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James and Mary Ford, eds. Every Day in the Year. 1902.

February 26

The Loss of the “Birkenhead”

By Sir Francis Hastings Doyle (1810–1888)

  • (Supposed to be told by a soldier who survived.)
  • An English troop steamer which was wrecked off the Cape of Good Hope on Feb. 26, 1852. The troops formed at the word of command and went down at their posts, having put the women and children in the boats. Over four hundred men were drowned.

  • RIGHT on our flank the crimson sun went down;

    The deep sea rolled around in dark repose;

    When, like the wild shriek from some captured town,

    A cry of women rose.

    The stout ship “Birkenhead” lay hard and fast,

    Caught without hope upon a hidden rock;

    Her timbers thrilled as nerves, when through them passed

    The spirit of that shock.

    And ever like base cowards, who leave their ranks

    In danger’s hour, before the rush of steel,

    Drifted away disorderly the planks

    From underneath her keel.

    So calm the air, so calm and still the flood,

    That low down in its blue translucent glass

    We saw the great fierce fish, that thirst for blood,

    Pass slowly, then repass.

    They tarried, the waves tarried for their prey!

    The sea turned one clear smile! Like things asleep

    Those dark shapes in the azure silence lay,

    As quiet as the deep.

    Then amidst oath, and prayer, and rush and wreck,

    Faint screams, faint questions waiting no reply,

    Our Colonel gave the word, and on the deck

    Formed us in line to die.

    To die!—’twas hard whilst the sleek ocean glowed

    Beneath a sky as fair as summer flowers:—

    “All to the boats!” cried one:—he was, thank God,

    No officer of ours!

    Our English hearts beat true:—we would not stir;

    That base appeal we heard but heeded not:

    On land, on sea, we had our Colours, sir,

    To keep without a spot!

    They shall not say in England, that we fought

    With shameful strength, unhonoured life to seek;

    Into mean safety, mean deserters, brought

    By trampling down the weak.

    So we made women with their children go,

    The oars ply back again, and yet again;

    Whilst, inch by inch, the drowning ship sank low,

    Still under steadfast men.

    —What follows, why recall?—The brave who died,

    Died without flinching in the bloody surf,

    They sleep as well beneath that purple tide,

    As others under turf;—

    They sleep as well! and, roused from their wild grave,

    Wearing their wounds like stars, shall rise again,

    Joint-heirs with Christ, because they bled to save

    His weak ones, not in vain.