The Wreck of the Birkenhead 1852 by Charles Dixon. (B)
The surviving soldiers mustered and awaited their officers' orders. Salmond ordered Colonel Seton to send men to the chain pumps; sixty were directed to this task, sixty more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, and the rest were assembled on the poop deck in order to raise the forward part of the ship. The women and children were placed in the ship's cutter, which lay alongside. Two other boats were manned, but one was immediately swamped and the other could not be launched due to poor maintenance and paint on the winches, leaving only three boats available. The two large boats, with capacities of 150 men each, were not among them.The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers. As 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.' Ten minutes after the first impact, the engines still turning astern, the ship struck again beneath the engine room, tearing open her bottom. She instantly broke in two just aft of the mainmast. The funnel went over the side and the forepart of the ship sank at once. The stern section, now crowded with men, floated for a few minutes before sinking.Just before she sank, Salmond called out that 'all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats'. Colonel Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the 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.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
The sinking of the Birkenhead is the earliest maritime disaster evacuation during which the concept of 'women and children first' is known to have been applied. 'Women and children first' subsequently became standard procedure in relation to the evacuation of sinking ships, both in fiction and in real life. The synonymous 'Birkenhead drill' became an exemplar of courageous behaviour in hopeless circumstances, and appeared 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
|Item Code : ACD0027B||The Wreck of the Birkenhead 1852 by Charles Dixon. (B) - This Edition|
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