“Women and children first!" - The Sinking of HM troop Transport “Birkenhead” in 1852

26 February 1852, HM troop transport “Birkenhead” sank in Gansbaai with 643 people on board and the call “women and children first!” was used for the first time during a ship disaster.

“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 "Soldier an' Sailor Too")

Thomas M. Henry’s painting “Wreck of the Birkenhead” (1892)

It was during the 8th Xhosa War, when the British colonial forces slowly gained ground against the tribes being at war after their prophet Mlanjeni had promised them they’d no longer be harmed by the white colonists’ bullets after a row of sacrifices, that HM troopship “Birkenhead”, en route to the Eastern Cape with 643 people aboard, soldiers, her crew as well as women and children, struck a rock off Danger Point, 100 miles southeast of Cape Town at 2 o’clock in the morning. The “Birkenhead”, a 210’ paddle wheeler, had her forward compartments pushed in and flooded along with her engine room and at least 100 soldiers were drowned in their berths and the ship began to sink quickly, two miles away from the coast. The rest of the people aboard quickly assembled on deck and noticed that the ship had not only too less lifeboats but that two of the six available were already lost due to hectic action. Until that day, it had been “every man for himself” in Christian seafaring but the highest ranking army officer present, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton of the 74th Foot, quickly recognised that the boats would be swamped, dooming women and children almost certainly. He ordered the military still present to fall in and remain disciplined while the cavalry horses were driven over the side and women and children boarded the life boats.  Then the “Birkenhead” was pushed against the rock again, her funnel and mainmast went over her side and the ship broke asunder.

Charles Dixon: "The Wreck of the Birkenhead" (1901)

The astonishing discipline maintained by the soldiers of the 74th Highlanders ensured that, 
at the cost of the life of most of them, all of the 25 women and 31 children aboard the ship could reach dry land. 193 survived the catastrophe, the rest drowned, died of exposure or was taken by sharks, earning the local Great White variant the nickname “Tommy Sharks”. The motto “women and children first”, carried out during the sinking of the troop ship, became synonymous with grace under pressure, the “Birkenhead Drill”.

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