Women and children first

THE AGE of chivalry is often defined by the quintessentially English Sir Walter Raleigh laying his cape before his Queen lest she should tread in a puddle. But Raleigh's actions pale into insignificance beside those of Lt-Col Alexander Seton, an imposing Scottish army officer who, in 20 terrifying minutes, demonstrated a level of selflessness, bravery, leadership and chivalry rarely witnessed before or since.

It is Lt-Col Seton and the men in his command who gave rise to the cry "women and children first", which many of them died fulfilling.A native of Mounie, near the village of Daviot, Aberdeenshire, Lt-Col Seton served with the 74th Highlanders and was described by Lord Aberdare, former Home Secretary and one-time president of the Royal Historical Society, as "one of the most gifted and accomplished men in the British Army". The lieutenant-colonel achieved his place in history by his actions on board the sinking troop ship HMS Birkenhead off the coast of South Africa in 1852.

The Birkenhead, an iron paddle ship, had sailed from the Cove of Cork in Ireland with 692 people on board, most of them soldiers, some with their wives and children, bound for action in the Frontier War against Kaffir and Hottentot tribesmen in the Cape of Good Hope. Lt-Col Seton was the senior officer on board, in charge of detachments from ten British regiments. The vessel was in the command of experienced Royal Naval Captain Robert Salmond.

The voyage included ports of call in South Africa where a majority of the women and children disembarked while others came on board. The trip had been unremarkable and the weather fair until 2am on 26 February when disaster struck off Cape Agulhas. A sickening crash shattered the silence as the vessel ploughed into an underwater reef not marked on the maps. Within minutes it had ripped open the Birkenhead's iron hull. Water poured in and more than 100 soldiers sleeping in the lower troop decks were drowned.

As terrified survivors scrambled on to the deck they were met with a scene of amazing calmness. Capt Salmond, dressed in his nightclothes, ordered the women and children to be taken up and carried to the lifeboats. Lt-Col Seton gathered his officers and told them, "Gentlemen would you please be kind enough to preserve order and silence amongst the men and ensure that any orders given by Capt Salmond are instantly obeyed?". Then the 6ft 3in, 38-year old stood by the gangway as the seven women and 13 children were put aboard a cutter, his sword drawn in case any men tried to jump aboard. None did.When the cutter was launched, and only 15 minutes after the collision, Lt-Col Seton ordered troops to line up on the poop deck, regiment by regiment. They stood to attention, staring silently into the night sky as the lifeboats sailed for the safety of the shore. Suddenly there was a horrific crash as rocks tore open the ship and it began to sink. Capt Salmond climbed the rigging and urged all who could swim to abandon ship. But Lt-Col Seton, his sword still drawn, raised his hands above his head and told his men, "You will swamp the cutter containing the women and children. I implore you not to do this thing and I ask you all to stand fast". Seconds later the Birkenhead broke her back, not a man disobeyed Lt-Col Seton's orders and they shook hands and said goodbye as the water closed in over their heads.

Exact numbers on the dead and survivors were difficult to come by, as the ship's logs were lost in the sinking. The Royal Navy considers Stand Fast, a book published in 1998 by David Bevan, to be the most authoritative on the subject. In the book it said 436 men died that night including Lt-Col Seton and Capt Salmond. The 207 who survived included every woman and child on board the doomed ship and the phrase "Birkenhead Drill" entered the language as the epitome of discipline in the face of adversity.

Although he never uttered the exact words "women and children first", Lt-Col Seton's determination to put disadvantaged passengers before soldiers and ship's crew changed maritime protocol forever. A history of the 74th Highlanders says the action on the Birkenhead "sheds more glory upon those who took part in it than a hundred well-fought battles".

Lt-Col Seton's place in Scottish military history was assured.

Back to the top of the page