'Women and Children first!' a lost tale of Empire and Heroism


By Alf Wilkinson, published 10th October 2012

In January 1852, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond, HMS Birkenhead left Portsmouth carrying troops and officers' wives and families from ten different regiments. Most were from the 73rd Regiment of Foot, and were on their way to South Africa to fight the Xhosa in the 8th Kaffir War (1850-1853), where the Xhosa were fighting the British in an attempt to regain control of land taken away from them in the Eastern Cape by British and Boer settlers. On 5 January she picked up more soldiers at Queenstown (now Cobh, Ireland). The vast majority of the troops were new recruits, although some were seasoned veterans returning to their regiments. On 23 February 1852, after an uneventful voyage, HMS Birkenhead arrived at Simonstown, near Cape Town. Most of the women and children disembarked. Some sick soldiers were also put ashore for treatment. Nine cavalry horses were loaded for the last leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay.

On 25 February, the Birkenhead steamed out of Cape Town, with about 643 men, women and children on board. Nobody knows the exact number as all the muster rolls and log books were lost. Some had just joined the ship. Captain Salmond had been given orders to use all possible...

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