hen asked during the Washington, D.C. Senate Titanic hearings whether the doctrine of “women and children first was the law of the sea?”, Second Office Charles Lightoller responded, “it is the law of human nature.” Of course, there were no formal laws, maritime or otherwise, which required the implementation of such a policy in times of danger. Lightoller’s comments suggest that he, and others like him, believed the doctrine of “women and children first” to be a widely-held and fundamental principle of conduct. Further evidence that this principle was deeply imbedded in Western thought comes from an incident that took place more than half a century before the demise of Titanic.
In 1852, the British troopship Birkenhead sunk off the coast of South Africa. She carried the 78th Highlanders, their families, and the ship’s crew. Once it became clear that the boat was going to sink, the orders were given to remove the women and children first by placing them into the Birkenhead’s few lifeboats. Twenty minutes later, the boat sank.
Every one of the Highlanders and sailors aboard the Birkenhead died a grisly death in the shark-infested waters while their wives and children helplessly watched from the safety of the lifeboats. In the last minutes before the boat sank, these brave and self-sacrificing men lined up in military formation. Their band played the national air as the ship went down. Like the men of the Titanic, the British soldiers understood that in times of crisis, men must give their lives so that women and children may live.
The Birkenhead incident inspired the poet Rudyard Kipling, one of the 20th centuries most accomplished defenders of bold manhood, to pen the following verse:
So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill
Soldier and sailor too.
Doug Phillips is the president of CBMTS
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