Have you heard of the wreck of the HMS Birkenhead? I hadn't. But before modern history forgot about it, this true story influenced generations of men over a century ago, giving little boys an inspiring example of the true nobility of courage and sacrifice. The men in this story were an example for the crew and passengers of the Titianic; without the Birkenhead, it is likely that the Titanic would be an even bigger tragedy than it already was. The Birkenhead's story needs to be told again, and often.
The HMS Birkenhead was a troopship carrying English troops along the coast of South Africa. It also carried some women and children, as a few of the troops' families preferred to stay together. There were approximately 643 men, women and children on board (the exact number is unknown). Shortly before 2am, the Birkenhead struck a submerged, uncharted rock near a spot then known as "Danger Point". In an effort to get dislodged, a mistake was made with the engines, and the ship accidentally rammed the rock again, flooding the lower compartments, drowning the 100 soldiers within, and sealing the ship's fate.
The surviving troops mustered on deck (meaning they fell in line to await orders). Once given directions, they went about their duties calmly and capably, due to their military training and discipline. One observer shared, "Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of (Colonel) Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice." Unfortunately many of the lifeboats were unusable, due to years of neglect of the lowering equipment. But the women and children were put in the remaining available lifeboats and sent off to reach the shore about 3 miles away.
Soon after, the ship struck the rock yet a third time, tearing the bottom wide open. The funnel fell off, and the front part of the ship sank. Colonel Salmand called out "all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats". Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, however, realized that if the men rushed the lifeboats, that they would risk swamping them and endanger the women and children. He quickly drew his sword and counter ordered the men to stand fast. Even though many of these men were new recruits, young and inexperienced, only three men disobeyed.
The soldiers remained in their line and did not move as the lifeboats were quickly rowed to safety, and away from them. Then the ship broke in two.
I got chills as I read this story. Because of their care for others, and because of the discipline these men had learned in the military, they solemnly stood in line, waiting to drown. It is certain, that had they made a rush for the boats, that some of the men would have been saved. It is equally certain that at least some of the women and children would have drowned.
In another horrible twist of fate, the waters of this region were full of ravenous sharks. Once the boat split and the men were in the water, they watched each other get pulled under, get bitten and eaten by the sharks. Still, as they were swimming to shore, they did not approach the lifeboats. Many men did not make it. Those who were fully clothed were not noticed as much by the sharks, but had a harder time swimming. The chances of survival were terrible.
In the morning, a schooner arrived and found 40 men clinging to the rigging of the ship. Out of the 643 passengers, only 193 lived.
Captain Edward WC Wright would later testify,
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 effected 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 heroism of the men of the Birkenhead became legendary. Frederick William IV of Prussia had the account read to all of his troops. Queen Victoria ordered a monument to be made, and the South African Mint issued a special gold coin commemorating their heroism. Paintings and poems were created and the story became part of naval lore. When the Titanic sank, only civilians were aboard. There was no military discipline, no one giving orders. But because of the Birkenhead story, everyone knew what to do. A precedent had been set.
We need this story today. We need the strong to protect the weak. We need more sacrifice and less selfishness. The men of the BIrkenhead may have died that night, but the story of their sacrifice and courage will live forever.
The Birkenhead Drill by Doug Phillips
Family Discussion Guide
-Why is discipline important?
-When something scary happens, it is important to not panic. Why, and how can we practice that?
-Do you think it should have been "every man for himself"?
-Do you agree or disagree that the strong have a duty to use their strength to protect and care for the weak?
-How does sacrifice make this world better?
-Does having courage mean not being scared? How do we practice courage?
-Do you agree or disagree that when you love someone, it is easier to sacrifice and have courage for them?
-How did the example of the men of the Birkenhead affect others (including the survivors)?
-How does your example affect others?
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