The Birkenhead Drill

Steve Budd submitted this wonderfully researched devotional.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” John 15:13 (KJ version).

Portsmouth, January 1852. The troopship HMS Birkenhead, 210 feet long and steam driven, moved smoothly out of port; on and below decks were men of ten different regiments, together with 25 wives and 31 children, family members of some of the accompanying soldiers.

The troops were bound for South Africa, to participate in the eighth war then being conducted on the continent against the Xhosa. Ship’s Captain, Robert Salmond, tasked with delivering the troops, made a couple of brief stops en route to take on further servicemen, boosting their number to 693, before setting sail for Algoa Bay.

The South African coastline was already notorious as a ship’s graveyard by the time Captain Salmond elected to plot a course which would keep him relatively close to shore. His decision was founded in a desire to make best speed in that leg of the journey and as HMS Birkenhead slipped out of Simon’s Bay at 6.00pm on 25 February, the calm sea seemed to endorse Salmond’s reasoning.

The bow of the ship cut through the peaceful water as the rhythmic pulse of the engines beat out a steady hum from deep in the hull. The crew on watch went smoothly about their duties as hundreds slept in their bunks. By 2.00am on 26 February, the vessel was still making good progress at 8.5 knots. Directly ahead, hidden under several feet of water, an uncharted submerged rock was waiting. Ironically, had the weather been inclement and the surface of the ocean undulating, it likely would have been seen by the lookouts but the flat sea, in a cruel twist of circumstance, hid it from view. The die was cast…

Precautionary depth soundings were being taken at regular intervals but moments after the depth shrank suddenly to two fathoms (about 12 feet) beneath the bow she struck the rock violently and halted to the horrendous screeching of tortured metal.

It’s night; the early hours, the time when people are at their lowest ebb. The ship is several miles from shore and the sea is filled with sharks, all of which are capable of sensing the impact from scores of miles away and would undoubtedly have turned inquisitively to investigate the sound of the rending sheet metal.

Catapulted from their berths by the sudden deceleration, hundreds of men, women and children struggle to wake and comprehend what has happened. Salmond went immediately on deck and shouted for the anchor to be dropped while the quarter boats were put down into the sea. His next order directed the engine room to reverse and take them off the rock. It was a catastrophic error. As they backed away the gaping hole torn under the ship let in water at a ferocious rate and HMS Birkenhead impacted the rock a second and fatal time.

With the outer hull breached, the rock delivered a repeat blow, rupturing the forward bulkheads and bilge. Sea water spread through the vessel at such a rate that more than a 100 men were soon trapped and drowned below decks. From this nightmare (still only minutes old), poured the survivors up onto the top deck. The majority of the soldiers and officers on board were young and inexperienced, relatively recent entrants into the armed services. Despite this they fell into an orderly muster on deck to await orders as Lt Colonel Seton took command of the remaining troops.

All thoughts turned to escape as the fate of the ship unfolded with alarming speed. All the lifeboats, bar three, were either unusable due to paint on the winches or poor maintenance, including the two largest lifeboats (each with a capacity of 150 men) or were swamped on launch. The situation was clearly desperate. The cry went up “Women and children first!”. Quite who it was that actually issued the directive is not known for certain but it was an order that had never previously been given on board any ship or even thought necessary.

So it was that the women and children were given precedence and duly loaded into the little boats, the remaining places being allotted in what the armed forces have always termed ‘Funeral order’ – the youngest, according to birth date first, until the limited spaces had gone. What followed in the wake of this was truly remarkable. As HMS Birkenhead settled in the water, the lifeboats were rowed away to avoid being pulled down by the suction that would be created when she sank. The hundreds of men that remained on board were brought to attention. Some still alive, had wives and children on board the lifeboats. There was no time to say goodbye.

Salmond cried out, as the ship broke up, that all those who could swim should take to the water and make for the boats. Colonel Seton however, knew that this would spell doom for the women and children and in a clear voice he calmly ordered the men to stand fast and not to strike out for the lifeboats that would otherwise have been quickly overwhelmed. Only three disobeyed. The cavalry horses, brought up from below decks, were cut loose in the hope that they might swim to shore.

As HMS Birkenhead slipped below the surface, the men plunged into the sea and obediently trod water as the three little lifeboats made for shore between two and three miles away. History doesn’t reveal how many drowned immediately because they were unable to swim or how many were set upon by sharks or how long the remainder lived until cold and fatigue dulled their muscles and they exhaled for the last time as they slid into the depths. A tiny handful miraculously succeeded in avoiding the sharks and swam to shore.

History however, does record that their incredible discipline and self sacrifice resulted in 116 men, women and children surviving the disaster, while 438 men perished. Whether any of the horses made landfall isn’t known.

The incident perfectly encapsulates the Bible passage that heads this account – John 15:13 “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Christ demonstrated this principal of self sacrifice, when he gave Himself up to the cross at Calvary for the sins of mankind. The Word of God enshrines that spirit of self sacrifice as the greatest demonstration of love for another. The men, who together, created the ‘The Birkenhead Drill’, each accepted the certainty of their individual deaths, in exchange for the knowledge that others would live on through the ultimate human expression of love. Men indeed.

The principal of saving ‘women and children first’ was later adopted as the standard maritime emergency procedure around the world. It has become known globally as ‘The Birkenhead Drill’. The King of Prussia (who later became the first Emperor of Germany) directed that the example of self sacrifice aboard HMS Birkenhead be posted in every barracks in his army. Rudyard Kipling was inspired to write a poem about it, entitled ‘Soldier an’ Sailor Too’:

“To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,

Is nothing so bad when you’ve cover to ‘and, an’ leave an’ liking’ to shout;

But to stand an’ be still to the Birkenhead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,

An’ they did it, the Jollies – ‘Er Majesty’s Jollies – soldier an’ sailor too!

Their work was done when it ‘hadn’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;

Their choice it was plain between drowning’ in ‘heaps an’ bien’ mopped by the screw,

So they stood an’ were still to the Birkenhead drill, soldier an’ sailor too!”

Could you…if you had to…stand still…to the Bikenhead Drill? Christ did…


…and this is where my original narrative ended. The tale of the Birkenhead’s demise was indeed told but a gentle nagging doubt questioned whether the spiritual content was itself complete. I sent the piece over to Jon who offered some typically succinct and apposite guidance on how I should approach the spiritual aspect and bring the various threads together.

Initially I was stumped and try as I might, I couldn’t translate Jon’s advice into a suitable conclusion. It seemed the ‘fog’ masking what I needed to say thickened the harder I tried to clear the block. I confess I didn’t, on this occasion, pray on it but had a sense that I should instead simply let go and stop trying. Eventually, I had a picture in my mind of the Birkenhead settling low in the sea as the men left on board moved into the water and the words God intended me to convey fell smoothly into place.

It was at this point in the story when two tragedies collided to reveal not simply an essential truth but the essential truth behind the deaths of the men who stood and were still to the Birkenhead Drill…

…some; a percentage who entered the sea, were undoubtedly believers in Christ, had accepted Him as Lord and Saviour and repented of their sins and at that moment, at the very end of their lives, several miles off the coast of South Africa, were saved by their faith and received beyond death into our Lord’s eternal loving care and delivered into eternal life.

The first tragedy played out with the overall loss of life that unfolded as the Birkenhead disappeared beneath the waves. The second and most telling tragedy however, lay in those who, incredibly brave as they undoubtedly were, had not accepted Christ and were thus truly and eternally lost in both body and soul and this is the nub – we’re all travelling through life on our own individual ‘Birkenhead’, never knowing when that submerged rock will bring an end to the journey. The life boat that waits to carry you safely away is acceptance of Christ Jesus and the repentance of sin. Receive Him into your life with a glad heart and you need fear the rock no longer.