Home   Bury St Edmunds   News   Article

Subscribe Now

Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor looks at the tragic shipwreck of HMS Birkenhead which claimed the lives of dozens of Suffolk soldiers but which spawned the phrase ‘women and children first’

Fifty five names, all privates, followed by ‘Erected by the officers past and present, NCOs and men of (12th) The Suffolk Regiment’. No officers are listed.

As they steamed out of Simons Bay near Cape Town, the last port of call for the Birkenhead was to be Port Elizabeth, where these soldiers and others from 10 different regiments were to disembark to fight in the Eighth Xhosa War.

The HMS Birkenhead memorial in St Mary's Church, Bury
The HMS Birkenhead memorial in St Mary's Church, Bury

As the ship, a steam frigate, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, barely 40 miles from Cape Town it struck an uncharted rock. Maybe its captain, Robert Salmond, was sailing too close to the shore; suffice to say the ship started sinking quickly, eventually breaking in two. He gave the order for those who could to save their lives.

However Colonel Seton, officer in charge of the troops, made it clear that if they rushed to the only lifeboats that could be launched the women and children on board would be lost. The men, some in a state of undress, lined up to attention as the lifeboats with the women and children left the stricken ship. No one broke ranks.

As the ship sank, the cavalry horses were released hopefully to swim to shore, as did some of the men, but many men suffered the horrible fate of being eaten alive by sharks or by drowning.

Of the 643 people on board, only 193 survived.

At a subsequent inquiry no blame could be attached to anyone as all senior officers on board perished. Whether the order ‘women and children first’ was ever issued is unknown, but today it is recognised as The Birkenhead Drill, though it has no basis under maritime law. In Cape Town naval museum there are many poignant mementos that have been brought up from the wreck including cap badges. It is now listed as a war grave.

Martyn Taylor
Martyn Taylor

-- Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Bury St Edmunds Through Time Revisited, is widely available.