HMS BIRKENHEAD was one of the first iron-hulled warships built for the Royal Navy. Although laid down as the frigate, HMS Vulcan, at John Laird’s shipyard on the River Mersey in 1845, she was given the name of the town where she was built soon afterwards.
Two 564 horsepower (421 Kw) steam engines drove a pair of 20 foot (6 metre) paddle wheels and two masts were rigged with sails as a brig. At 210 feet (64m) long, with a beam of 38 feet (11m), she was larger than any of her class built previously. Her armament was originally intended to be two 96-pounder pivot guns, one forward and one aft, and four 68-pounder broadside guns.
Launched on 30 December 1845 by the Marchioness of Westminster, the ship achieved an average speed of 12 knots when she undertook her maiden voyage in 1846. However, the Birkenhead was never commissioned as a frigate, for while under construction, it was decided that warships would be more efficient if their main propulsion was by propellers rather than paddle wheels, so she was converted to a troop ship. In 1851, as part of her conversion, a forecastle and poop deck were added to increase accommodation. A third mast was added to change her sail plan to that of barquentine. Although she never served as a warship, she was faster and more comfortable than any of the wooden sail-driven troopships. It was a period of monumental change for the Royal Navy, as sail rapidly gave way to steam. The Birkenhead, with her enormous steam-driven paddle wheels and large area of sail, might have been seen to have the best of both worlds.
Under the command of Captain Robert Salmond RN, HM Troopship Birkenhead sailed from Portsmouth in January 1852. She was taking troops to fight in the Frontier War (also called the Kaffir War) against the Xhosa tribes in South Africa. The troops included Fusiliers, Highlanders, Lancers, Foresters, Rifles, Green Jackets and other assorted regiments of the British Army. On 5 January, she picked up more troops at Queenstown in Ireland and several officers’ wives and families. On 23 February 1852, she docked briefly in Simonstown, near Cape Town, before sailing, two days later, for the last leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay. In order to make the best possible speed, Captain Salmond decided to sail close to the South African coast, setting a course that, for the most part, was within three miles of the shore. Using her paddle wheels, the ship maintained a steady speed of nearly nine knots. As she left False Bay and headed east, the sea was calm and the night clear.
In the early hours of 26 February, approaching a rocky outcrop, appropriately named Danger Point, some 150 miles from Capetown, disaster struck. With the exception of the duty watch, everyone was asleep. The leadsman had just called “Sounding 12 fathoms”, when the Birkenhead rammed an uncharted rock. Twenty feet to port or starboard and she would have missed it. Her churning paddle wheels drove her on with such force that the rock sliced into the hull, ripping open the compartment between the engine room and the forepeak. Water flooded into the forward compartment of the lower troop deck, filling it instantly. Trapped in their hammocks, hundreds of soldiers drowned where they slept.
Captain Salmond, awakened by the shock of the impact, rushed on deck and ordered the anchor be dropped, the boats lowered and a turn astern to be given by the engines. However, this proved to be a fatal decision, for as the ship slowly went astern from the rock, the sea rushed into the large gash made by the collision so that the ship struck again, buckling the plates of the forward bilge and ripping open the bulkheads. The sea poured into the engine room, flooding the boilers in a great cloud of steam, drowning most of the stokers. Her stern rose in the air, and the tall smokestack came crashing down, killing the men working to free another of the boats as the bow broke away.
All the troops were ordered to muster into ranks by regiment and await their officers’ orders. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Seton, of the 74th Highlanders, the senior regimental officer on board, was requested by Captain Salmond, “to be kind enough to preserve order and silence among the men”. Captain Salmond then gave the order to abandon ship. Only two cutters and a gig were launched into the water. The women and children were embarked in one of the cutters which lay alongside. Seton pleaded with the men to stand fast where they were. “The cutter with the women and children will be swamped. I implore you not to do this thing and I ask you to stand fast”. Other officers took up the cry, urging the men to remain where they were for the sake of the women and children. And they did.
Private (later Colour Sergeant) Boyden, of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment, recalled that, during the time Colonel Seton’s orders were being carried out, “one could have heard a pin drop and that he walked about the deck giving his orders with as much coolness and presence of mind as if he were on parade”. As the deck tilted and the water rose, the soldiers stood fast. Within minutes, the Birkenhead had broken her back and those in the bowels of the ship died instantly. The soldiers on deck must have known what would happen. Yet still they did not move.
The ship sank barely 25 minutes after striking the rock. Over the next twelve hours, some of the survivors managed to swim two miles to the shore, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat. But most drowned, died of exposure, or were taken by sharks. A letter from Lieutenant F J Girardot, 43rd Regiment, to his father, dated 1 March 1852, told the graphic story. “I remained on the wreck until she went down and then 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 for about five hours, as the shore was so rocky and the surf ran so high, a great many were lost trying to land. Nearly all those that took to the water, without their clothes, were taken by sharks. Hundreds of them were all around us and I saw men taken by them close to me. But as I had on a flannel shirt and trousers, they preferred the others”.
At the court martial into the loss of the ship, held some five months later, one of the few officers to survive, Captain Edward Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment, explained, “The order and regularity that prevailed on board from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything I had thought could be effected by the best discipline, and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were, but a short time in the service. Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom”. It was this account of the heroic tragedy that was later ordered to be read aloud to every regiment in the service of Frederick, William IV of Prussia.
The next morning, the schooner Lioness found one of the cutters and, after saving the occupants, made her way to the scene of the disaster. She discovered 40 people still clinging to the rigging. Of the 643 people believed to have been on board, 450 perished. The survivors included; 113 soldiers, 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen and the seven women and thirteen children. The sinking of the Birkenhead was the earliest maritime disaster in which the phrase “women and children first” was used. It later became standard procedure in relation to the evacuation of sinking ships.
In 1893, the poet Rudyard Kipling immortalised the action, or the Birkenhead drill as it became known, in “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”