IN THE early hours of February 26, 1852, HMS Birkenhead, one of the first iron-hulled paddle steamers in service, struck an uncharted rock off the south-west coast of South Africa and set in train what was to become a landmark in maritime history. The ship was commanded by Captain Robert Salmond. On board were 634 men, women and children, the vast majority being soldiers of the British Army. These were not hardened veterans but recent recruits who had chosen to enlist to escape the life of poverty that was the lot of so many people at the time. Their commanding officer was Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Royal Highland Fusiliers. They were on their way to Cape Town as part of the British presence in South Africa.
Captain Salmond had received orders to get to his destination with all possible haste and had decided to hug the South African coastline to save time. The ship was travelling at around 8 knots and was within three miles of the coast when disaster struck. The impact on the hidden rock was so sudden and unexpected that no evasive action was possible. To make matters worse, the huge paddles that propelled the ship kept on turning, grinding the vessel further aground and opening the hull to the sea. Water flooded in and such was the element of surprise that hundreds of soldiers were trapped and drowned in their hammocks as they slept.
As best they could, the surviving officers and men assembled on deck. They stood in their night-clothes or were naked and many needed urgent medical attention. With admirable coolness of head, Lt-Col Seton took immediate control and summoned his officers around him, stressing the importance of maintaining order and discipline amongst the inexperienced troops. Captain Salmond knew immediately that the situation was hopeless and that the vessel was lost. Distress rockets were fired but there was no help at hand. Orders were given to lower the lifeboats, but thanks to poor maintenance much of the equipment was rusted or clogged with paint and would not work.
What happened next was the birth of the great Naval tradition: ‘Women and children first’. It is not known who made the call but it would have been Captain Salmond or Lt-Col Seton. Three lifeboats were launched and the seven women and 13 children on board were rowed to safety. Then Captain Salmond shouted out that everyone who could swim must save themselves by jumping into the sea and making for the boats. But Lt-Col Seton disagreed. He quickly recognised that such an action by men in the water could easily swamp the lifeboats and endanger the lives of the occupants. He drew his sword and ordered his men to stand fast. And the miracle was that they did. These untried, newly recruited, barely clothed and injured soldiers stood as one and they remained that way as the ship split in two and the courageous company slipped down beneath the waves. Captain Salmond stayed at the wheel to the last and Lt-Col Seton also went down with the ship.
The whole disaster took just 25 minutes from hitting the rock to the ship disappearing from view with only the topmast visible above the water. The sea was alive with desperate men looking for anything that could float, but many drowned and many more were taken by sharks. The next morning all the women and children in the lifeboats were saved by the schooner Lioness, but of the total of 634 people on board only 193 survived.
When news of the sinking was received and the actions of the of heroic soldiers fully understood, it entrenched in seafaring custom that in the event of a ship foundering the women and children would be first into the lifeboats. It has become enshrined as ‘The Birkenhead Drill’.
Rudyard Kipling immortalised the actions of the soldiers with the following lines:
To stand and be still,
to the Birkenhead Drill,
is a damn tough bullet to chew . . .
The story of HMS Birkenhead encapsulates the ideal of selfless heroism in the face of certain death: an ethic that from our own selfish, self-centred times we can only look upon with admiration. I am inspired by the Birkenhead Drill and I am proud that it was the British who established this most gallant of actions. I wonder, as I write, in the midst of the greatest crime against humanity that the world has ever witnessed, how we have gone from a nation that could establish a humanitarian custom so morally correct as to be adopted the world over to what we now see all around us. Government officials would, if finding themselves on HMS Birkenhead, dive into the lifeboats without a moment’s thought.
The Birkenhead Drill is an example of human behaviour at its best. What we now have, at the top of worldwide power, is the very opposite of that marvellous ideal and those of us who have a knowledge of history and who are determined not to let the powers of darkness prevail have these ideals to aspire to. There are millions of people across the world who are ‘Birkenhead Drillers’, and our day will come when the charlatans who are creating so much hardship for many millions are finally brought to book . . . and they will be, of that there is no doubt!