Monday, January 5, 2015

The Birkenhead Drill

HMS Birkenhead was a troopship. She was a 1400 ton paddlewheel design that carried two masts and rigging. On the 25th of February, 1852 she was steaming along the South African coast to deliver troops under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Highlanders. There were 643 people on board. 132 of them were the sailors. 455 were soldiers and officers, and there were 25 women and 31 children, families of officers serving in the region.

She hits a reef two miles offshore and fifty miles out from Simon's Bay and tore out the bottom of the ship. Things went from bad to worse in the darkness, they lost the engine room and the pumps. Two cutters and a small gig were all the lifeboats available. The troops were mustered on deck while the sailors fought to save the ship.

The women and children were loaded in the small boats and launched. When it became clear that the ship was sinking, Lieutenant-Colonel Seton ordered his detachments to stand fast on deck to keep the small boats from being swamped by the men. They held ranks and let the boats get away.

About 60 men were rescued from the rigging and wreckage of the ship the next day.  A few survived the two mile open water swim, others were found clinging to debris. In total, 193 people were rescued, including all of the women and children. Every one of the senior officers died.

It became known as the Birkenhead Drill.

At it's most basic, it means to stand fast under orders when it means your death to give a chance for life to others.
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 an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too.
--Rudyard Kipling


Old NFO said...

I cannot imagine the courage it took to do that... Not only to give the order, but the men that stood fast, knowing what would happen.

Bob said...

Heinlein understood this, of course, and spoke of it in his address to the US Naval Academy (his alma mater), The Pragmatics of Patriotism.

Windy Wilson said...

This reminds me of the too-rah a yer or so ago, of the woman who complained that male strangers to her were not protecting her from street robbers. The general response was no, the bicycles are not protecting fishes.

Today they want the Birkenhead drill but wish to give nothing in return, not even respect.