Women and Children First

The HMS Birkenhead was one of the first ships to use both steam power and sails. In January of 1852, the Birkenhead left England with 634 men, women, and children on board. The destination was South Africa. The men were troops sent to battle in what was called the Frontier War. It was customary in those days for soldiers to take their families with them when assigned conflict duty. Many of the soldiers and their families were escaping the potato famine in Ireland.

The voyage was rough with storms almost from the beginning. Most ships would have returned to port but the Birkenhead was under orders to get to the combat zone as soon as possible. The Birkenhead also hugged the coastline to make the trip faster.

As the Birkenhead neared its destination, it rammed into a rock formation that did not show up on the nautical maps. As water poured into the Birkenhead, many of the soldiers were trapped and drowned.

Those who could, assembled on deck in night clothes. Some were naked. It didn’t take long for the lead officer to realize that the Birkenhead was doomed. Lifeboats were summoned, but few could be lowered.

The only vessels which could be lowered were unable to accommodate all on board. In an act that continues to this day, Lieutenant Colonel Seton ordered the soldiers to stand fast and commanded that women and children would be saved. Only seven women and thirteen children were saved.

The soldiers were then ordered to abandon the ship and swim to shore. Some could not swim and drowned. Others were attacked by sharks and died.

Of the 634 passengers on the Birkenhead only 190 survived. While there were few survivors of the Birkenhead disaster the tradition of women and children first remains to this day as a symbol of moral courage.

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The history of the 74th records the action of the brave men aboard the HMS Birkenhead that fateful day… ‘sheds more glory upon those who took part in it than a hundred well-fought battles.
– Words on a memorial at St. Mary’s Church in Bury St. Edmunds

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