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Soldiers showed conspicuous gallantry on the sinking Birkenhead

Posted in Bravery, Disasters, Famous news stories, Ships, War on Thursday, 28 March 2013

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This edited article about shipping disaster originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 215 published on 26 February 1966.

The Birkenhead, picture, image, illustration

The Wreck of the “Birkenhead” in 1852 by Charles Edward Dixon

With a long grinding that ended in a shuddering crash, the voyage of the 1,400-ton paddle steamer Birkenhead ended on a rocky reef a few miles off the African coast. It was two o’clock on the morning of February 25, 1852.

With a crew of seventy-five officers and men, the Birkenhead was carrying 650 soldiers to reinforce British regiments engaged in the Kaffir War. A number of the soldiers were accompanied by their wives and children.

A great hole was torn in the bottom of the Birkenhead, and within minutes she started to sink. Colonel Seton, who was in command of the troops, immediately ordered his men to fall in on deck. Orders were then given to lower the boats and get the women and children away from the doomed ship.

Then the ship began to list, and all the boats except three small ones became wedged on deck and could not be lowered. The women and children and about fifty members of the crew were embarked in these three boats.

In the meantime, the 650 troops stood rigidly to attention. Colonel Seton ordered them not to jump overboard, since any attempts to get into the boats containing the women and children would certainly swamp them.

Twenty-five minutes after striking the reef, the Birkenhead sank. On her deck, the troops still stood at attention. Only when the surge of the sea washed them off did they attempt to save themselves.

About fifty soldiers managed to struggle on to pieces of floating wreckage. They were picked up by a schooner that afternoon. The remainder of the 650 died in the disaster, but all the women and children were saved.

The loss of the ship was a supreme example of the discipline of the British soldier. News of their gallantry aroused admiration throughout the world.

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