Heroic HMS Birkenhead Sinks
The 26th of February 1852 AD
The troopship HMS Birkenhead, built in the eponymous Merseyside town in 1845, was a paddle-steamer of considerable size, in early 1852 taking troops from Cork and Portsmouth to South Africa. Having just offloaded some of her passengers at Simonstown she continued towards her next destination, Port Elizabeth. Keeping close to the coast to make good time Birkenhead struck an uncharted rock at 2am. Her Captain quickly and fatally ordered her engines astern, letting in water that drowned perhaps 100 soldiers below deck.
Captain Salmond commanded the boats to be dropped, but of the eight only three could be used. The women and children remaining on board were put in one of the craft, a cutter, and provided with sailors to row it. Lt-Colonel Seton, the senior army officer, took charge of the soldiers on deck. As the ship was sinking and about to break up Salmond shouted for the survivors to make for the boats, but Seton countermanded him, knowing such action would inevitably lead to them being swamped. All bar three of the soldiers stood fast in silence – Kipling later paid tribute to this act of great heroism in a poem entitled The Birkenhead Drill, the protocol that later – most notably when the Titanic sank – became known as ‘Women and Children First.’
When the boats were clear those who could swim tried to make it to shore, but sharks killed most who didn’t drown; 40 men who clung to the rigging, still above water, were rescued by a passing schooner, and a few reached land by clinging to wreckage. The precise number on board is not clear as the records went down with the ship, but the best estimate is 643, of whom 450 died.
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