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.

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