Though there have been many shipwrecks in which larger vessels have been concerned, which have entailed greater loss of life and in which the circumstances have been more tragic or sensational, the story of the loss of the ill-fated troopship HMS Birkenhead will, as long as civilization survives, never fail to stir the heart of the reader. For, on that cold February night, over a hundred and seventy-five years ago, when the Birkenhead foundered Off the coast of Africa, there was written in the annals of history a page that will live forever in the story which tells of the birth of a new code to govern the actions of those who face the peril of dreadful shipwreck — the birth of a maritime code which has since been adopted by every nation in the world — Women and children first.
And, though the strong, courageous men who stood fast on the decks of the sinking Birkenhead and refused to save themselves at the expense of the weak, are commemorated by a marble memorial to be seen this day in London’s Chelsea Hospital, every time the cry goes up, “Women and children first,” their memory is perpetuated by a monument more lasting than the strongest of marble — the memorial of tradition.
On January 2, 1852, the Birkenhead left Cork, carrying on board 12 officers, 479 warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and men, 3 surgeons, a number of Royal Marines, 25 women and 31 children, making, with the crew, a total of 680 persons. She was bound for Cape Town and Algoa Bay taking much needed reinforcements to Sir Harry Smith, the head of the British forces in South Africa who were endeavoring to “quieten” the turbulent Boers, Basutos and Kaffirs.
The Birkenhead, an iron paddle-wheel steamer, had been built in 1845, and though intended for service in the capacity of a frigate, she had been employed always as a troop carrier.
It is recorded that she was regarded as the best troop ship in the service — that she possessed comfortable quarters and was a good sea boat.
With the exception of a spell of bad weather in the Bay of Biscay, the passage to Simon’s Bay was calm and uneventful.
A few Of the men fell sick but there was nothing serious to mar the happiness of the people on board — although naturally, the women’s hearts were heavy with the usual forebodings experienced by soldiers’ wives.
At Simon’s Bay some sick men and some of the women and children were put ashore: a number of passengers and details were embarked making the total on board ship 638, of which, then, 30 were women and children.
The Birkenhead’s orders proceed to Algoa Bay arrived on February 25, so, on the evening Of that day, with the weather fine and the sky clear, she slipped from her anchorage and, With cries of “God speed” from the shore, steamed off to her destination. Little did the laughing women and children think that the voyage so happily begun would end in doom and terror.
Now the commander of the ship, Captain Robert Salmond had been ordered to make Algoa Bay with all possible speed, for the drafts were urgently needed at the base of operations, so he decided to cut the route as short as possible by keeping close in to shore. It was a fatal decision, as It transpired, for the few hours that might have been gained were to cost a terrible loss of life and the loss of a noble ship.
At midnight the soldiers on the troop-decks were asleep, the excited children had long ago snuggled happily to rest, and the ship was cutting her way through the sea at a steady eight knots — quite a good speed then, in those early days of the cumbersome paddle-wheel vessels. The shore was only about two miles away, and now and again the watch could see the twinkling lights of some solitary homestead or the fitful glare of a native camp-fire. The sea was calm — everything was peaceful.
At 1.50 a.m., however, there came a sudden cry from the leadsman Who had been ordered to take soundings from time to time. He had sounded only 12 or 13 fathoms of water! He swung his line back for another cast—but in that very moment tragedy reached out her hand over the Birkenhead.
The ship was moving over an uncharted sunken reef of rocks off Danger Point and suddenly she struck. A jagged rock pierced through the bottom of the ship just aft the foremast with a grinding crash, and through the gaping hole the water rushed in with dreadful force. The majority of the men who lay asleep in their hammocks in the lower troop-decks were drowned before they could raise a hand to save themselves; the remainder made their way on deck as best they could clad only in their shirts.
By command of Captain Salmond, who had hastened from his quarters immediately he had felt the impact, the engines had been stopped and one of the small anchors had been let go. Colonel Seton of the 74th Highlanders, the senior military officer, had also taken in the situation at a glance. He saw that if panic broke out the chances of averting a terrible disaster were small; and he had reason to fear that panic might occur, for many of the soldiers were raw recruits, fresh from home, unused to facing death cither on land or sea.
Hastily he summoned his officers around him and impressed upon them the absolute necessity for preserving strict order and silence among the men. He directed that the men should fall in on the poop (a deck that forms the roof of a cabin built in the rear, or “aft”, part of the superstructure of a ship), to ease the fore-part of the ship from the strain, and he stationed himself on the gangway, with drawn sword in hand to see that his order carried out efficiently.
But Colonel Seton soon discovered that the precaution of the unsheathed sword was unnecessary. The men, both raw recruits and seasoned veterans, fell in quietly and with full discipline — just though they were at home on the barrack parade ground.
Parties of soldiers and officers were then told off to work in relief at the chain pumps on the lower after deck, while others were to help get the boats away. And huddled close together under the poop awning, the sobbing women and children watched with frightened eyes the preparations being made to snatch them from death.
The ship was doomed, it was evident and Captain Salmond, unwittingly had signed her death warrant.
For, shortly after the ship had first struck, he had issued orders for the engines to be started up again to go astern in the hope of backing her off the reef. She did back off — but scarcely had she cleared than she struck another jagged rock, and a second gaping hole was torn in her shell, this time under the engine-room.
The water now gained fast, despite the heroic work at the pumps, but even though the men knew that their efforts were hopeless, they stuck to their posts until the bitter end.
Meanwhile, up on deck, everything possible was being done to attract the attention of any vessel that might be passing. Blue lights were burned and rockets went screaming into the sky — but there was no answering signal. And those who strained anxious eyes towards the lonely coast – so near yet so very far – shuddered apprehension when their gaze fell upon sudden swirls of triangular fins in the dark waters that were lit for a brief moment by the blue flares.
The scavengers of the deep, the sharks, had already scented their prey.
And those who could swim, even if they could escape the sharks, what hope had they of gaining land through the dense masses of seaweed that formed carpets strong enough to pull the stoutest swimmer under?
To make matters worse, the preparations that were going ahead for the launching of the six boats which the ship carried were meeting with little success. One, the long boat, in the centre of the ship, was either so encumbered with wreckage or laden with lumber that, according to Captain Wright’s testimony, “it could not be got at.” What tragedy lies concealed behind those five small words!
One of the two boats over the paddle-boxes “the one on the starboard side was useless, for the pins of the davit. were held fast with rust and there was no time to loosen them“, and though the boat on the port side was actually hoisted out, of a sudden the tackle broke and the men in the boat and some of those helping to launch it were either crushed or drowned. Tragedy upon tragedy yet there is no doubt that had the equipment and boats of the Birkenhead been kept in proper repair, much of it could have been averted.
The ship was now rolling heavily. The weight of the men drawn up on the poop seemed to do little to steady the vessel. And soon, above the cries of the frightened women and children, there arose an even more terrible sound — the screams of terrified horses. Thrown hither and thither by the wild motion of the ship, the poor creatures were beside themselves with fright, and it seemed as though they could smell the death which lurked in waiting for them below the sea.
At his post on the poop, Captain Salmond heard their cries, and in a moment he had given the order for the horses to be forced overboard from the port gangway. They, too were to be given a chance for life And some of them did, as it transpired, escape the, sharks and make their way to land.
As soon as the last horse had been thrown over the side, the soldiers and crew by superhuman efforts managed to launch the cutter, and into this the women and children were passed. What heartrending scenes must have been enacted there — when tiny arms were torn from their hold round the necks of soldier-fathers who strove to smile bravely and offer quick words of comfort! For there was no time for long “good-byes.” Death hovered very close, and the lives of the women and children were precious.
The cutter in the charge of Mr. Richards, master’s assistant and no sooner had it cleared the ship, rowing away to a safe distance from the sinking vessel, than the entire bow of the Birkenhead broke off at the foremast, the bowsprit leaped up towards the foretop-mast and, with a deafening crash, the funnel went over the side, carrying away the starboard paddle-box and the boat, and crushing the men who were still struggling heroically with the unworkable tackles.
The end now fast approaching, and only about twelve to fifteen minutes had elapsed since the Birkenhead had first struck!
Two more boats, however, succeeded in getting, away from the doomed vessel before she finally broke up – and these, also, rowed to a distance and rested on their oars in the hopes of picking up survivors.
The captain now ordered all in the body of the ship on to the poop to join the soldiers who were still standing in the formation they had taken up at the command of their officers. They must have known that they were doomed — but all through that quarter of an hour of terror they held fast to discipline.
Later, in his written testimony, Captain Wright said, “The order and regularity that prevailed on board from the time the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I thought could be effected by the best discipline; and it is more to 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 cry amongst them until the vessel made her final plunge. I could not name any individual officer 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 and confusion.”
But another and greater test was yet to be made of their discipline and courage — a test which called for a self-sacrifice which, in the dreadful circumstances, must indeed have been difficult to make.
Five minutes after the funnel had gone overboard, with a terrible rending of timber and crash of wreckage, the stricken Birkenhead broke in two, crosswise, immediately aft of the engine-room. As the stern began to rise in the air, just before its final plunge into the sea, Captain Salmond called out, “all those that can swim, jump overboard and make for the boats.“
Now there were only three boats and one of these, in which were the women and children, was already laden to capacity and there still remained in the the Birkenhead several hundred souls. If the men, therefore, had taken this advice there would have been little hope for those had already got away of ever reaching shore. The boats would have been swamped and foundered.
Colonel Seton and his officers realised this in an instant and, thinking of the helpless women and children, they implored the men not to accept this chance of safety at the risk of the weak. And it is to their everlasting credit that the men — with the exception of only three – put all thoughts of self from mind and stood firm in their ranks facing whatever might lie before them with a high and noble courage.
“Women and children first,” had been their thought from first to last throughout the great ordeal, and they would not flinch to drain their cup of it’s bitterest dregs.
For a few moments the stern of the Birkenhead hung poised in the air, then, with a swift plunge, it disappeared under the water, carrying with it its cargo of precious lives – the men on the poop and those who had been working at the pumps below deck. The latter must have been drowned like rats in a trap.
Perhaps one of the most vivid eye-witness accounts of a shipwreck is that given by Ensign Lucas, who descried his terrifying experiences on the Birkenhead in a letter to England. In places his narrative does not wholly coincide with that prepared by Captain Wright for the official inquiry, and those given by other survivors, but it is an intensely human document and a presents a dramatic picture of the scene on the doomed vessel.
Ensign Lucas had turned in early on the fatal night, because it was his watch from four to eight the next morning. “I was aroused by a severe shock,” he writes “and when well awake found myself sitting bolt upright in my berth. Two severe shocks followed immediately. I then got out of bed and ran on deck, where I found all in confusion, the men up from the troop-deck, mostly without any clothes but their shirts.
“On asking the ship’s Roberts, what had happened, his answer was, ‘we have struck a rock and are going down fast. Asking him not to tell the men the extent of our danger fearing a panic, I returned to my cabin, where I dressed and again went on deck, where everything had been restored to order, every soul being on deck, the men at ‘quarters.’
“Mr. Girardot, 43rd Regiment, and myself then undertook to go down in turn and work the pumps, which were on the lower deck. Mr. Girardot superintended getting the horses overboard; they were plunging so violently that nothing could be done until there were gone – besides, it was only right to give them a chance for their lives. Eight out of nine got ashore.
“The boats were then lowered and got read for sea – that is, those that hung on the ship’s quarters. By this time it became my duty to relieve Mr. Girardot at the pumps with a fresh spell of fifty men, as no set of men could work longer than a few minutes at a time.
“Nothing could exceed the: order that prevailed. Every word of command could be heard as plainly as on parade. I remained at the pump as long as the men could, when Mr. Girardot again relieved me. On reaching the deck, I was ordered by poor Colonel Seton, 74th, to Superintend getting the women and children Into the ship’s boats.
“The ship was now rolling her yardarms in the sea, and it was no light matter to keep one’s legs. It is not easy to imagine a more painful task than that of getting the wretched women into the boats. This was done in several cases by main force ; tearing them from their husbands, they were carried to the bulwarks and dropped over the ship’s side into the arms of the boat’s crew.
“The whole of the women and children, thirty in all, were safely stowed in the boats, when they shoved off and pulled away. It was hard to describe the sensation of oppression removed from one’s mind in knowing the utterly helpless part of the ship’s living cargo had been deposited in comparative safety. Thank God It can seldom be said that Englishmen have left women and children to perish and saved their own lives!
I again returned to the pumps, and when tired went on deck. I found poor Booth, of the 73rd, who relieved me, Mr. Girardot being out of the way. Poor fellow, he had hardly reached the pumps when the water rushed in and swamped himself and his fifty men.
About this time the fore part of the ship broke off and went down immediately, covered with men. I was next sent to help get one of the paddle-box boats over into the sea. We did not succeed, the ropes breaking. A similar fate happened to the other paddle-box boat, thus losing the means of saving 300 men. Just at this moment the funnel fell with a fearful crash on deck killing and maiming several of my party who had been endeavoring to get the boat over the ships side.
“We now ran for our lives to the poop-deck, the water being three feet deep on the quarter=deck. All hands were ordered aft, as the ship appeared to be going down by the head in hopes that their weight would bring her stern again into the water.
“For some minutes she remained with the heel of her rudder completely out of the water, during which time the order Was given for everybody to swim to those boats that were afloat, or save themselves as best they could. Those boats still hooked to the falls were instantly swamped, the men crowding into them. Three boats only got clear of the ship, including that containing the women and children.
During this time I was looking over the stern of the ship, Colonel Seton with me. I had made up my mind to swim if possible to the shore, as being my only chance.
I however, dared not jump in the water, as it was literally alive with men.
A dreadful sight it was. Some were in their last dying efforts, were striking out manfully and suddenly going down with a spell of agony — their shrieks seem still to ring in my ears — some Were pulling others down in their efforts to keep above water. The rigging was crowded from the deck to the trucks.
The ship broke off just aft the mainmast with a terrific crash. There was a general rush into the water, but Colonel Seton and myself remained in the same place.
The ship’s stern, now being relieved of all weight forward, settled steadily down. It was quite evident that there was nothing for it but to get away from her as soon as possible. Up to this moment I had had some hopes of her remaining above water till daylight.
I shook hands with Colonel Seton and hoped we should meet ashore.
“I do not think we shall, Lucas, as I cannot swim a stroke”, he answered.
Just then my name was called and, on looking back, saw my servant, as faithful a fellow as ever lived. He asked whether he was to follow me. poor fellow, he could not swim! I could give him little advice, except to get as high as possible into the rigging, I never saw him again.”
After the stern sank, the sea was a mass of struggling men. Some stretched out frenzied hands to clutch at pieces of wreckage ; others attempted to reach and climb the rigging of mainmast, part of which was still out of water ; while those who could swim struck out despairingly for the shore.”
In the narrative of his escape, Cornet Bond Says:
I had one of Mackintosh’s life preservers, which I inflated whilst in the water. The sea at this time was covered with struggling forms ; whilst the cries, piercing shrieks, and shouts for the boats were awful. I swam astern in the hopes of being picked up by one of them. I hailed one six yards off but could not reach it, as they pulled away. I suppose for fear of too many attempting to get in.
I then turned round and made for the shore, about two miles distant, which I finally succeeded in reaching at a little after five o’clock a.m., by swimming only. Two men, who were swimming close to me, I saw disappear with a shriek, most probably bitten by sharks.
I fortunately hit upon a landing-place, but owing to the great quantity Of seaweed I had to struggle through, and being quite exhausted, it was not without much labour that I gamed the shore. I then walked up a sort of beaten track from the beach, in hopes Of finding some habitation. Whilst doing so, I perceived my horse at a short distance standing in the water on the beach.”
Captain Wright, Who had done so much to inspire courage and discipline on the doomed Birkenhead, floated to shore on a piece of wreckage. He had managed to climb on to a large piece along with five others, and even then, though their frail raft was in danger of being swamped, they picked up nine or ten more.
The swell carried the wood in the direction of Point Danger,” Captain Wright wrote. As soon as it got to the weeds and breakers, finding that it could not support all that were on it, I jumped off and swam ashore.”
Altogether about 68 men, including 5 officers and 18 sailors, succeeded in swimming or floating to shore.
Captain Wright assembled this party of survivors – among whome was Cornet Bond – on the beach and then marched inland in search of any kind of habitation where they could obtain shelter.
What a pitiful sight this strange little army of men must have presented! Many of the men were naked, and almost all of them were without shoes. They were frozen to the marrow with cold and some were still half delirious through their dreadful experiences they had undergone. And to make matters worse, the country they had to traverse was covered with thick, thorny bushes.
Slowly, wearily, they plodded on — resting now and again to recover their breath and to succour those whose strength was fast failing.
At last, after three long hours, they Stumbled across an encampment, where a wagon was outspanned. From thence, at the directions of the driver of the wagon, they made their Way to a small bay, called Stanford’s Cove, in which stood a fisherman’s hut.
Captain Wright says, “We arrived there about Sunset ; and as the men had nothing to eat, I went on to a farmhouse about eight or nine miles from the cove, and sent back provisions for that day.“
The next morning he sent another day’s provisions and the men were then removed to a farmhouse, about twelve or thirteen miles up country, belonging to a Captain Smales, an ex-officer Of dragoons.
Once this little army was safely lodged there, where they would receive good care and attention, Captain Wright made his way back to the coast again to 1ook for any further survivors.
For some days, with the help of a crew of a whaling boat who were employed in sealing on Dyer’s Island, he conducted a careful search extending over about 20 miles of coast-line — and his search was rewarded with success. He, himself found two survivors on the beach and the boat succeeded in rescuing two men Who had been clinging to Some wreckage in the water for thirty-eight hours These poor men, Captain Wright records, “although they were all much exhausted … were all right the next day, except for a few bruises.“
As he pursued his search for the living, now and again Captain Wright would come across a lifeless body, lying pitifully on the sands. But the sharks and the deadly, clinging seaweed had done their work, and very few graves had to be dug on that barren shore.
All the le in the boats – the two cutters and the gig — were saved.
Tne first cutter, containing the Women and children, stood by the wreck for over an hour, picking up as many of the unfortunate survivors as they dared. At last, however, the boat was so full that to take in another man would have meant risking the lives of all, Mr. Richards gave orders for the boat to be headed for shore.
He intended to land his precious cargo and then, as speedily as possible, to return to the scene of the shipwreck and carry on the work of rescue. But this was not to be, for when the breakers near the shore were reached, the surf was found to be running so high, that no boat could have landed in safety, let alone a boat which was crowded to the point of danger. Regretfully, therefore, Mr. Richards decided to row westwards in search of a better landing place.
The men bent about their oars with all the strength they possessed, urged on by the piteous cries of the women, who, white-faced, sat clasping their children to their breasts — women who scanned each piece of wreckage anxiously, while thoughts of lost husbands racked their mumbled minds.
For some six or seven miles the search for a landing-place continued – but in vain. The high wall of surf proved an impenetrable barrier. At last, however, when daylight broke the weary party of refugees sighted a schooner in the ofling. As by this time the other two boats had come up and joined the cutter, a consultation of officers was held, and it was decided to set course for the schooner.
For three hours the weary men in the boats kept to their task, but just when the distance between them and their goal was appreciably diminished, a sudden breeze sprang up from the westwards, and the schooner stood out to sea. With the energy lent by despair the rowers redoubled their efforts, but the schooner rapidly bore away from them – taking with her all hopes of rescue from the weary survivors.
Suddenly, however, the schooner went about and was seen approaching them. Their joy knew no bounds. Frantically they hoisted a shawl for a signal. Yes, they had been seen! The schooner kept on her course, came up with them and took them aboard. On the decks Of the Lioness – for such the schooner proved to be — the refugees gave thanks for their deliverance while captain and crew did all in their power to alleviate the distress and terror which had left its mark on them after their twelve long hours of suffering.
The schooner now headed for the scene of the wreck. When she arrived there was nothing to be seen of the Birkenhead, except a few broken spars and the main topmast sticking out of the water. But suddenly a cry went up. There were men clinging to the topmast! Quickly boats put out from the Lioness and rowed towards the wreck. Yes, there was still another rescue to be made. Clinging to the topmast they discovered thirty to forty poor fellows in a state of utter exhaustion.
Their plight was pitiful indeed. For twelve hours they had undergone terrible privations from hunger, thirst and intense cold. Most of them were almost naked. They were dazed with terror.
When they had scrambled up the rigging as the Birkenhead had taken her final plunge, there had been over fifty of them. Numbed with cold and overcome with weariness, some had dropped from their precarious perch and either been drowned or eaten by the sharks. A few had managed to reach the shore on pieces of wreckage – for those left on the topmast there had remained the long watch through the night and the tortures of mind and body. Yet such is the wonderful power of human endurance that over thirty had survived!
Altogether only the comparatively small number of 192 persons were saved from the wreck of the Birkenhead including all the women and children. Among the 446 who were lost, were the captain of the ship and brave Colonel Seton.
The first news of the shipwreck reached Cape Town through one of the survivors, Dr. Culhane. He had been aboard the gig, which, after keeping company with the two cutters, had dropped behind and had not therefore been rescued by the Lioness. The gig had rowed some sixteen miles along the coast and put in at a little settlement called Port D’Urban. Here Dr. Culhane had managed to obtain a horse and with all speed had covered the hundred miles or so to Cape Town, bearing the dreadful tidings of the fate of the Birkenhead.
When the news reached England, there was an immediate outcry against the action of Captain Salmond in sailing so dangerously close to the coast in order to save a few hours of voyaging. But, although grief for the terrible loss of life was universal, gradually all recrimination and sorrow was softened by an intense feeling of pride in the courageous behaviour of those brave men who had stood fast on the decks of the sinking Birkenhead so that the women and children might be saved.
If such a deed as this requires an epitaph, surely none fitter can be found than :
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”