charge of all the soldiers. Seton immediately grasped the situation and ordered the soldiers to help the sailors clear debris of the deck, get the horses off the ship** and help the sailors get the seven women and thirteen children into the boats first. Once they were safely on one of the small cutters the other two boats were filled with soldiers. There were still hundreds of men on board.

Their hope would have been that the small boats would row to shore and then return for more men but the ‘Birkenhead’ was breaking up under their feet. Only twenty five minutes after hitting the rocks and just a few minutes after launching the small boats it was obvious that if the remaining soldiers and sailors headed for the water before the ship sank they would swim to the small boats and swamp them.

Seton quickly issued his orders. The soldiers would fall in on deck as if on parade and this would allow the boats with all the women and children to row away from the sinking ‘Birkenhead’.

According to eye-witness reports the soldiers behaved impeccably. Many were new recruits but they all stoically followed their orders. Lined up on the sea-washed deck they held their position as the ship broke-up beneath them. Seton’s calm authority had ensured that not one of the women or children on board the ‘Birkenhead’ were lost; every boat reached the shore unharmed.

The men left behind on the ship were not so lucky, the ‘Birkenhead’ was close enough to shore to allow strong swimmers the chance of survival but Great White sharks and a nasty clinging seaweed claimed many who had not already drowned when the ship sank. A few managed to swim ashore and a handful managed to cling to debris until picked up the next day by a rescue ship. Colonel Seton and forty seven of his officers and men of the 74th were amongst the four hundred and forty five men lost with the ship.

In Glasgow Cathedral there is a plaque to the 74th Highlanders. It lists the campaigns the regiment had fought in between its first action in 1789 and 1886 when the plaque was unveiled, after the 74th had become the 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry. It lists the battles of the Napoleonic Wars the colonial wars of the nineteenth century. It also lists the "Birkenhead".

For the 74th Highlanders the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Seton and his new recruits on the ‘Birkenhead’ were important as any in the history of the regiment. The bravery and fortitude shown by his men on that day matched any of the battles the regiment had been in over the previous one hundred years. That bravery not only inspired the men who enlisted into the 74th and later the HLI in future years but also other people around the world. The King of Prussia made every man in his army listen to the tale of the ‘Birkenhead’ to make sure they knew how proper soldiers should behave in adversity.

Colonel Seton’s example inspired generations of Victorians and Edwardians. The poet of Empire couldn’t let it pass and Kipling’s “Soldier an' Sailor Too” published in 1896 devotes a verse to the Drill.

Men who survived the sinking of the ‘Titanic’ were sometimes branded cowards because it was suggested that they had ignored the Birkenhead Drill. That was unfair because many boarded the boats at the orders of the ship’s officers. The public were shocked when they read how many women and children had perished and surviving men faced a backlash.

One hundred years on from the sinking of the ‘Titanic’ and one hundred and sixty years to the day from the foundering of the ‘Birkenhead’ would the men of 2012 stand back when disaster strikes? The recent foundering of the ‘Costa Concordia’ suggests otherwise.


* Now known as the Birkenhead Rock.
** According to Wikipedia some of the horses which swam ashore from the ‘Birkenhead’ were the ancestors of a feral herd that roamed the plains east of Gans Bay until late in the 20th century.

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