he year of the publishing of this book marks the 150th anniversary of one of the noblest acts of heroism at sea in recorded history. Yet, apart from a few small commemorative gatherings, little was said or done to remind the world about the men whose actions would popularize the expression women and children first.
Once upon a time, every schoolboy in England and America knew the story of the H.M. Troopship Birkenhead. They knew, for example, that she was a symbol of all that is right and good about Christian manhood. They further knew that the troops aboard the sinking ship demonstrated to the world the meaning of discipline, duty, and charity.
But what the schoolboys of the nineteenth century did not know was that the behavior of the men aboard the Birkenhead would establish a maritime principle which would be embraced by another group of men during the most famous nautical disaster in history.
Comparisons between the story of the sinking of the H.M. Troopship Birkenhead and the R.M.S. Titanic are inevitable. Both ships were renowned for innovation and excellence. Both ships were captained by experienced sailors who likely took excessive risk with the boats to maintain a fast pace and minimize time at sea. Both ships had been suited with state-of-the-art watertight compartments of their day. Both ships sunk after 2:00 a.m. in the morning. In both cases, the final disaster involved a wrong decision by the leadership to reverse engines, a course of action that in the case of both boats foreclosed the possibility of survival.
However, the most notable comparison between the two tragedies is the hope offered to an entire generation because of the chivalrous behavior of the men. On both Birkenhead and Titanic, the men chose to place the lives of women and children first, freely giving up their own lifeboat seats for the weaker vessels whose well being was their duty to protect.
It was not only the fact that the men of the Birkenhead and the Titanic followed the code of women and children first that draws inevitable comparisons, but the graciousness and deliberation with which they performed their duty.
In the case of the paddle steamer Birkenhead, the Highlanders and the Royal Marines faithfully assembled on deck in military formation and sank with the ship, the vast majority of them giving their lives in the process. Kipling immortalized their valor by penning the following words:
So they stood an was still to the Birkenead Drill, soldier an sailor too!
Of the men assembling on the deck of the Titanic to bid farewell to their wives, author Wynn Craig Wade writes: This poetic vision was the perfect balm with which to salve the newfound terror of infinite chaos that the disaster had provoked in the civilized world. The image of men standing on deck, absolutely quiet as the band played this elegiac hymn, brought tears to all who envisioned it.
The London Standard compared the behavior of the men aboard the two ships by offering the following observation:
We are usually an undemonstrative people, but the incident of the string band of the Titanic, its members gathered together to play the hymn, Nearer My God To Thee, as the great ship settled for her last plunge, left many speechless with pity. It is a great incident of history worthy to rank with the last parade on the Birkenhead.
One might wonder, however, had it not been for the principle of women and children first so faithfully followed in 1852 and then engrained in the British national psyche, would the captain of the Titanic have ordered and been able to sustain submission to the same principle? After all, Titanics captain, E.J. Smith, was responsible for a primarily non-military crew and a passenger roster that was more than three times larger than that of the Birkenhead.
Regardless, it is clear that the men of the Birkenhead will go down in history as the individuals who set the maritime standard for appropriate conduct to women and children in the midst of a life-threatening crisis. And for that we can all be grateful.
R E T U R N T O R E A D A B L E S