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'the Birkenead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew'

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

Unit/ Formation: Royal Marines

Location: South Africa

Period/ Conflict: 1800's

Year: 1852

Date/s: 26 February 1852

Royal Marines were aboard the Birkenhead in 1852, 6 lost their lives.

In January 1852, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond RN, the Birkenhead left Portsmouth conveying troops from ten different regiments, including the 2nd Regiment of Foot and the 74th Regiment of Foot, to the Eighth Xhosa War against the Xhosa in the Cape Colony. On 5 January, she picked up more soldiers at Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland, and conveyed some officers' wives and families. On 23 February 1852, Birkenhead docked briefly at Simon's Town, near Cape Town. Most of the women and children disembarked along with a number of sick soldiers. Nine cavalry horses, several bales of hay and 35 tons of coal were loaded for the last leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay.

HMS Birkenhead (1845)

She sailed from Simon's Bay at 18:00 on 25 February 1852 with between 630 and 643 men, women and children aboard, the exact number being in some doubt. In order to make the best possible speed, Captain Salmond decided to hug the South African coast, setting a course that was generally within 3 miles (4.8 km) of the shore. Using her paddle wheels, she maintained a steady speed of 8.5 knots (15.7 km/h). The sea was calm and the night was clear as she left False Bay and headed east.

"The Wreck of the Birkenhead" (c. 1892) by Thomas Hemy. Thomas Hemy painted a series of pictures about the wreck of the HMS 'Birkenhead' in 1852, one of the Victorian age's famous disasters. This is a smaller version of the large painting, which is now lost. It shows the soldiers, marines and sailors standing on deck while the women and children are taken off the troopship following it striking an uncharted rock off the coast of South Africa. The order 'Women and children first' was first given on this occasion and became known as 'The Birkenhead Drill'.

Shortly before 02:00 on 26 February, while Birkenhead was travelling at a speed of 8 knots (15 km/h), the leadsman made soundings of 12 fathoms (22 m). Before he could take another sounding, she struck an uncharted rock at 34°38′42″S 19°17′9″ECoordinates: 34°38′42″S 19°17′9″E with 2 fathoms (3.7 m) of water beneath her bows and 11 fathoms (20 m) at her stern.

The rock lies near Danger Point (near Gansbaai, Western Cape). Barely submerged, this rock is clearly visible in rough seas, but it is not immediately apparent in calmer conditions.

Captain Salmond rushed on deck and ordered the anchor to be dropped, the quarter-boats to be lowered, and a turn astern to be given by the engines. However, as the ship backed off the rock, the sea rushed into the large hole made by the collision and the ship struck again, buckling the plates of the forward bilge and ripping open the bulkheads. Shortly, the forward compartments and the engine rooms were flooded, and over 100 soldiers were drowned in their berths.


The surviving soldiers mustered and awaited their officers' orders. Salmond ordered the senior military officer, Colonel Seton, to send men to the chain pumps. Sixty were directed to this task, sixty more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, and the rest were assembled on the poop deck in order to raise the forward part of the ship. The women and children were placed in the ship's cutter which lay alongside. Two other large boats (capacity 150 each) were manned, but one was immediately swamped and the other could not be launched due to poor maintenance and paint on the winches. This left only three smaller boats available.

The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers. As a survivor later recounted: "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."

The Wreck of the Birkenhead (1901) by Charles Dixon.

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 killed 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 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 Lieutenant J.F. Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, to his father, 1 March 1852.

The next morning, the schooner Lioness discovered one of the cutters and, after saving the occupants of the second boat, made her way to the scene of the disaster. Arriving in the afternoon, she found 40 people still clinging to the rigging. It was reported that, of the approximately 643 people aboard, only 193 were saved. Captain Edward WC Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment was the most senior army officer to survive; he was made a brevet major for his actions during the ordeal, dated 26 February 1852.

The number of personnel aboard is in some doubt, but an estimate of 638 was published in The Times. It is generally thought that the survivors comprised 113 soldiers (all ranks), 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen (all ranks), 7 women, 13 children and at least one male civilian, but these numbers cannot be substantiated, as muster rolls and books were lost with the ship.

Of the horses, eight made it safely to land, while the ninth had its leg broken while being pushed into the sea.

The term "Birkenhead drill" became defined as courageous behaviour in hopeless circumstances and appeared in Rudyard Kipling's 1893 tribute to the Royal Marines, "Soldier an' Sailor Too":

As I was spittin' into the Ditch aboard o' the Crocodile, I seed a man on a man-o'-war got up in the Reg'lars' style. 'E was scrapin' the paint from off of 'er plates, an' I sez to 'im, "'Oo are you?" Sez 'e, "I'm a Jolly—'Er Majesty's Jolly—soldier an' sailor too!" Now 'is work begins by Gawd knows when, and 'is work is never through; 'E isn't one o' the reg'lar Line, nor 'e isn't one of the crew. 'E's a kind of a giddy harumfrodite—soldier an' sailor too! An', after I met 'im all over the world, a-doin' all kinds of things, Like landin' 'isself with a Gatlin' gun to talk to them 'eathen kings; 'E sleeps in an 'ammick instead of a cot, an' 'e drills with the deck on a slew, An' 'e sweats like a Jolly—'Er Majesty's Jolly—soldier an' sailor too! For there isn't a job on the top o' the earth the beggar don't know, nor do— You can leave 'im at night on a bald man's 'ead, to paddle 'is own canoe— 'E's a sort of a bloomin' cosmopolouse—soldier an' sailor too. We've fought 'em in trooper, we've fought 'em in dock, and drunk with 'em in betweens, When they called us the seasick scull'ry-maids, an' we called 'em the Ass–Marines; But, when we was down for a double fatigue, from Woolwich to Bernardmyo, We sent for the Jollies—'Er Majesty's Jollies—soldier an' sailor too! They think for 'emselves, an' they steal for 'emselves, and they never ask what's to do, But they're camped an' fed an' they're up an' fed before our bugle's blew. Ho! they ain't no limpin' procrastitutes—soldier an' sailor too. You may say we are fond of an 'arness-cut, or 'ootin' in barrick-yards, Or startin' a Board School mutiny along o' the Onion Guards; (1) But once in a while we can finish in style for the ends of the earth to view, The same as the Jollies—'Er Majesty's Jollies—soldier an' sailor too! They come of our lot, they was brothers to us; they was beggars we'd met an' knew; Yes, barrin' an inch in the chest an' the arm, they was doubles o' me an' you; For they weren't no special chrysanthemums—soldier an' sailor too! 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, (2) soldier an' sailor too! We're most of us liars, we're 'arf of us thieves, an' the rest are as rank as can be, But once in a while we can finish in style (which I 'ope it won't 'appen to me). But it makes you think better o' you an' your friends, an' the work you may 'ave to do, When you think o' the sinkin' Victorier's (3) Jollies—soldier an' sailor too! Now there isn't no room for to say ye don't know—they 'ave proved it plain and true— That whether it's Widow, or whether it's ship, Victorier's work is to do, An' they done it, the Jollies—'Er Majesty's Jollies—soldier an' sailor too! (1) Long ago, a battalion of the Guards was sent to Bermuda as a punishment for riotous conduct in barracks.

(2) In 1852 the Birkenhead transport was sunk off Simon's Bay. The Marines aboard her went down as drawn up on her deck.

(3) Admiral Tryon's flagship, sunk in a collision in 1893. [1]

Main text and images from Wikipedia - HMS Birkenhead (1845)

Soldier and Sailor too and notes - The Kipling Society

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