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  1. #1
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    Women and Children first

    I recently published this account of the sinking of the Birkenhead. It is an account of the heroism displayed by the young men of the Black Watch regiment and the implications of their actions that remain with us today via the "Women & Children first" drill.



    THE MEN WHO SHOWED BRAVERY BEYOND BELIEF

    MOST of us are familiar with the rule 'women and children first' when disaster strikes at sea.

    But behind the tradition lies a story which might not be quite so well-known - and which represents one of the most remarkable acts of heroism in British military history.

    The Royal Hospital, Chelsea, provided the backdrop earlier this year for a moving service to mark the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the troopship Birkenhead, just 20 minutes after hitting an uncharted rock two miles off the coast of South Africa.

    The event was attended by descendants of many of those who were aboard the ship that fateful day, when, worried that the men might swamp the lifeboat carrying the women and children if they jumped from the sinking ship, their commanding officer ordered them to 'stand fast'. To a man, they all stood in quiet dignity as the Birkenhead broke up and sank beneath them, taking them to certain death in the shark-infested waters.

    More than 430 men died in the tragedy, with The Black Watch - then the 73rd Regiment of Foot - suffering the heaviest losses. An oil painting by Thomas M.Hemy, entitled 'The Wreck of the Birkenhead', which hangs in the Black Watch Museum in Perth, Scotland, movingly depicts this extraordinary event, capturing the haunted expressions on the faces of the young men as they joined hands and awaited their fate.

    Among those attending the service were two great great granddaughters and two great great great nephews of 19-year-old Ensign Alexander Russell, of the 74th Highland Regiment, whose bravery in the incident cost him his own life.

    Placed in charge of the cutter carrying the seven women and 13 children, Ensign Russell spotted a drowning man in the water, and without hesitation gave up his place on the crowded vessel so that he could be pulled aboard. Just five minutes after diving into the sea, a spine-chilling scream was heard as he was taken by a shark.

    Also at the service were two great granddaughters of ship's captain, Captain Robert Salmond RN, who had ordered all those who could swim to jump overboard and make for the boats. But it was Colonel Alexander Seton who begged: "I implore you not to do this thing, and I ask you to stand fast'.

    There was barely a murmur as the Birkenhead sank. Moments later, the ship broke up, taking both Captain Salmond and Colonel Seton with it.

    In all, there were 10 regiments aboard the ill-fated vessel, and a large proportion of the young recruits were Irish, having joined up after the potato blight and subsequent potato famine in their home country. Amongst them was Sergeant Bernard Kilkeary from Kings County, a Black Watch soldier whose account of the tragedy can be found in the Regimental Museum.

    Sgt. Kilkeary was the ship's sergeant-major for the voyage, and it was he who disembarked the women and children into a lifeboat and went after them. It was his intention to land them on shore and return to the ship, but within minutes it had listed and sunk before his eyes.

    It was 12 hours before they were picked up by a Capetown schooner, The Lioness, and many men were still clinging to the Birkenhead's rigging. Many of those who had bravely tried to swim ashore were devoured by the sharks which inhabited the inhospitable waters, while others became inextricably tangled in long seaweed.

    Only 207 of the 636 people on board survived the tragedy, amongst them Captain Edward Wright of the 91st (Argyllshire) Regiment, who told the subsequent court martial: "The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be affected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be 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 ship made her final plunge …. all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom … I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion."

    The court martial found no-one to blame for the incident - indeed, the Board of Admiralty praised the soldiers' amazing conduct.

    King Frederik Wilhelm of Prussia was so impressed by Captain Wright's words that he asked for them to be read to every one of his regiments, and it was Queen Victoria who ordered the erection of the official Birkenhead monument at the Royal Hospital. Even the aged Duke of Wellington made his last appearance in public to praise the men's discipline.

    The Birkenhead tragedy happened at two in the morning on February 26, 1852, as the ship made for South Africa with reinforcements to help quell a native uprising during the Kaffir War.

    It was rumoured that the ship was carrying £240,000 in gold bullion to pay the troops already serving there but, though numerous salvage expeditions have been mounted, as far as is known the money has never been found.

    The tragedy also resulted in some extraordinary incidents. Private Patrick Mullins of the 91st (Argyllshire) Regiment had no idea whether his wife and two children, who were also on board, had survived - but they met quite by chance seven years later, and went on to produce another five children.

    And both Captain Wright and Cornet Sheldon Bond of the 12th Lancers were re-united with their own horses, which had been freed from their stable on deck to give them a chance of swimming to safety.

    Eerily, it is only in the past year, as the 150th anniversary approached, that three bodies from the Birkenhead were discovered near the coastline where the ship went down. Though unidentifiable, the men were given a burial service at the naval base at Simon's Town, while services of remembrance were held around South Africa and local schoolchildren scattered poppies out to sea.

    It was the Birkenhead tragedy which gave rise to the tradition to this day known as 'The Birkenhead Drill' - most memorably demonstrated in recent times in the film 'Titanic' - which requires a ship's crew to show complete disregard for their own safety; to remain calm; to give priority to the rescue of any women, children and civilians aboard, and to display endurance and courage beyond the call of duty.

    Many of the soldiers aboard the Birkenhead on that calm, clear day in February 1852 were raw recruits still in their teens. But the discipline and heroism they displayed will forever remain legendary throughout the British forces and beyond
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  2. #2
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    Wow. This begs the question: what else have you published?

    Peace,

    Gibran

  3. #3
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    Originally posted by Gibran
    Wow. This begs the question: what else have you published?

    Peace,

    Gibran
    Gibran,

    It's not as glamorous as it sounds I'm afraid! Credit needs to go to Liz Rougvie of the Black Watch Museum, who spent a lot of her time educating me as to the history of the Black Watch Regiment.

    I publish a luxury magazine for British expats at director or executive level and I neither have the time nor the writing skills to produce articles such as this. This article is one from a regular feature where I try to highlight little known acts of outstanding bravery.

    I've recently been speaking with some relatives of soldiers who fought in WWII, they are particularly keen to pass on some of the memories that their fathers/husbands/uncles shared with them. Some of their stories almost defy belief and make you feel very humble. When I work on the magazine, it is this section that gives me the most pleasure, it's not done in an attempt to glorify war, just to try to highlight how ordinary men and women have the capacity to perform such selfless acts.

    If it's deemed acceptable, I'll post the next one here too.

    Regards
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  4. #4
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    If you don't post it here -- the above is barely pertinent for this forum -- PM me copy or a link. I'm interested.

    Peace,

    Gibran

 

 

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