Excerpted from Journal of American Culture, Winter 97, Vol. 20, Issue 4, p. 19

 In January of 1852, the Birkenhead, a fully loaded transport carrying British troops and over two dozen of their family members from Cork [Ireland] to Capetown [South Africa] struck an uncharted rock near the African coast. The few lifeboats she carried were sufficient to save only a fraction of those on board. In an atmosphere of calm and military discipline, wives and children were loaded into three small boats that then pulled away from the doomed vessel. The captain next ordered all to abandon ship and swim for the boats. The army officers countermanded the order, knowing that if hundreds of soldiers and marines swam for the three small craft and tried to board them, they would be swamped and all would drown. Not more than three men ignored orders and jumped into the sea. The remaining hundreds stood fast. Shortly after the boats were safely away, the Birkenhead slipped off the rock and plunged to the bottom as the cargo of iron-disciplined troops stood at attention on her deck. One of the officers who survived the ordeal, a Lieutenant Lucas of the 73rd Regiment, described the scene on the ill-fated ship before she went under. His measured and understated prose conveys the sense of discipline and duty that prevailed in the face of what appeared to be certain death for most of those who participated in the events he described.

The ship was now rolling her yardarms in the sea, and it was no light matter to keep one's legs. It is not easy to imagine a more painful task than that of getting the wretched women into the boats. This was in several cases done by main force. Tearing them from their husbands, they were carried to the bulwarks and dropped over the ship's side into the arms of the boat's crew. The whole of the women and children, thirty in all, were safely stowed in the boats when they shoved off.

Lucas concluded his testimony by thanking God that it could "seldom be said that Englishmen have left women and children to perish and saved their own lives!" The heroism of the men was widely celebrated in the popular press at the time of the sinking, and in due course Rudyard Kipling paid tribute to the courage of the ship's marines in "A Soldier an' Sailor Too." Referring to them as Jollies, he wrote:

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about, Is nothing so bad when you've cover to' and, an' leave an' likin' to shout; But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn' tough bullet to chew, An' they done it, the Jollies--'Er Majesty's Jollies--soldier and sailor too.

Three-quarters of a century after the sinking of the Birkenhead, maritime historian J. G. Lockhart evoked an aura of high drama to explain the significance of what happened in 1852:

The men who died...established a law which has become embodied in the unwritten maritime code of all civilized nations. Once and for all on that January night, it was laid down that...when the alarm has been given and the ship is sinking and the boats are being lowered, the women and children on board must first be saved.

For more on the sinking of the HM Transport Birkenhead see:

An entire website devoted to the Birkenhead, with charts, site and wreckage photos, click here.

Fascinating tales of the sinking, as told by survivors, see Survivors of the Birkenhead.

 
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