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The Story of How "Women and Children First" Came to Be

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 22, 2023 3:01 am

The Story of How "Women and Children First" Came to Be

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 22, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, The History Guy remembers the Birkenhead Disaster and explains where the protocol "women and children first" was first used. 

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Send them to They're some of our favorites. Our next story comes to us from a man who's simply known as the History Guy.

His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages on YouTube. The History Guy is also a regular contributor for us here at Our American Stories. Today, the History Guy remembers the Birkenhead Bay of the Bay of the Bay of the Bay of the Bay. The History Guy remembers the Birkenhead disaster and explains where the protocol, Women and Children First, was first used. Hopefully you've never been in a shipwreck before, but if you did, you know the first rule of loading the lifeboats, women and children first.

But did you ever wonder where this protocol came from? Well that's a great question for the History Guy, and so today we're going to talk about an extraordinary story of bravery in the face of horrible circumstances in the Birkenhead disaster of 1852. The Birkenhead was an iron-hulled steam-driven paddle wheel troop ship of the British Army. Launched in 1845, she was a modern vessel, larger, more comfortable and faster than the typical wooden sail powered troop ships of her time. She had a top speed of 10 knots, able to make the trip from Britain to the Cape in just 37 days. She was safe too, her iron hull included 12 airtight compartments separated by strong bulkheads. 210 feet long with a 37 foot beam, she had a crew complement of 125 and room for more than 500 passengers.

In January of 1852, the Birkenhead left Portsmouth with troops from 10 different regiments on board. Headed for South Africa where the troops were desperately needed as reinforcements in one of the many South Africa border wars. She had several women and children on board, families of the officers.

On the trip, three babies were born. She sailed through a strong Atlantic winter storm, and yet her passage was the fastest of any troop ship to date, the urgency of getting reinforcements to the frontier. On February 23rd, she left Simons Town at about 6 p.m., headed for Algora Bay and Port Elizabeth, around the Cape. She had some 643 men, women, and children on board. She was in a hurry, so she hugged the coast and steamed at full speed.

In calm seas and clear skies, she was making eight and a half knots. Shortly before 2 a.m., the Birkenhead struck a submerged rock off aptly named Danger Point near Gansbaai, South Africa. Ironically, the barely submerged rock was easily visible in rough seas, but not readily apparent in calm conditions.

Ensign G.A. Lucas of the 74th Foot, just 20 years old at the time, later wrote, I was awakened by three distinct shocks. I stood up. Immediately it struck me that we were stuck on a rock. There was a gash in the hole. Seawater rushed in. At least a hundred soldiers were immediately drowned, trapped sleeping in their bunks. Ship captain Robert Salmon rushed on deck, shouting orders in a clear and firm voice. He ordered the lifeboats on the quarter deck lowered. The women and children were placed in the ship's cutter, a small boat.

The stress rockets were fired, but there were no vessels nearby to see. 60 men were detailed to go below and operate the chain pumps to pump water out of the hull, and 60 more were meant to man the tackle on the two large lifeboats, each able to carry 150 people. But when they pulled on the tackle to lift the lifeboats, the ropes broke. The equipment hadn't been maintained, the ropes were rotten, and the 150 person boats were so heavy they could not be lifted on their own. Because of the tilt, several other lifeboats couldn't be lowered, and the Birkenhead only had three operable lifeboats, the cutter and two other small boats.

Not nearly enough for everyone on board. The ranking officer on board, Lieutenant Colonel Seton of the 74th foot, arranged the remaining soldiers to stand in ranks on the poop deck, using their weight to lift the bow of the ship. In the pitch-black emergency, the men maintained their discipline. Captain Salmon ordered the engines in reverse, thinking he could pull off the rocks. It was a mistake. She struck again on the stern and tore another gash. It flooded the engine room and killed the boilers. The men sent below to man the pumps were instantly drowned. As the ship broke in half, Salmon ordered the horses thrown overboard in the hopes that they could swim for shore. Eight of the nine made it. Then Salmon gave a final order. All the men who could swim should jump off and swim for the lifeboats. But that's where the story takes its extraordinary turn. Colonel Seton realized that all the men swimming were way too much for the small lifeboats at sea, and so he shouted to his men, the cutter with the women and children, it will be swamped.

I implore you not to do this thing. I ask that you stand fast. And so they did. They stood bravely at attention as the ship broke up around them in what became known as the Birkenhead Drill. One of the few officers to survive the disaster, Captain Edward Wright of the 91st Regiment, wrote of that moment.

Everyone did as was directed and there was not a murmur or cry among them. All received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom. Poet Rudyard Kipling immortalized the moment in his poem, Soldier and Sailor Two.

But to stand and hold still to the Birkenhead Drill is a damned tough bullet to chew. But they did it, the jollies, Her Majesty's jollies, Soldier and Sailor Two. The Birkenhead sunk within 25 minutes of striking the first rock. Many were sucked down with the ship and many more were horribly taken by the great white sharks, which are prolific off of danger point. The next day the schooner lioness discovered the cutter with the women and children and rescued everyone who had been in lifeboats. They returned to the scene of the wreck and found 40 more survivors still clinging to the wreckage.

About another hundred had managed to make it to shore. Out of 638 on the Birkenhead, 193 survived, including all of the women and children. The conduct of the soldiers aboard the Birkenhead became known as a model for discipline and self-sacrifice.

It so impressed the Emperor of Prussia, Frederick William IV, that he had an account of the conduct aboard the Birkenhead read out to every regiment in his army. There are several monuments to the victims of the Birkenhead, both in England and in South Africa, and the people of Gansbaai, South Africa still hold a memorial every year. A memorial to remember people who deserve to be remembered because of their sacrifice for others. And a terrific job as always by our own Greg Hengler on the production and editing. And a special thanks as always to the History Guy. The story of where the protocol women and children first was first used here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

But we can't do it without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love our stories in America like we do, please go to and click the donate button.

Give a little, give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming. That's I'm Jonathan Strickland, host of the podcast tech stuff. I sat down with Sunan Shahani of Surf Air Mobility, which recently went public. We talked about flying in electric planes and regional air mobility. The future of travel doesn't have to include crowded airports, cramped seats, or long road trips. It can be as simple as using an app to book a short-range flight on an electric plane. Learn more on tech stuff on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-10-03 11:33:35 / 2023-10-03 11:38:48 / 5

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