The Birkenhead Drill: The Origin Of “Women And Children First.”

by Daniel Russ on October 16, 2012

The Wreck Of The Birkenhead


The Wreck Of The Birkenhead


On February 26th, 1852 the HMS Birkenhead, a British troop carrier transporting troops for the Navy struck a rock while bringing soldiers to South Africa. The British were locked in a war with the Khosa tribe in what was now termed the Kaffir Wars. Realizing that there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone. He ordered his men to stand fast while the women and the children loaded onto the boats. Only 193 of 643 on board survived the disaster. The behavior set a watermark for proper and chivalrous behavior in such disasters and is known as the Birkenhead Drill.



Here is a letter a survivor wrote to his father.



“Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice.[3]

Ten minutes after the first impact, the engines still turning astern, the ship struck again beneath the engine room, tearing open her bottom. She instantly broke in two just aft of the mainmast. The funnel went over the side and the forepart of the ship sank at once. The stern section, now crowded with men, floated for a few minutes before sinking.

Just before she sank, Salmond called out that “all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats”. Colonel Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the men to stand fast, and only three men made the attempt. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore.

The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely 20 minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles (3.2 km) to shore over the next 12 hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat, but most drowned, died of exposure or were taken by sharks.

I remained on the wreck until she went down; the suction took me down some way, and a man got hold of my leg, but I managed to kick him off and came up and struck out for some pieces of wood that were on the water and started for land, about two miles (3 km) off. I was in the water about five hours, as the shore was so rocky and the surf ran so high that a great many were lost trying to land. Nearly all those that took to the water without their clothes on were taken by sharks; hundreds of them were all round us, and I saw men taken by them close to me, but as I was dressed (having on a flannel shirt and trousers) they preferred the others. I was not in the least hurt, and am happy to say, kept my head clear; most of the officers lost their lives from losing their presence of mind and trying to take money with them, and from not throwing off their coats.”


– Letter from Lt. J.F. Girardot, 43 Light Infantry to his father, 1 March 1852


The Sinking Of The Birkenhead The Sinking Of The Birkenhead


Source: Wiki


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