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The loss of the Bikkenhead


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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 Birkenhead will, as long as civilisation survives, never fail to stir the heart of the reader. For, on that cold February night, over eighty years ago, when the Birkenhead foundered off the coast of Africa, there was written in the annals of history a page that will live for ever in the Story of the Sea - a page 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 sinkingBirkenhead, and refused to save themselves at the expense of the weak, are commemorated by a marble memorial to be seen this day in 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 endeavouring 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 the 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 to 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 either 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, 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 was 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 as though they were at home on the barrack parade ground.

Parties of soldiers and officers were then told off to work in reliefs at the chain pumps on the lower after deck, while others were sent 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 and yet so very far - shuddered with 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 escaped 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! Of the two boats over the paddle-boxes the one on the starboard side was useless, for the pins of the davits 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 - and 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 was 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 was 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 be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service. Every one 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 Birkenhead several hundred souls. If the men, therefore, had taken this advice there would have been little hope for those who had already got away of ever reaching shore. The boats would have been swamped and foundered.

Colonel Seton and his officers realized 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 the cup of its 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 described his terrifying experiences on the Birkenhead in a letter to England. In some 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 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 crowding up from the troop-deck, mostly without any clothes but their shirts.

"On asking the ship's carpenter, 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 they were gone - besides, it was only right to give them a chance for their lives. Eight out of nine got ashore.

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