Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A potpourri of Stanley Camp and Stanley Photographs



Prison officers Club (1945)

Stanley Village from the hill leading to the fort - a sketch map from 1/Mx war diary (UKNA)

Stanley Camp (1945)

Stanley Prison

Repulse Bay - on the way to Stanley

Stanley Military Cemetery

Maryknoll House 

Friday, 6 October 2017

HMS Birkenhead

The Honourable East India Company (HEIC) vessel Nemesis was built at John Laird's shipyard at Birkenhead. When she was launched in 1839, she was one of the first steam powered warships to be built. Although other paddle steamers were present on the China station during the First Opium War (1839-1842), Nemesis was the first iron hulled steamer to operate in eastern waters. She was a marvel of her time and played a very prominent role in the Anglo-Chinese War living up to her namesake, the  goddess of retribution and revenge.

HMS Birkenhead was also an iron hulled paddle steamer, and like Nemesis she was built at John Laird, and launched in 1845. She had been designed as a frigate, but by this time paddles were giving way to propellors, and Birkenhead was instead commissioned as a troopship. Seven years later, in February 1852 she sank off the coast of South Africa. Her sinking and the conduct of her officers and men and the soldiers she carried became something of a legend in Victorian England, depicted in paintings and poetry and from whence came the expression the "Birkenhead drill". 

The Birkenhead began her last tragic voyage in Portsmouth in January 1852. She was under the command of Captain Robert Salmond. The troops from various regiments were under the overall command of Lt-Col Alexander Seton. At the time of her sinking she was carrying approximately 643 men, women and children. The ship hit an unchartered submerged rock at night which holed her bows, broke bulkheads,  and caused flooding to the engine room and lower decks. A number soldiers were killed below decks many still in their hammocks, whilst others were able to make their way to the upper deck. The soldiers mustered on the deck, and some were ordered aft to help bring up the bows. Some of the soldiers were ordered to assist the crew in lowering the lifeboats, whilst others were detailed to man the pumps below decks. The order went out that women and children should go first. That, and the discipline of the soldiers, accepting their fate, and mustering whilst the ship went down to allow women and children to get away first became known as the "Birkenhead drill" and was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling. 

"But to stand an' be still
 the Birken'ead drill
 is a damn tough bullet to chew." 

The wreck of the Birkenhead by Thomas Hemy (1892)
Of the eight or nine boats only three were lowered. The others could not be lowered from the davits, or freed from the paddle top. All of the women and children and a number of the men were embarked on the three boats. They were later picked up by two schooners. The Birkenhead sank within twenty minutes of hitting the rock which is now called Birkenhead Rock in memory of all those who lost their lives, either by drowning or being killed by sharks.

A rendition that better depicts the sinking being at night 
The ship sank at around 0200 hours. The exact number of survivors is not known but thought to be between 194 and 205. These included 80 survivors who were able to get on the three life boats that were lowered.  When I first read about the loss of the Birkenhead I had the impression there were a number of women and children onboard. In fact there were only seven women and thirteen children aboard, suggesting there were sixty men on the lifeboats. We know the survivors included 113 Army all ranks, 6 Royal Marines and 54 Navy  all ranks.  It may be that a large portion of the men in the boats were made up of the 54 naval personnel who survived and who may have manned the oars on the lifeboats. The lifeboats also picked up men from the water. Around 445 men lost their lives in the  sinking which took place in shark infested and bitterly cold seas. It was like an early version of the Titanic which also sank on another clear and starry night without enough lifeboats for those onboard. 

The Wreck of the Birkenhead by Charles Dixon (1901)
As the ship went down, an order was given for the horses onboard to be cut loose and pushed over the ship's side in the hope they would be able to swim ashore. There were nine horse belonging to the Army officers. Of these one broke a leg on being pushed into the sea, and was thought to have been eaten by sharks, but the remainder managed to swim ashore and two of them were reunited with their owners who survived by swimming ashore.

The schooners Lioness and Seahorse arrived on the scene of the sinking at noon the following day. The Lioness picked up the survivors from the first two boats ( a cutter and a gig). They then found some forty survivors clinging to the wreckage of the main mast and rigging. The Lioness rescued some 116 people from the boats and from the wreckage in the water. The third boat (a cutter) managed to make the nearby shore. The Seahorse rescued some twenty survivors from the water. A whaleboat from nearby Dyer Island had joined the rescue effort and picked up some four survivors. Some survivors managed to swim the two miles to the shore.

The most senior Army officer to survive was Captain Wright of the 91st Regiment of Foot.  He testified as to the steadfastness and discipline of the men at the court martial convened on HMS Victory.
"The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be effected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service. Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking, instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion."
Colour Sgt John O'Neil also serving with the 91st Regiment was one of those who escaped death by swimming to that distant shore. In 1901, during a presentation on the occasion of his retirement, he commented about the sinking:
"I might be allowed to say a word or two about the memorable disaster, the wreck of the Birkenhead My share in that is soon told: simple obedience of orders, standing on deck slowly but surely sinking, whilst the women and children got safely away in the boats, then by God's providence and a long and perilous swim midst sharks, breakers and seaweeds, I managed to scramble ashore." 
Private Francis Ginn of the 43rd Light Infantry was an 18 year-old recruit. He stood muster with other soldiers on the deck, whilst the ship went down allowing others, and in particular the women and children to go first. He was a strong swimmer and when the ship went down he struck out for the shore. He swam through the night until in an exhausted state he was picked up by a Dutch fishing boat and brought ashore.

Cpl William Smith of 12th Regiment of Foot recalled the shock felt throughout the ship as the vessel collided with the rock. Distress rockets were fired.
"There was a panic for a short time but admirable discipline was maintained through the efforts of the officers. Good order was eventually restored. I believe twenty minutes had hardly elapsed before the vessel was in pieces. I was sleeping on the lower deck when the shock came and crowded up the ladder with others but found it difficult work. Some never came up at all but were drowned in their hammocks the water rushing in so suddenly. Most of the troops were fallen in on deck with the exception of some sixty men who were told to go below to man the chain pumps;  they never came up again but were all drowned like rats in a hole. After gaining the deck I went and assisted the crew in rigging the chain pumps I remained there, and I think it was about the hardest twenty minutes  work I ever did in my life. We all worked like Trojans. I remained below the whole time. I know very little about what happened on deck during this time. I think I was the only man that ever came up again from the pumps. "
An officer, Lt John Girardot, then told the men on the pumps it was no use, they could not control the flooding,  and they were ordered to go to the upper deck. Smith was one of those nearest the ladder. By the time he reached the upper deck it was already awash. The ship was going down so fast, sinking by the bows, her smokestack lying across the deck. He described there being insufficient time to get the other boats launched whereas some other accounts talk about jammed davits. Smith could not swim but he managed to cling to a broken spar and eventually made the shore. He described how the dark outline of the  mountains made the shore look closer than it was, and many of those that struck out towards the coast were unable to make the distance which he estimated at about two miles.

Richard Nesbitt was fourteen years old at the time. His father was Quartermaster of the 12th Suffolk Regiment.
"I have a very clear and distinct recollection of all that occurred.  I saved myself by making for and fastening on to one of the boats to which I clung for some time and was eventually pulled on board. We were afterwards picked up by the schooner Lioness and never shall I forget the great kindness of Captain and Mrs Ramsden to all the survivors - men, women and children.  I don't think half an hour could have elapsed from her striking until she broke up."
Cpl William Butler described the impact as being like a "clap off thunder" when the steamer hit the rock.
"The Captain and officers behaved splendidly; the former sang out, ‘Soldiers and sailors, keep quiet, and I will save you all ” There was calm after panic; we lowered the gangway, and pitched four guns and the horses overboard.  Captain Wright, of the 91st, jumped after his horse and got ashore with him.  The Captain ordered Mr. Brodie, to get the paddle box boats loose.  In doing so he got his thighs jammed.  When the vessel went down, the boat he had loosened remained in the water keel up. I saw four men get ashore on her, one man sitting on the keel with a big coat on, the three others paddling. Three on a spar also reached the shore, two men and a cabin boy; the boy sat on the spar, and the men paddled. I saw another get ashore on a truss of hay. As to the troops being paraded it is imagination. She was loaded to the funnel. The last words I heard the Captain say were “Soldiers and sailors, I’ve done what I can for you. I can't do more. Those who can swim do so; those who can’t climb the rigging.” Then it was a rush. I got hold of a bit of wreckage, on which it took me about seven hours to reach the shore where the survivors mustered in lots of six to ten who knew each other and walked in the direction of Simon's Bay, taking two days to reach the same."
Lt Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, survived the sinking. He later recalled being dragged down as the ship submerged. Somebody was hanging on to his leg but he managed to kick himself free.  He clung onto some driftwood and and paddled towards the shoreline. He recalled seeing many men killed by sharks. Some survivors tried to swim to the lifeboats but they pulled away in fear of being swamped by men in the water desperate to get aboard. Many spoke of the cries of those drowning and those being mauled by sharks. Captain Bond-Shelton was also dragged down when the ship sank, but he rose to the surface because he was wearing a Mackintosh life preserver. He struck out towards the shore and was swimming with two others who  at one stage screamed and were dragged under by a sharks.

On reaching the shore Bond-Shelton described the difficulty of getting through the masses of seaweed. He was reunited with his horse which he found at the water's edge.  For Private William Tuck who made it ashore, this was his second shipwreck. Thomas Cuffin was on the helm when the ship sank. He acted as coxswain of the second cutter and picked up 32 survivors from the water before rowing to the shore. As helmsman he had to give witness at the court martial in Portsmouth. The court martial proceedings  which were commonly conducted for a sinking or collision, were dropped because no senior naval officers had survived.

I suspect the story may have been embellished over time aided by those dramatic paintings. One of the survivor's account described the soldiers mustering in their uniform as being "imagination."  Thomas Cuffin, the helmsman, contacted Thomas Hemy, the artist, who painted the most famous rendition of the sinking in 1892 some forty years after the event. Cuffin told Hemy that he had seen the troops fall in line, at the orders of an officer in the form of a parade or mustering. So perhaps, it should not be too quickly dismissed. Some of the accounts talk of the initial panic, but all of the accounts confirm the calmness of the officers, and the subsequent discipline of the men.  There can be no doubt that courage was on display that tragic night in which so many lost their lives and the "Birkenhead drill" became an example and an aspiration.



Sources:

Survivors accounts from www.web.archive.org
"Nemesis - the first iron warship and her world"  Adrian Marshall (2016)
"China Station - the British military in the Middle Kingdom 1839-1997 Mark Felton (2013)