Category: Liverpool

OTD: The Sinking of the Birkenhead

On this day in 1852, the troopship HMS Birkenhead was wrecked while transporting troops to Algoa Bay at Danger Point near Gansbaai, 140 kilometres from Cape Town.  There were not enough serviceable lifeboats for all the passengers, and the soldiers famously stood firm on board, thereby allowing the women and children to board the boats safely and escape the sinking.

It is not known how many were on board although the accepted number seems to be 638, and the survivors comprised 113 soldiers of all ranks, 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen (all ranks), 7 women, 13 children and at least one male civilian, A number of cavalry horses were also carried and these were freed and driven into the sea and eight made it safely to land, while the ninth had its leg broken while being pushed into the sea.

The Birkenhead would have faded into obscurity had it not been for the courage and discipline of the soldiers on board who were ordered  to “Stand Fast !! Women and Children First”. That order became unofficially entrenched in maritime history and would also feature when the ill fated Titanic sank on 15 April 1912.

Just before she sank, Captain Robert Salmond RN, called out that “all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats”.

Wreck of the Birkenhead By Thomas M Hemy

Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, of the 74th Foot recognised that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered his men to stand fast, and only three men made the attempt. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore. 

A survivor later recounted: “Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice. 

The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely 20 minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles (3.2 km) to shore over the next 12 hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat, but most drowned, died of exposure, or were killed by sharks.

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.

– Letter from Lieutenant J.F. Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, to his father, 1 March 1852.

When I visited Liverpool in 2018 I was surprised to find a memorial to the ship on the Wirral side of the River Mersey. The memorial, by Jemma Twigg, 18, of Birkenhead Sixth Form College, was the winning design from a competition among local art colleges, It was unveiled on 5 March 2014 on the Woodside Promenade, Birkenhead, by the Mayor of Wirral Cllr Dave Mitchell and the Lord-Lieutenant of Merseyside, Dame Lorna Muirhead.

Pebbles from Gansbaai beach where the survivors swam ashore surround the memorial which consists of three steel panels and a plaque. A transcription of the plaque is available here.

The ship and the men who lost their lives are immortalised in Rudyard Kipling’s 1893 tribute to the Royal Marines, “Soldier an’ Sailor Too”:

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!
Their work was done when it ‘adn’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ‘eaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,
So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too.

DRW © 2020. Created 26/02/2020. Most of the information in this blog originates from the relevant wikipedia page.

Image of the print “Wreck of the Birkenhead” by  Thomas M Hemy – http://ca.geocities.com/thomashemy@rogers.com/thomashemydata19.html 2008-01-22, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3436812

 Kipling, Rudyard (2005). Collected Verse of Rudyard Kipling. Kessinger. pp. 305–6. ISBN 978-1-4179-0750-2.


Merchant Navy Day

The 3rd of September is commemorated as Merchant Navy Day in the UK, and as such we commemorate the men and women of the Merchant Navy who lost their lives in the service of their country. Their contribution to the war effort is often forgotten but it was a vital one. Sadly the records that are held barely identify them and we often know very little about their service and their lives.  The main Merchant Navy Memorial is the Tower Hill Memorial in London and it commemorates more than 35,800 casualties from both World Wars who have no known grave. 

Tower Hill Memorial, London

That is why it is very important that on this day we fly the Red Duster in their honour.

The images below are all taken at the National Memorial Arboretum.

Hospital Ships Memorial

SS City of Benares Plaque

Arctic Convoys Memorial

The Liverpool Merchant Navy Memorial

DRW © 2019. Created 02/09/2019

 


Remembering the Titanic 2019

Every year in mid April we commemorate the loss of the Titanic.  It is a well known story that has been analysed, filmed, written about, speculated on and done to death. My own interest in the ship came about when I read about the spot where she had gone down, that ships avoided for fear of encountering bodies. In later years I would raid the local libraries for books about the ship and try my best to obtain a model of her.  I have however lost my interest in the ship and now concern myself with other things because realisically there is not much more that I can add to the story of the ship and its people.

The last interesting discovery that I made was in Liverpool where the Transatlantic trade was dominated by the Mauretania and her sister. Titanic and her sisters would not use that city as a base, but rather use Southampton. However, Titanic was registered in Liverpool and there is a memorial to her in that city. 

The memorial commemorates the 244 engineers who lost their lives in the disaster. It was designed by Sir William Goscombe John and constructed circa 1916 and is a Grade II* listed building.

The memorial is inscribed:

IN HONOUR OF

ALL HEROES OF THE

MARINE ENGINE ROOM

THIS MEMORIAL WAS ERECTED

BY INTERNATIONAL INSCRIPTION

MCMXVI 

and

THE BRAVE DO NOT DIE

THEIR DEEDS LIVE FOREVER

AND CALL UPON US

TO EMULATE THEIR COURAGE

AND DEVOTION TO DUTY

More images of the memorial are available on the relevant page at Allatsea

While it is easy to remember the passengers who lost their lives in the disaster; the crew tend to get forgotten, especially the men who remained at their posts right up till the end. Irrespective though, over 1500 people lost their lives on this day in 1912 in a disaster that has somehow become the “poster boy” for maritime disasters, and the only North Atlantic liner that almost everybody knows about. 

DRW © 2019 – 2020. Created 15/04/2019