On this day 26 February in 1852, the Wreck of HMS Birkenhead, one of the most famous disasters in British naval history occurred. It is remembered as a classic example of the British characteristics of steadfastness, discipline and self-sacrifice.
She had sailed from Simon’s Bay, South Africa on 25 February 1852 with between 630 and 643 British soldiers, from regiments throughout the UK, and women and children. They were heading to Algoa Bay to take the soldiers to fight in the 8th Xhosa War.
In the early hours of the 26 February, she struck an uncharted rock. 100 soldiers drowned immediately in their berths. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Seton, of the 74th Highland Regiment of Foot, commanded the troops aboard HMS Birkenhead. Seton was from Mounie in Aberdeenshire.
Before she sank, the captain of the ship called out that “all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats”.
Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the men to stand to attention and wait.
Hence was born the first documented application of the phrase “women and children first” which became known as “the Birkenhead Drill” after it was further popularised in Rudyard Kipling’s 1893 poem “Soldier an’ Sailor Too”.
Tragically, only 193 people were to survive the incident. A memorial in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, today bears the following inscription:
“In memory of Lieut.-Colonel Alexander Seton, Ensign Alex. C. Russell, and forty-eight N.C.O.s and men of the 74th Highlanders who were drowned at the wreck of H.M.S. ‘Birkenhead’ on the 26th February 1852, off Point Danger, Cape of Good Hope, after all the women and children on board had been safely landed in the ship’s boats.”
Other places bear witness to the loss including a plaque on the wall of St Mary’s Church in Bury St Edmunds, which remembers the men of the Suffolk Regiment who were lost in the disaster.
The painting with the Bugle Boy is entitled “The Wreck of the Birkenhead” (1899) by Lance Calkin. The other is “The Wreck of the Birkenhead” (ca 1892) by Thomas M Hemy.