In these days of ferry disasters and sinking cruise liners one can be forgiven for thinking that the modern captain, far from being the last to leave the ship, likes to be the first onto the lifeboat. Here’s a story – a true one – from a more heroic time. It is the story of the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead. An event which changed maritime history.
The HMS Birkenhead (left) was an iron-hulled steam frigate built in 1845. In 1852 it was being used as a troopship, transporting men – and a few dozen of their wives and children – to a frontier war in South Africa.
The ship stopped first at Simonstown, near Cape Town, to drop off some sick soldiers and pick up the officers’ horses and several bales of hay. Then, on the 25th February, the Birkenhead was given orders to sail for Algoa Bay at best possible speed. Because of this, Captain Robert Salmond plotted a course that hugged the coastline a little closer than he’d have liked.
Shortly after midnight the following morning, despite taking frequent soundings, the ship struck an uncharted rock near Danger Point. The ship had 643 men, women, and children aboard. And nine horses.
The speed of the impact ripped open the forward watertight compartment. The sea surged in, drowning over a hundred soldiers in their hammocks.
The survivors assembled on deck. Sixty men were sent to man the chain pumps. Another sixty were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats. But poor maintenance and paint on the winches resulted in only a few of the ship’s lifeboats being launched. The two largest boats, which could carry 150 men each, were not amongst them. One was destroyed when attempts to reverse the engines to pull the ship free of the rock ripped a great gash below the engine room. The sea surged in, forcing the stern of the ship to rise up. This, in turn, caused the ship’s smoke stack to break off and crash onto the largest of the lifeboats.
Distress rockets were fired. The remaining men were ordered to form up in ranks on the deck and await orders. Some were sent to bring up the horses.
With the ship certain to sink, the order was given to force the horses into the water. It would be their only chance of survival. The coast was two miles away. There was a chance some could make it. With great difficulty, all nine horses were forced overboard. One broke its legs.
With only two cutters and a gig able to be launched from the stricken ship, Captain Salmond made the history changing order. Women and children first.
But two children were missing. A young soldier, Cornet Bond of the 12th Lancers, who minutes earlier had had to force his beloved horse over the rails into the sea, volunteered to go back below decks to look for them. With the water rising fast and much of the lower decks submerged, he continued his search until he found them, huddled together in what remained of the saloon.
For his bravery in rescuing the two children he was offered a place on one of the lifeboats. He declined, choosing to stand with his men. Cornet Bond with the two children can be seen in the bottom right of Thomas Hemy’s famous painting, The Wreck of the Birkenhead (left).
When the boats containing all the women and children had rowed to a safe distance from the ship, Captain Salmond gave the order to abandon ship. But Major Alexander Seaton of the Black Watch, the senior officer on board, pleaded with the men to stand fast where they were. He feared that the men would head for the lifeboats and if enough attempted to climb on board the boats would capsize.
“The cutter with the women and children will be swamped,” he shouted. “I implore you not to do this thing and ask you to stand fast.”
Other officers took up the cry urging the men to remain where they were for the sake of the women and children. And that’s what they did – to a man – standing on the deck of the sinking ship in silent ranks until they were sucked under.
Private Boyden later said that during the time that Major Seaton’s orders were being carried out one could have heard a pin drop. Major Seaton walked about the deck giving his orders with as much coolness and presence of mind as if he were on parade, entirely forgetful of self.
One of the few officers to survive, Captain Wright of the 91st, wrote afterwards: “The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the time the ship struck until she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I 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 a cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge. I could not name any individual officer who did more than another. All received their orders and had them carried out as if the men were embarking instead of going to the bottom; there was only this difference, that I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion.”
Both Captain Salmond and Major Seaton went down with the ship. Neither man survived.
It’s also worth observing that although there were a few spaces on the three lifeboats available, not one senior officer took a space. And the only officer who did – Ensign Alexander Russell, of the 74th Highland Regiment – would later give up his place to save a drowning man.
Which brings us to the sharks.
One would think that being sucked below the waves two miles out at sea in the middle of the night was bad enough, but there was worse to come. The sea around Danger Point, being close to a large seal colony, was a popular haunt for sharks. Within minutes, the stricken vessel was surrounded by dozens of them.
Despite this, nineteen year-old Ensign Russell, when hearing that a man seen drowning in the water close to the lifeboat was the husband of one of the women aboard, gave up his place on the boat. As soon as he’d helped drag the man aboard, the young ensign jumped into the water so as not to endanger the others. He was a strong swimmer and kept up with the boat for several minutes before being dragged under by a shark.
Many men lost their lives to sharks that night.
The next morning the schooner Lioness discovered one of the cutters and, after bringing the occupants aboard, made her way to where the Birkenhead had gone down. Dozens of men were found still clinging to the rigging. Several others were hanging onto pieces of floating wreckage. Of the 643 people aboard the Birkenhead, only 193 survived. Not one woman or child died. And, amazingly, eight of the nine horses survived. One of them was even waiting on the beach when his owner – the young cavalry officer who’d rushed back below decks to save the children – dragged himself ashore.
Both Cornet Bond and his horse would later return safely to Northern Ireland where the horse became known as The Birkenhead Horse. And Cornet Bond, after serving in both the Crimea and the Indian Mutiny, became the last of the survivors to die, at the age of 83 in 1916.
News of the events aboard HMS Birkenhead soon spread across the world.
Frederick William IV of Prussia ordered an account of the incident to be read at the head of every regiment in his army. And the protocol of ‘women and children first’ became the standard evacuation procedure in maritime disasters.
Rudyard Kipling immortalised the event in his poem, Soldier an’ Sailor Too.
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
The whole poem can be read here.
Chris Dolley is a NY Times bestselling author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His latest novel The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall comes out on February 9th in ebook and trade paperback. His novelette, What Ho, Automaton! was a finalist for the 2012 WSFA Small Press Award for short fiction. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf . An Unsafe Pair of Hands – a quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand? Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen. French Fried – the international bestseller – true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell. International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth? Resonance – “This is one of the most original new science fiction books I have ever read. If it is as big a hit as it deserves, it may well be this book which becomes the standard by which SF stories about … are judged.”