On this day in 1852, one of the worst naval disasters in modern history occurred in the shark infested waters of the South Atlantic. The British troopship Birkenhead struck a rock shelf just off the coast of South Africa. The decrepit wood-hulled vessel carried the famed regiment of the 78th Highlanders--Scottish warriors who had distinguished themselves in every imperial scrap from the Napoleonic Wars to the Crimean Conflict. Also aboard were their wives and children—and of course, the ship’s crew.
It was almost immediately evident that the foundering ship was going to sink. Unfortunately, there were very few lifeboats aboard. Nevertheless, calm prevailed. Orders were given to remove the women and children first by placing them into the few precious lifeboat seats—there was just enough room for them. Within twenty minutes later the boat sank.
Not one woman or child was lost; not one man was saved. To make matters worse, the Highlanders and the crew of the Birkenhead had to endure grisly deaths--the sharks began circling even as the ship began to list. Their wives and children were forced to watch helplessly from the safety of the lifeboats.
Amazingly, in the last few moments before the boat dipped beneath the waves these brave and self-sacrificing men lined up in perfect military formation. Their piper band played the national air as the ship went down. Like the men of the Titanic a half a century later, the Scottish stalwarts aboard the Birkenhead willingly exercised that age-old Christian virtue of Chivalry—that in times of crisis men must give their lives that women and children may live.
The Birkenhead incident inspired poet Rudyard Kipling, one of the 20th century’s most accomplished defenders of bold manhood, to pen his famous memorial verse, “So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill; Soldier and sailor too.” And thus, the phrase Birken’ead Drill came to be synonymous with courage, valor, and self-sacrificing chivalry.