The Birkenhead was a steam frigate launched 30 December 1845. She was wrecked while transporting troops to Algoa Bay on 26 Feb 1852. Due to a lack of lifeboats, only 193 of the estimated 643 people on board survived.
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!
SAGS 1834-53 (Serjt. B. Kilkeary. 73rd Regt.);
Mutiny (0) (Pay Mr. Serjt. B. Kilkeary, 73rd Regt.);
MSM Ed VII (Serjt: B. Kilkeary, R.A.)
Bernard Kilkeary was born at Parsontown, King’s County, Ireland, in 1827 and entered the 73rd Regiment at an early age. A Sergeant-Major by the time of the Birkenhead disaster on 28 February 1852, he was prominent for his courageous actions in charge of a cutter, and left the following account of his experiences:
‘There were, besides the troops, some half-dozen Marines for the four guns which the frigate carried, and a crew of about 120. When I stepped on board the vessel in January, 1852, I little thought that she would never again sail over British waters. Colonel Seton, 74th Highlanders, who commanded the drafts, amounting to about 500 men, appointed me at Cork Sergeant-Major for the voyage, and all went well until that memorable morning in February when the ship struck the reef off Cape Agulhas.
‘Immediately upon impact I went on deck, where, meeting Colonel Seton, I received from him a last command to disembark the women and children into a quarter-boat, and take charge of the occupants. In this work I was ably seconded by Cornet Bond, of the 12th Lancers (now Captain Bond-Shelton), to whose indefatigable exertions many of the children owed their deliverance from the vessel. He himself was saved by swimming to the shore, two miles or so off.
‘Before leaving I heard Captain Salmond tell Colonel Seton there was no danger, and it was my intention to have landed the women and children on shore and returned on board ship; but we had scarcely pulled away 200 yards when suddenly, and in our full view, the Birkenhead listed and sank, carrying down her living freight. A very heavy sea was running at the time, and we decided to stand out to sea, where, after being tossed about for twelve hours, we were picked up by the schooner Lioness, of Cape Town. On getting aboard the Lioness I suggested to her captain that our quarter-boat and one of his boats should proceed to the scene of the wreck. This he gladly assented to, and it resulted in the rescue of some forty or fifty men who were found clinging to the rigging. These were also brought on board the Lioness, whose captain treated us all with the greatest kindness.
‘On the next day the Lioness met the Rhadamanthus, and signalled, "Troops on board from the wreck of the Birkenhead,” whereupon the Rhadamanthus took the schooner in tow, and brought us to Simon's Bay. At Simon's Bay we were transferred on board the guardship Castor, while the Rhadamanthus proceeded down to the vicinity of the wreck and found and brought to Simon's Bay those survivors who had succeeded in getting ashore. At Simon's Bay I compiled the official narrative of the sad occurrence for the military authorities at the Cape.’
This ‘official narrative’ was in fact the roll compiled by Kilkeary on arriving at Simon’s Bay, from which place it was forwarded with a covering letter by Major Wright, the senior surviving officer - ‘I conferred with the survivors of rank of each detachment, and ascertained the strength of each at the time of sailing and the then effective strength, and from this data I compiled an alphabetical roll of the drowned.’
Of the courage of his commanding officer, Colonel Seton, Kilkeary recalled: ‘On the occasion of the wreck of the Birkenhead all ranks, officers and men, acted nobly, each doing his duty to his country and his Queen; the coolest and most heroic, if I must differentiate, being Colonel Seton, commanding the troops, who from the impact was on deck in full regimentals, giving his orders as if on parade, at the last dying like a hero at the post of duty. He set a very inspiring example, conducing to that perfect discipline never surpassed in the annals of our Army.’
Kilkeary went on to participate in the Xhosa War operations of 1852-53, including the expedition across the Orange River to the mountains of Basutoland, where he fought in the battle of Berea. The 73rd Foot was sent to India in 1858 and after further active service in Central India under Sir Hugh Rose, during which campaign he held the responsible post of Paymaster-Sergeant, Kilkeary left the colours after 12 years and 201 days service. He afterwards served for 20 years in the Auxiliary Forces, latterly as a Pay Master Sergeant in the Mid-Ulster Artillery. He was 75 years old and living in retirement at Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, at the time of submitting his account of the Birkenhead disaster to the authors of A Deathless Story in 1902.
Later still, in August 1905, as recounted in A Deathless Story, Kilkeary was awarded his Meritorious Service Medal with a very welcome £10 Annuity:
‘The long and honourable career of this military veteran certainly called for some form of special recognition, and it was a source of satisfaction to all who knew him when, in 1905, he was selected as a recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal, which carries with it an annuity of £10. The medal was presented to Mr. Kilkeary in the King's name at an interesting parade on August 14th of the year mentioned, when the permanent staff of the Mid-Ulster Royal Garrison Artillery formed up in review order in the quadrangle of the quarters at Castle Hill, Dungannon, and Warrant-Officer Phil Donohoe, R.A., having brought the parade to attention, Captain E. W. M. Walker, R.A., the Adjutant, proceeded with the presentation ceremony, which he said had happily fallen to him to perform before leaving Dungannon.
“He holds, as you know, a most honourable record,” observed the Adjutant of Mr. Kilkeary. “In fact, the medal has never been bestowed in a more deserving case. As you are aware, his military record has extended over thirty-two years, twelve of these being with the Colours - the 73rd Regiment - and the remainder here on the Permanent Staff, as well as upon the staff of the Leinster Regiment. Besides seeing active service in South Africa and in the Indian Mutiny, he was present at the wreck of the Birkenhead. Doubtless this distinction would have been granted to him many years ago had he not thought right to wait so long-so patiently - before making application.”
Captain Walker hoped in concluding that the owner of the medal would live many years to wear it, a sentiment in which doubtless all heartily joined. Mr. Kilkeary acknowledged the presentation in a well and modestly worded little speech:
‘I beg to return my grateful and dutiful thanks to his most gracious Majesty the King for the signal honour which he has been pleased, through your medium, to confer upon me. To you, sir, I also respectfully tender my sincere acknowledgements. It is particularly gratifying to me to receive this medal standing in close proximity to Warrant-Officer Donohoe and the members of the Permanent Staff Mid-Ulster Royal Garrison Artillery - a regiment in which I served many years, and whose officers, non-commissioned officers, and men have at all times upheld the best traditions of the British Army. Believe me, this ceremonial, the recollection of which will never fade from my memory, will be deeply appreciated by the Royal Highlanders, that distinguished regiment in which I commenced my Military career.” ‘
Thank you for a most interesting series of posts. That is a wonderful group of medals and a great story to go with it.
Coincidentally, earlier on this Sunday morning I read a newspaper account of the bell of the SS Mendi, the fate of which is currently being decided in Britain. Over 600 men of the South African Native Labour Corps were lost when the Mendi sank in the English Channel during WW1. They too went down like like the men on the Birkenhead and Kipling's poem might have been written for them as well.
The following user(s) said Thank You: djb, David Grant, Rory