Women and Children First, Part Two

Our first blog on “Women and Children First” elicited a fair amount of comment on various discussion sites.

A major part of the discussion centered on the Birkenhead disaster. The Birkenhead disaster is considered to be the first application, or even the invention, of the “Women and Children First” concept.

Wikipedia provides a fair amount of insight into the actual sequence of events. The disaster occurred in 1852, and the legacy of the disaster actually was what Rudyard Kipling called the Birkenhead drill in his poem “Soldier an’ Sailor too”

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you’ve cover to ‘and, an’ leave an’ likin’ to shout;
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An’ they done it, the Jollies — ‘Er Majesty’s Jollies — soldier an’ sailor too!
Their work was done when it ‘adn’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ‘eaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,
So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too

The Birkenhead was a well built ship, functioning as a troop carrier, and was fitted with 12 water tight compartments and various small craft. She was carrying about 630 to 645 souls, including the crew, the soldiers, at least one civilian, and a number of women and children. The vessel was on a coastal passage and struck an uncharted rock off South Africa, which immediately resulted in the drowning death of about 100 soldiers in their bunks when this compartment flooded. After that, various dubious remedial actions were taken, which resulted in further grounding and holing, and ultimately resulted in the vessel breaking in two.

Some of the vessel’s small craft with a capacity of as many as 300 people could not be launched, and only a few small boats were available. The women and children were ordered into these boats and that ultimately resulted in the survival of 7 women and 13 children, with, undoubtedly, a significant number of seamen to handle these boats.

Meanwhile the surviving soldiers had been mustered on deck and were given various orders and responded in an orderly fashion. At the final stage the soldiers were first ordered to swim for it, but then told to stand fast, because the commanding officer was afraid the soldiers would swim for the boats and swamp them. With very few exceptions the soldiers followed all orders.

Once the vessel truly started to sink and the boats were away, the soldiers were told to save themselves and in the end 113 soldiers, 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen, 7 women, 13 children and at least one male civilian survived.

Many clung to flotsam and made it to shore and undoubtedly many of the others simply drowned and were attacked by sharks. Also 40 survivors had clung to the rigging of the vessel and were saved the next day.

Remarkably, eight of the nine cavalry horses made it ashore too.

In summary, the sequence of events and the results are not all that different from a normally confused maritime disaster and, in many ways, the response by the officers is open to significant Monday morning quarterbacking and even fair criticism. However, despite all the embarrassments, one thing stood out; the soldiers never panicked!

And in an embarrassing situation it often helps to deflect criticism by spinning a positive point of view. Hence the Birkenhead drill.

And “Women and Children First”? That phrase apparently was not coined until 1860. While the Birkenhead women and children did go into the boats first, it simple was a reasonable order to give under the circumstances and was one component in a complex sequence that prevented whole scale panic. It should also be remembered that there may have been untold maritime disasters prior to the Birkenhead where, under the circumstances, it was decided to be optimal that women and children would abandon the vessel first.

Ironically, with only a slight variation, the Birkenhead also might have resulted in higher levels of casualties among women and children. The people in the lifeboats and the swimmers found that the nearby coast was very rocky and exposed and getting ashore turned out to be difficult. In the end they were picked up by a passing schooner. Quite possibly the women and children could have drowned trying to beach the boats, while the vessel itself managed to provide protection for the men that did not go into the lifeboats and instead hung onto the rigging. In that case the count would have been women and children 0, men 40 and we would have had to wait for a different disaster┬áto stand as the original example of “Women and Children First”.

Bottom line, once an emergency is well underway, it becomes quite unpredictable, and deeply subject to the roll of the dice.