Monday, 13 August 2007

The Birkenhead : "Women and Children first"


HMS Birkenhead was a British troopship that sank off Cape L’Agulhas on February 25, 1852. This wreck was an outstanding example of discipline in the face of death. The vessel was a paddle steamer, one of the first iron frigates to be converted into a troopship.
The Captain was in all accounts in a hurry to move 600 troops to Algoa Bay as reinforcements. It would appear as though the best speed under the circumstances was as close to shore as possible.
Lt Col Alexander Seton was the Officer Commanding Troops.

At 2am the morning she struck a rock just off Cape L’Agulhas, the most southern point of Africa. Men were ordered to the pumps while others lowered the boats. At the same time the horses were dumped overboard.
The soldiers were drawn up on deck and ordered to stand fast while the women and children were transferred to the lifeboats, before they attempted to save themselves. The ship broke in half 30 minutes after impact. All women and children were saved. The men went down with the ship. Of the 600 men and officers, 454 were lost. Only 5 horses made it to the shore, the rest eaten by sharks. This is Great White Shark country. But, an interesting turn is that some maintain that is was not the Great White, or any shark for that matter, but the Red Steenbras.
The saying “ women and children first…” originated from this incident.
This story was read aloud to every regiment in the Prussian Army as an example of supreme discipline, courage and self-sacrifice.
Legend also has it that she was also carrying 3 tons of gold. A few hundred coins have been salvaged since the 1980’s, but the rest have never been found.
Standing on the shore and looking out at sea I couldn’t but wonder were the rest is, must be there somewhere, if I only knew where…..

2 comments:

Nepal Arts said...

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purita Fleschhut said...

In the recent re-make of the movie Titanic, the same line was uttered by the Captain when he said "women and children first". It was very touching.