Of the many heroic acts immortalized by poet Rudyard Kipling, few demonstrated the heroic courage and discipline of the Birkenhead Drill.
The Birkenhead Drill was the ultimate test of a soldier’s duty to obey orders in the face of certain death.
The HMS Birkenhead was a 210-foot iron-hulled troopship, powered by two 540-horsepower steam engines and driven by two side-mounted 20-foot paddle wheels. Though originally designed to be a frigate, the Birkenhead never served as a warship. Her main mission was to transport soldiers to war zones and evacuate the wounded. She had a crew of 120 sailors and could carry 500 passengers.
In January 1852 the Birkenhead was steaming its way from Portsmouth, England to South Africa. On board were over 500 soldiers from ten different regiments. These soldiers were desperately needed as reinforcements for one of the many border clashes of that country.
Also on the ship were a number of family members, women, and children seeking to reunite with their husbands and fathers. The Birkenhead reached the southern tip of Africa in just over a month. Its first stop was Simon’s Bay, where some of the families disembarked. The Birkenhead continued her journey headed for Port Elizabeth.
As the ship rushed through the calm waters on a clear night, it struck a reef at a place called Danger Point. Had the seas been stormy, the reef would have been exposed, but the undisturbed waters succeeded in concealing it. The reef tore a hole in the ship’s bow allowing water to rush in. Many soldiers were drowned in their births.
The ship’s captain, Robert Salmond, ordered all the soldiers on deck to move to the stern of the ship, hoping to raise the prow. Then Captain Salmond reversed the engines. But this only resulted in tearing another hole, this time on the ship’s bottom. More soldiers and sailors drowned below deck. At this point, the captain ordered all women and children into the lifeboats—the first recorded time this protocol was enforced. But these lifeboats only consisted of the ship’s cutter and two small boats—hardly enough for but a fraction of the crew and passengers.
Minutes after the women and children were safely evacuated along with sailors to man the boats, the Birkenhead broke in half. Captain Salmond gave the order, “Every man for himself. Try to swim to the lifeboats!”
However, the most senior officer among the soldiers, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Seton, feared that the hundreds of soldiers and sailors would overwhelm the three lifeboats. He ordered his men to stand fast. “Men, I implore you, do not move from your place lest we swamp the boats with the women and children.” So at attention they stood, with Colonel Seton at their head—determined to lay down their lives in hope of saving the families.
Within minutes the ship sank, taking almost all of the soldiers with it. A few did manage to swim free, but most died from drowning, exposure, or being eaten by the great white sharks that prowled those waters.
Of 643 people aboard, only 193 survived. Among the survivors were all of the women and children. The surviving sailors and soldiers attributed their salvation to the bravery and discipline of Colonel Seton and his 100 or so soldiers. In the very jaws of death, they resisted the impulse of self-preservation and sacrificed their lives to save others.
When the account of the “Birkenhead Drill” reached the nations of Europe, it stirred the hearts of millions. Kings ordered the account be read to their armies, to inspire courage among the soldiers and officers. Kipling described the British soldiers’ discipline with these words.
“But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
“An’ they done it, the Jollies—’Er Majesty’s Jollies—soldier an’ sailor too!”
From that disaster onward, every shipwreck has adhered to that unwritten protocol, “Man the lifeboats, woman, and children first.”
Sometimes it takes a story like this to sober us up and make us realize the true nature of our service. In the military, individual survival is not our goal. In fact, success in our mission may require us not to survive. Think of the thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who have sacrificed their lives in defending our nation. Were they failures? Were they suckers? No. We honor them as heroes.
This is something that mere careerists—who only seek personal gain and honor—have difficulty understanding. Jesus confronted this self-seeking attitude among His disciples. Two of them, James and John, had the idea that “getting to the top”—i.e. sitting at Jesus’ right and left hand—was the epitome of greatness. They were willing to use and step on others to achieve it (Mark 10:35–41).
Jesus attacked this ego-centric idea at its core. He proceeded to explain to them that leadership and greatness in the Kingdom of God consisted of selfless service. “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45).
This is success and greatness in heaven’s view—selflessly serving others—even to the point of death if the mission requires it.
Dear Father in heaven, I confess to You that I am selfish to the bone. All I care about are my own interests and pursuing my own dreams. Please save me from myself. Please root out of me all my selfishness and give me a caring heart that is considerate of others. Transform me, O God, into the image of Your holy Son, who came to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. Amen.
Information from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Birkenhead_(1845)
The History Guy, Birkenhead Disaster