The Wrecking Of The Birkenhead
The year is 1852 and in the south of Ireland a troop ship in the service of the Empire of Great Britain is making ready to set sail. The innovative ship had earlier set out from the Royal Navy base at Portsmouth, England, with army troops on board and is visiting Ireland to pick up a number of additional soldiers. She is one of the new iron hulled vessels with three tall masts on which to drape the huge cotton canvas sails that harvest and harness the winds sent to blow mercilessly out on the seven seas. But as dawn breaks on this cold early January morning, she steadily eases her way out of the Irish harbour of Queenstown 'neath a hot billowing grey plume, a meld of black smoke and whooshing white steam. Her Majesty's Ship Birkenhead, you see, is also equipped with a pair of powerful palpitating steam engines providing the driving force to turn two mammoth thrashing paddle wheels mounted amidships, one to port and one to starboard, and so propelling the heavy ship through the water.
Far away from the Isles of Britannia, away in the southern part of Africa, a series of bloody wars have been taking place between the Xhosa Kingdom of people and the European settlers there. Wars that Great Britain has been heavily involved in since 1779. These are known as the Kaffir Wars. There have already been seven Kaffir Wars by the time the Birkenhead embarks on her Atlantic voyage. However, in December 1850, an eighth conflict had broken out between the British and the Xhosa peoples. One year into this eighth war 480 British troops are ordered to the African continent as reinforcements to complement the existing forces there.
The new iron hulled ships are much more comfortable to travel in than were the wooden hulled vessels which preceded them. The Birkenhead is now just six years old with her compliment of 125 men. Along with the troops and the ship's crew, on board are 26 women and children. As is the military custom, some army officers are allowed to have their wives and children accompany them on a long campaign. So, it was then that around 640 men, women, and children headed southward destined for Algoa Bay, South Africa, with a journey time of some 52 days.
Geographically Birkenhead is a town on the south bank of the mighty English River Mersey, lying opposite the better-known city of Liverpool, and the Birkenhead of 1852 is situated in the English county of Cheshire. The town has good access to the Irish sea and it is here that the famous shipbuilding firm of John Laird was established in the 1820's. The company are expert in the construction of iron hulled ships and were responsible for the creation of HMS Birkenhead. She had originally been commissioned by the Royal Navy under the proposed name of HMS Vulcan, the Roman god of fire ~ and also of metalworking, but the name was subsequently changed, prior to launching, in order to honour the town of her birth. Nevertheless, she still carries, as her handsome figurehead, a large carved likeness of Vulcan, hammer in hand, proudly guiding her over Neptune's waves.
The weather is fair for the time and season of the year as the Birkenhead powers her way sou'-sou'-west through the heavy Atlantic waters. Once, well underway, she goes under sail, not requiring the use of the steam engines which are now at rest. The Isles of Scilly and the south western tip of England are way, way, to her east. As the days go by the lands of Spain and Portugal lie distant to port and the Pillars of Hercules, the unofficial mouth of the Mediterranean sea where the wild Atlantic Ocean greets the Med, are left behind. As the ship makes headway off Africa the weather becomes fairer still and the air becomes much warmer for those on deck. Turning south-east and skirting the Gulf of Guinea the captain is well aware that the voyage is halfway completed.
Now a short stop is scheduled to be made at Simonstown, lying in False Bay on the east coast of South Africa, thus on February 23rd. the ship docks there to put off some of the women and children and to take on a large amount of coal as fuel for the remainder of the journey. More soldiers are taken on board along with several officers and their horses. It is quite usual for cavalry officers of this period to purchase and personally own their animals. One of these officers is Ralph Macgeugh Bond who is a young cornet of just nineteen years of age. He is from a wealthy family out of County Armagh, in the northern part of Ireland and has just recently purchased his commission. He is an officer of the lowest army ranking, a cornet, and his family has lately paid 850 English pounds for that privilege.
It is the early evening of February 25th. as the Birkenhead imposingly paddles and splashes her way out of False Bay and is out at sea once more on the final leg of her long journey. Captain Robert Salmond is the Royal Navy Master of the ship. In order to make better time he decides to hug the coastline, under steam, sailing at an established safe distance of around 3 miles out. Darkness falls now, although the night continues to remain calm and clear, as she steams to her east towards Algoa Bay.
As the vessel fares on at a speed of 8 knots and in a good 12 fathoms of ocean, she is approaching waters which are known as Danger Point. Then, at 2 am on the morning of February 26th., an almighty crash is heard and felt as the Birkenhead hits an uncharted, barely submerged, rock. The mighty ocean floods into her ruptured belly and no power in heaven or on the earth is able to prevent her from foundering.
The ship was never, from the outset, provided with sufficient boats to take off, should there be an emergency, all of the souls who travelled with her and so it is that the soldiers of the 12th. Lancers, and the other regiments, stand fast on deck as the boats are loaded with, first the women and children, and then as many of the others, non-swimmers and the like, as are able to hurriedly scramble into them.
The terrified, hysterical horses are then untethered and driven off the decking, over the devil board, and straight into the deep blue sea rather than allow them to go down with the ship. At least all or some of them may make shore, their large air-filled lungs keeping them afloat and their powerful kicking legs propelling them into strong swimmers. As the Birkenhead eerily creaks and groans, as she finally and inevitably slips below the Atlantic waves, all those who now remain on board take to the water also and head out for the distant shore of Africa, a perilous and exhausting journey through the shark infested greyness of the remainder of the night.
Cornet Ralph Bond, a young and athletic fine figure of a man has, at long last, managed to haul himself wearily ashore. Following a horrendous, frightening, swim he finds himself rewarded with the blessèd safety of dry land. He is so tired that he has no time to give thanks to anyone who may be listening. He simply collapses in the warm, soft, silky, sand and sleeps. He sleeps and sleeps. He sleeps for, who knows how long ~ maybe days? Perhaps he dreamed of his family back home in Ireland, now so far away. Perhaps his dreams were nightmares of the horror of the fate of HMS Birkenhead. Mayhaps he dreamed of his beloved horse, his loyal companion and the one that makes him so proud to be a British cavalryman. As he eventually stirs and his salty stinging eyes ever so slowly open, he feels a warm breath of air drift across his face, the gentle kiss of life that has awakened him from the deepest sleep he has ever, ever, slept.
The 'Birkenhead' sails at early light
And slips the moorings of the night.
She slowly clears the harbour side
And steals out on the morning tide.
She steams away and on to war
Far beyond the Irish shore.
Through the briny deep she braves
The treacherous Atlantic waves.
Her cargo, soldiers of the Queen
Sailing to the unforeseen,
Wives and children down below ~
Horses too, allowed to go.
As Africa appears in view
Unbeknown to men and crew
Below the waves a hidden ill
In the early morning still.
A mighty crash confounds the air
The stricken ship must founder there.
They launch the horses in the deep ~
A mighty splash, a mighty leap.
As Cornet Bond off-loads his horse
He hopes she makes the shore, of course,
He lades the ladies in the boats
As well away the convoy floats.
The soldiers on the decking stay
For in the boats, no room for they,
So, when the rest are safely gone
They, in the water everyone.
And Cornet Bond? Three miles he swims
And reaches shore with aching limbs.
Exhausted, scrambling onto land
He falls asleep there in the sand.
The hours pass and twilight calls
The daylight leaves as evening falls.
And in the cooling dusky blur
The rested soldier starts to stir.
A warming wisp flows past his face,
A breath of comfort to embrace.
And when his eyes he opens wide
His horse is standing by his side.