HC Deb 18 July 1856 vol 143 cc1038-40

said, that not seeing the First Lord of the Treasury in his place, he would beg to ask the right hon. Baronet the Secretary of State for the Home Department, whether Her Majesty's Government would take into consideration the propriety of erecting, in the chapel of Chelsea Hospital, or elsewhere, some permanent memorial of the gallant and self-devoted conduct of the officers and men lost in Her Majesty's ship Birkenhead on the 25th day of February, 1852. He might be asked why he raised such a question at a period so long after the event to which it referred. His answer was, that it was not an unfitting time for us, now that the war was happily terminated and we all evinced our gratitude to the army which fought and suffered for us in the Crimea, to recognise services which, though of a peaceful character, were universally admitted to be as brilliant and distinguished as any recorded in our country's annals. The circumstances connected with the loss of the Birkenhead must be so fresh in the memory of all that it would be unnecessary for him to make any but the most passing allusion to them. The Birkenhead, a large troop-ship, was employed in carrying to the Cape of Good Hope the draughts of various regiments to the number of 600 men, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Seaton, and she sailed from Queenstown in the month of January, 1852. She arrived at Cape Town at the end of February, and left shortly afterwards for Algoa Bay. On the 25th of February the disaster occurred which called forth that display of gallantry and self-devotion to which he wished briefly to advert. There were on board the Birkenhead, when the melancholy catastrophe occurred, in addition to the soldiers, a number of women and children and sick persons. What he wished to call attention to was the calm heroism, the stern adherence to duty, the magnanimous disregard of life shown by those brave men, while the vessel was going to pieces under their feet. The only boats available were filled with the women and children, and sent off from the ship's side; so that the officers and soldiers, remaining on deck, deliberately deprived themselves of their only means of safety, and, calm and motionless, awaited the sinking of the vessel. Their noble conduct was well described by Captain Wright, one of the survivors, who, in a private letter, said that all the officers received their orders and had them carried out as if the men were embarking, instead of going to the bottom; that, indeed, he never saw an embarkation conducted with such an absence of noise and confusion; that there was not a single cry or murmur from any of the men; that just before the final plunge, a suggestion having been made that all who could swim should jump overboard and join the boat, the officers begged them not to do so, because the boats were filled with women and children, and must inevitably be swamped if their living freight were increased, when the men replied by a cheer, and only three of them attempted to reach the boats. This act of cool heroism, which had been estimated at its full value, not in this country alone but abroad, and had done much to sustain, and even to raise, the high character of our army for unflinching discipline, was beyond all praise. This result was in a great measure due to the efforts of Colonel Seaton, who was certainly no ordinary man, and whose rare talent for gaining the affections of the soldiers under his command and moulding them to his will had trained these men, most of whom were young and untried levies, to face danger and death with unshaken fortitude. An equal meed was due to all the other officers and men present on this trying occasion. The youngest officer of the regiment, to whom life was full of hope and promise, trod the deck by the side of his commander with as firm a step, and looked upon the ghastly horrors of death with as much bravery and composure as those who had been longest inured to peril. He (Mr. Gordon) assuredly did not think it too late to mark the country's sense of the discipline and heroism of men who had thus calmly sacrificed their lives to save others, and he therefore begged to put the question of which he had given notice.


said, that every one acquainted with the circumstances just described by his hon. Friend must fully concur in the feeling tribute which he had paid to the gallant and devoted band of British officers and men who lost their lives on the melancholy occasion of the wreck of the Birkenhead. That act of noble daring, performed by men who were not inspired by the incentives or surrounded with the glory and excitement of the battlefield, but under circumstances in which there were no approving eyes to see them, deserved an equal measure of admiration and gratitude with the brightest achievements in our military history. With those sentiments Her Majesty's Government were certainly prepared to take into consideration the propriety of erecting some permanent memorial to commemorate the magnanimity and adherence to duty of those brave men.