HMS Birkenhead

The 450 soldiers who died quietly to save 193 women and children

The steam ship HMS Birkenhead struck a rock off the coast of South Africa in 1852. On board were over 600 troops and women and children and some horses. With the failure of two of the lifeboats, and everyone on deck ready to disembark, it was plain that not everyone one was going to make it.

The phrase “women and children first” was first uttered and became the mantra for all sea vessels since that are abandoning ship. As the women and children were a short distance off the ship, the Captain told the rest of the soldiers to swim for the ships. Knowing that all those men would capsize the boats thereby dooming all the women and children, the Colonel Seton of the 74th Highlanders told his men to stay in formation on the sinking ship. They quietly stood in formation watching the ship disintegrate around them as the women and children made their way to shore.

The ship broke apart spilling all the men into the water along with the horses they had on board. Seven of the eight horses made it to shore two miles away. Of the men thrown into the sea, only a handful made it to shore. The rest were eaten by sharks and drowned in the rough seas or died of hypothermia.

It takes uncommon courage to stand still in the face of death, deny your fears, and save the lives of others.

Men of the 74th Highlanders and the crew of the HMS Birkenhead: we salute your Valor.

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