HMS Birkenhead was also an iron-hulled paddle steamer, and like Nemesis, she was built at John Laird and launched in 1845. She had been designed as a frigate, but by this time paddles were giving way to propellors, and Birkenhead was instead commissioned as a troopship. Seven years later, in February 1852 she sank off the coast of South Africa. Her sinking and the conduct of her officers and men and the soldiers she carried became something of a legend in Victorian England, depicted in paintings and poetry and from whence came the expression the "Birkenhead drill".
|The wreck of the Birkenhead by Thomas Hemy (1892)|
|A rendition that better depicts the sinking being at night|
|The Wreck of the Birkenhead by Charles Dixon (1901)|
The schooners Lioness and Seahorse arrived on the scene of the sinking at noon the following day. The Lioness picked up the survivors from the first two boats ( a cutter and a gig). They then found some forty survivors clinging to the wreckage of the mainmast and rigging. The Lioness rescued some 116 people from the boats and from the wreckage in the water. The third boat (a cutter) managed to make the nearby shore. The Seahorse rescued some twenty survivors from the water. A whaleboat from nearby Dyer Island had joined the rescue effort and picked up some four survivors. Some survivors managed to swim the two miles to the shore.
"The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that 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 – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion."Colour Sgt John O'Neil also serving with the 91st Regiment was one of those who escaped death by swimming to that distant shore. In 1901, during a presentation on the occasion of his retirement, he commented about the sinking:
"I might be allowed to say a word or two about the memorable disaster, the wreck of the Birkenhead. My share in that is soon told: simple obedience of orders, standing on deck slowly but surely sinking, whilst the women and children got safely away in the boats, then by God's providence and a long and perilous swim midst sharks, breakers and seaweeds, I managed to scramble ashore."
Cpl William Smith of 12th Regiment of Foot recalled the shock felt throughout the ship as the vessel collided with the rock. Distress rockets were fired.
"There was a panic for a short time but admirable discipline was maintained through the efforts of the officers. Good order was eventually restored. I believe twenty minutes had hardly elapsed before the vessel was in pieces. I was sleeping on the lower deck when the shock came and crowded up the ladder with others but found it difficult work. Some never came up at all but were drowned in their hammocks the water rushing in so suddenly. Most of the troops were fallen in on deck with the exception of some sixty men who were told to go below to man the chain pumps; they never came up again but were all drowned like rats in a hole. After gaining the deck I went and assisted the crew in rigging the chain pumps I remained there, and I think it was about the hardest twenty minutes work I ever did in my life. We all worked like Trojans. I remained below the whole time. I know very little about what happened on deck during this time. I think I was the only man that ever came up again from the pumps. "An officer, Lt John Girardot, then told the men on the pumps it was no use, they could not control the flooding, and they were ordered to go to the upper deck. Smith was one of those nearest the ladder. By the time he reached the upper deck, it was already awash. The ship was going down so fast, sinking by the bows, her smokestack lying across the deck. He described there being insufficient time to get the other boats launched whereas some other accounts talk about jammed davits. Smith could not swim but he managed to cling to a broken spar and eventually made the shore. He described how the dark outline of the mountains made the shore look closer than it was, and many of those that struck out towards the coast were unable to make the distance which he estimated at about two miles.
Richard Nesbitt was fourteen years old at the time. His father was Quartermaster of the 12th Suffolk Regiment.
"I have a very clear and distinct recollection of all that occurred. I saved myself by making for and fastening on to one of the boats to which I clung for some time and was eventually pulled on board. We were afterwards picked up by the schooner Lioness and never shall I forget the great kindness of Captain and Mrs Ramsden to all the survivors - men, women and children. I don't think half an hour could have elapsed from her striking until she broke up."Cpl William Butler described the impact as being like a "clap of thunder" when the steamer hit the rock.
"The Captain and officers behaved splendidly; the former sang out, ‘Soldiers and sailors, keep quiet, and I will save you all ” There was calm after panic; we lowered the gangway, and pitched four guns and the horses overboard. Captain Wright, of the 91st, jumped after his horse and got ashore with him. The Captain ordered Mr. Brodie, to get the paddle box boats loose. In doing so he got his thighs jammed. When the vessel went down, the boat he had loosened remained in the water keel up. I saw four men get ashore on her, one man sitting on the keel with a big coat on, the three others paddling. Three on a spar also reached the shore, two men and a cabin boy; the boy sat on the spar, and the men paddled. I saw another get ashore on a truss of hay. As to the troops being paraded it is imagination. She was loaded to the funnel. The last words I heard the Captain say were “Soldiers and sailors, I’ve done what I can for you. I can't do more. Those who can swim do so; those who can’t climb the rigging.” Then it was a rush. I got hold of a bit of wreckage, on which it took me about seven hours to reach the shore where the survivors mustered in lots of six to ten who knew each other and walked in the direction of Simon's Bay, taking two days to reach the same."Lt Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, survived the sinking. He later recalled being dragged down as the ship submerged. Somebody was hanging on to his leg but he managed to kick himself free. He clung onto some driftwood and paddled towards the shoreline. He recalled seeing many men killed by sharks. Some survivors tried to swim to the lifeboats but they pulled away in fear of being swamped by men in the water desperate to get aboard. Many spoke of the cries of those drowning and those being mauled by sharks. Captain Bond-Shelton was also dragged down when the ship sank, but he rose to the surface because he was wearing a Mackintosh life preserver. He struck out towards the shore and was swimming with two others who at one stage screamed and were dragged under by a shark.
On reaching the shore Bond-Shelton described the difficulty of getting through the masses of seaweed. He was reunited with his horse which he found at the water's edge. For Private William Tuck who made it ashore, this was his second shipwreck. Thomas Cuffin was on the helm when the ship sank. He acted as coxswain of the second cutter and picked up 32 survivors from the water before rowing to the shore. As helmsman, he had to give witness at the court-martial in Portsmouth. The court-martial proceedings which were commonly conducted for sinking or collision were dropped because no senior naval officers had survived.
I suspect the story may have been embellished over time aided by those dramatic paintings. One of the survivor's account described the soldiers mustering in their uniform as being "imagination." Thomas Cuffin, the helmsman, contacted Thomas Hemy, the artist, who painted the most famous rendition of the sinking in 1892 some forty years after the event. Cuffin told Hemy that he had seen the troops fall in line, at the orders of an officer in the form of a parade or mustering. So perhaps, it should not be too quickly dismissed. Some of the accounts talk of the initial panic, but all of the accounts confirm the calmness of the officers and the subsequent discipline of the men. There can be no doubt that courage was on display that tragic night in which so many lost their lives and the "Birkenhead drill" became an example and an aspiration.
Survivors accounts from www.web.archive.org
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