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An Anniversary You Don’t Know, But Probably Should

(Length warning:  this is an unusually long post for this blog.  You may want to bookmark it to read when you have the time, or alternatively, print it out for reading over your favorite beverage.  You have been warned.)

A young man by the name of Joel Northrup has apparently grievously offended the liberal left recently (more power to him!) by daring to abide by his upbringing and clinging to a biblical concept that once formed a cornerstone of Western civilization.  What was his dire transgression that raised the ire of the self-righteous left?  He forfeited a championship wrestling match to his female opponent by refusing to wrestle a girl!  Yes, as you can imagine, this has the PC crowd up in arms against him, even though the girl and her family have themselves taken no offense and are supportive of this young man standing by his convictions.  Perhaps therein lies part of the problem:  Joel dares have convictions, based on the Bible, and is willing to live by them even if it means personal loss.  He is showing that he has a backbone.  What is even more interesting, and commendable, is the reason which is not related to the more obvious gender issues.  He takes on the prevailing feminist ideology and slaps it in the face.  The critical statements from the Fox News report (emphases added):

Northrup then made the rounds of national TV talk shows to address the decision. “There’s no specific scripture or verse in the Bible that condemns wrestling girls,” Joel told the “Fox & Friends” show. “It’s more of a Biblical principle of treating the opposite gender with respect … I don’t think wrestling should be a coed sport because of all the compromising holds and everything.”

Northrup didn’t say anything about discomfort over wrestling a girl because it was personally embarrassing or sexual in any way. It wasn’t about the bad publicity that would result if he gave her a broken forearm or a concussion. It was about elevating the woman. Shoving a woman’s face into the mat is undignified. He told CBS it gets “violent at times … I just don’t feel it’s right that a boy should engage a girl … like this.”

Well said, Mr. Northrup, well said!

Equality of worth does not translate into equality of treatment, and different treatment is not necessarily a statement of different worth.  Here’s an astounding concept that frazzles the liberal mind and frequently causes a total implosion:  men and women are different!  God created male and female with equal worth, but different roles, and fitted them uniquely for those roles.  Thus, for example, men tend to be physically stronger than women.  For those who are offended by that statement, tough!  Facts are stubborn things.   Just compare the world records for men and women in track and field events.  Men typically run faster, throw farther, and jump higher than women because of how they are designed, not because women are inferior or have been treated as inferior.  Mr. Northrup’s position is amply fortified by physical reality.

Now after you’re done hyperventilating, if you have any sense left, you should probably ask, what does any of this have to do with an anniversary of whatever?  Patience, dear reader!  I am getting there.

Nancy Morgan over at Publius’ Forum has a related post that, in effect, laments the absence of men like Joel Northrup in the general population.  She tells us that, at least from the conservative population of women who haven’t been taken in by feminist propaganda:

Women want from men what we’ve wanted since time began. A strong protector, or the illusion thereof. A man who will treat a gal like a delicate flower, even if she isn’t. A man who opens doors and brings flowers. A strong man.

A man who radiates strength and confidence will beat out a metrosexual brimming with sensitivity any day of the week. At least with conservative women. Truth.

Can you say “Leader?”  Read the whole post, it is quite refreshing.  One other good paragraph:

Take charge, guys. Wear the pants. Don’t be afraid to play the role God assigned you. Most women understand how hard it is for you to risk rejection. And we know that being stuck with paying the tab isn’t fair. But even though leftists think they can mandate “equality,” we also know that life just isn’t fair. Get used to it. And if you’re interested in a conservative gal, please, hold the hankies.

"The Wreck of the Birkenhead" by Thomas M Hemy These two recent posts regarding current events have interfaced nicely with a story from history that is associated with the anniversary that has just past.  If you were a school child growing up in the second half of the 19th century, you knew the story of the H.M.S. Birkenhead.  You knew that on February 27, 1852, a British vessel carrying more than 600 men, women, and children hit a ledge and foundered.  You knew that the men chose to drown or be eaten by sharks rather than even risk the possibility that the women and children aboard the few life boats available would risk danger.  You knew these facts and they served as an ever-present reminder that you lived in a world created by God in which men are called upon to act sacrificially on behalf of women and children, even as Christ died on behalf of His bride.

Only 193 of the 643 people on board survived, and the soldiers’ chivalry gave rise to the "women and children first" protocol when abandoning ship, while the "Birkenhead drill" of Rudyard Kipling’s poem came to describe courage in face of hopeless circumstances.

That would be Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Soldier an’ Sailor Too, with the stanza that reads:

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!

This brings us to this fascinating story from one of the survivors, a Corporal W. Smith.  Here’s the longest part of this post, but I make no apologies.  It is a fascinating read!  (I’ve bolded a few parts for emphasis.)

I am an old man – old in body, if you like, but young in memory and spirit, and I can still march with some of the best of them, in spite of my seventy-five years.  I can recall many things that I did in my long years of soldiering on home and foreign-service, and can picture many scenes that my eyes have witnessed.

But one event stands out with awful clearness, one memory will linger when all other impressions vanish, and I parade for the last muster – and that is, the picture of the sinking on the Birkenhead.  From time to time the papers tell us that the only survivor of the troopship has died – that neither man nor woman nor child who was in her when she struck on Danger Point, and broke her back and sank, is left:  but some of us die hard, and there is still a handful of officers and men who were hurled into a shark-infested sea in the darkness of an early morning, and heard the last hopeless cries of soldiers as the steamer disappeared.  Aye, and worse than that – the wails and screams of heartbroken wives who had been torn from husbands’ arms and the piteous cries of little children who were forced into boats and rowed away, leaving to a sure and awful death those who were sacrificed that they might live.

The old King of Prussia commanded that the story of the Birkenhead drill and fortitude should be read to every regiment in his army; artists have painted pictures of the troops drawn up in steady ranks on deck, and poets have sung of the way the bugles rang and the drums beat; but there was no sound of bugle and no roll of drum; there was none of the stiffness of parade which pictures show – and yet there was a falling-in, a last muster, a standing shoulder to shoulder as the end came, and many a handshake and many a sobbed farewell.  And how, at such a time, can even the bravest do otherwise, swept, as they were swept, from perfect peace and comfort to an unexpected doom?

Sometimes, aye, often, I wake suddenly from sleep, or start up as I smoke in my little cottage in the quiet country, and wonder whether the vision that has come again is only dreaming or reality; and I have to take my papers out and cast my mind back over the half century before I am satisfied that I have not imagined it.  The whole terrible catastrophe returns as fresh and vivid now as it was then – for such a thing as that makes the same scar in your memory as an ugly wound will leave upon your body – and I know what both are.

I am in the old regiment again, the 12th Foot, which became the Suffolk when it lost its number, and I am back in the early fifties, when the British soldier’s duty was to obey every order, without wondering, as they do nowadays, why it was given and whether it was right.  They were the days of iron discipline and not overmuch consideration for the private soldier, who was still only a machine for fighting purposes.

There is a strong draft of us of the 12th for the Cape, where we are going out to fight the Kaffirs, and there are drafts for other regiments – Lancers, Highlanders, and Rifles amongst them.

On January 7th, 1852, we embark in the Birkenhead and sail for the Cape.  We are in a famous ship, for the Birkenhead is of big size for her day, and has already made the run to the Cape in forty-five days, while other vessels in the Navy have been as long as sixty-five.  Think of that, you soldiers of today, who grumble because your steamer takes a month – but very rarely – to do the same distance.

But, after all, we are cooped up in a ship that is no bigger than many a fine ocean-going tug nowadays.  She is not much more than two hundred feet long, but broad of beam and of nearly fifteen hundred tons.  She has engines of 564 horsepower, and is of course driven by paddles.  She has been made from a frigate into a steamer and a heavy poop and forecastle have been added to her to increase her accommodations as a troopship.  Even then we are packed like sardines in a box, and have to eat and sleep and get through the time as best we can, and trouble nothing about the many little comforts we enjoy ashore.

We start at a bad time of the year, and after leaving Cork run into a lot of heavy weather that puts the crowning touch to our miseries afloat.  Life and death are both with us at sea, just as they are ashore.  The weary days go past and the only thing that marks one from its fellows is a birth or a death.  One woman dies of consumption, and our spirits are depressed by the awful solemnity of her burial at sea.  Three children are born – but at what a cost!  Each mother dies – and what more striking evidence can you have of what it meant for women to sail in troopships fifty years ago?

How vividly that final run comes back again over the half century that has passed!  The seas are calm and the night is clear, the daylight quickly fades and gives place to a glorious darkness.  The lights are twinkling ashore, a grateful sight to us who have been so long surrounded by the tumbling seas.  The stars too are shining brightly.

All is well.

From time to time as we thud bravely on from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean we hear the sullen murmur of the surf that breaks ashore about two miles away, rising above the ever-present roar of the machinery which we no longer notice.  A good look-out is kept, the leadsman is in the chains, and the watch on deck have little else to do but watch the lights glide past as the Birkenhead makes nearly ten miles an hour.  The captain of the ship, Captain Salmond has gone below, so has the commander, and the Birkenhead is in charge of Mr. Davies, second master.

I go below at last and turn in, never so much as thinking of danger.  I discuss the latest news with my comrades.  The gossip is that Captain Salmond is pressing the ship hard for two reasons, one of which is that he wants to get ahead of the steamer Styx, which is carrying stores of war, and the other that he wishes to make a quick passage so that he can land the troops for the Commander-in-Chief, who is concentrating his forces for a grand attack upon the natives.  And so that he may make his run as short as possible Captain Salmond is keeping very near the coast.

We have gone to sleep on the crowded lower deck.  Midnight has passed, one o’clock comes and goes, and the ship’s bell strikes again.  But I do not hear the strokes of the melancholy voice that rises in the night and proclaims that all is well.  I am fast asleep and unconscious.

What is that?  Why this appalling shock?  Why these terrible cries, this sudden panic, this staggering confusion?  Why are men crowding and struggling and all making as if by instinct for the companion-ladder, to swarm on deck?

Why ask the question, for we know, even we who are landsmen, that the Birkenhead has struck; we know that even now some of her people are dead, drowned in their hammocks by the rush of the sea upon them.

I do what my fellow soldiers do, what nearly every soul on board does – struggle to the upper deck and clamor to know the worst.  There are others like me, rushing up and crowding the deck – small space indeed for so many human beings.  And it is dark, too.

What need to ask the question which the simplest soul on board can answer?  The ship has struck on a sunken rock, and not even her watertight compartments, of which she has no fewer than a dozen, can save her.  The Birkenhead with her resistless weight driving hard has been impaled upon a cruel submerged fang, and she is ripped just as you might rip a drum of paper with your finger.

Panic, you ask?  Confusion?  Yes – both.  And how can it be otherwise when like a flash, sentence of death has been passed upon the Birkenhead, and in the twinkling of an eye serenity and safety have given place to overwhelming peril?

There are times when even the bravest succumb to their emotions.  Was not the Iron Duke himself overcome with grief at the loss of so many of his troops at Waterloo?  No wonder, then that the men of the Birkenhead are in want of steadying when the first shock of disaster falls upon them.  Remember that most of them are very young – and then there are the men whose wives and children are on board.  Put yourself in their places, then you will understand.

Even now, with the ship abruptly stopped, with that awful sound of rending asunder in our ears, it seems impossible to believe that she is doomed.  How can she be, the stout vessel that has borne us so far through such troubled waters without disaster of any sort?  And so near the shore, too?

I know that even now, so far as I am personally concerned, there is no suspicion that the end will be what it proves to be.  I see that things are bad; I am aware that already many lives are lost; but there are the boats, the coast is very close to us, and above all things, there is the discipline – that spirit of obedience that proves stronger than the love of life itself.

I have spoken of the panic, the confusion.  They have been born suddenly, but their death is just as swift.  Now come the excited voices of the officers – the men who are heard in the darkness, but are not seen.  It is ‘Steady, lads, steady!’  and if there is a tremor in the tones – what of it?  If at the first, before the drafts have found themselves, there is something of a rush for the boats, what of that, either?  Does not the panic die away at the word of command?  Is not the rush stopped at the very outset?  Do not the men make some pitiful attempt to fall in on that sloping deck, which is already breaking under their very feet?

And why?  Because there are women and children on board, and the women and children are to be saved, whatever happens to the rest.

I seem to tell the story slowly; but however fast I spoke I could not do more than talk haltingly of a thing that happened with such fatal swiftness.

Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, of the 74th Highlanders, commanding the troops on board, gathers all the officers about him, and tells them that at any cost order and discipline must be maintained.  He specially charges Captain Wright of the 91st to see that Captain Salmond’s instructions are obeyed, because on him alone, as a sailor, we can depend for safety.

Instantly sixty men are told off to work the chain-pumps on the lower deck, and I am one of the sixty.  I go below again, and the stoutest heart might shrink from such a task.  It is like descending into a dark well, for the water is already flooding the deck.  But we strike out for the pumps, and in reliefs we man them and work with frantic energy.  We might as well spare all our strength, because we do not make the least impression on the flood.  How can we, with such a yawn in the troopship’s side?  She has been caught on the port side, between the foremast and the paddle-box, and the waves sweep in just like a heavy running stream.

We are up to our waists in water; but we work away at the pumps, cheering each other, saying that we shall soon be out of it and landed.  But within touch of us are men drowned in their hammocks.

Officers are everywhere, steadying, encouraging, and directing.  The rest of the troops are on the poop, and the women and children are there, too, drawn up in readiness to be put into one of the boats, the cutter.

Blue lights are burning, making a ghastly illumination in the darkness, and rockets crash on the stillness of the night.  But no answer comes to our signals of distress.  The lights are not seen, and the sound of rockets does not carry far.

What of the guns?  You ask.  Aye, guns would have boomed deeper, and could have been heard ashore; but we cannot fire them, because the ammunition is in the magazine, and the magazine is under water now, so that it is impossible to reach it.

Captain Salmond, like the brave commander he is, tries to repair his terrible mistake of hugging the coast too closely, and he forgets himself entirely in his wish to save his people – always the women and children first, remember.  We hear his voice as he issues orders – he swings a lantern in his hand – and we know that the engines that are still workable have been turned astern.

Fatal error again!  And this time final.  There is more hideous grinding and tearing, and the rent in the hull is made bigger as the Birkenhead is backed.  There is a mightier inrush of the sea and a furious hissing, as the boiler fires are drowned.  But for the present we have no orders to leave our places, and we work unflaggingly at the useless pumps.

On deck they are throwing the horses overboard – the few officers’ chargers that the troopship carries; and the women and children are being driven and helped into the cutter.  Can you understand what it means – that tearing away of wives and children from husbands and fathers – unhappy creatures that beg that they may die with their own loved ones rather than be saved without them?

Sixty men are at the chain-pumps; sixty more are struggling to lower the paddle-box boats.  The other boats, too, are being handled.

What happens?  The tackle is rotten, the boats themselves are ill-found and in bad condition, so that the very means by which alone we can hope for safety are not to be relied upon in our desperate extremity.  In this furious effort to get the boats away, Mr. Brodie, the master, and a number of men are lost.

There is a long swell running towards the shore and the Birkenhead is rolling heavily, her foremast is tottering, her funnel is threatening to collapse.  It leans dangerously over towards the starboard side, and as the fight with the boats goes on the smokestack thunders down and crushes a little host of human beings on the paddle-box.

Everything now happens with paralyzing swiftness.  The funnel has fallen – a great high mass of metal; the foremast has come down, and the Birkenhead herself has snapped in two, her fore part dropping down into deep water and her stern tilting high in the air.

Half a hundred men perish instantly at the chain-pumps, and those who do not die rush up to the deck to hear the orders given that all who can swim must jump overboard and make for the boats, which have got clear and are waiting at a safe distance so that they shall not be drawn down into the vortex.

The order is given by Captain Salmond, but other voices are heard immediately – Captain Wright’s and Captain Girador’s – begging that the men will stand fast, as the boats are full already with the women and children and will be swamped if the soldiers make for them.

Discipline again!  And always the women and children!  The men stand fast, in the very grip of death, and not more than two or three jump overboard and try to reach the boat, which safely gets away.

During the whole of this time, the agonies of which no man can describe, Cornet Bond, of the 12th Lancers, and Ensign Lucas, of the 73rd, have been superintending the removal of the women and children to the boat, and handing some of them to the gangway with a politeness and attention which is so wonderful that, sore as my own strait is, I cannot help smiling.

Cornet Bond, you say is still alive – now Captain R. M. Bond Shelton – and you have met and talked with him?  Then he has an old Birkenhead soldier’s best wishes for continued life as a gallant officer and gentleman!  Of Ensign Lucas I can speak myself, because I lived to serve under him.  Here is a letter from him, sent to me only the other month, and a box of cigars, ‘for all old soldiers smoke,’ he says.

Not twenty minutes have passed since we were sleeping peacefully and safely; now, with terrible noises, the troopship disappears, settling on the rock that has destroyed her, and with only her mainmast rising above the water.

For some minutes there is a scene that I cannot picture, there are sounds that I dare not recall; then there is something of quietness, because the sea has claimed most of these desperate bidders for existence.  Where am I now?  What new terror has been added to this great tragedy of a sailor’s mistake?

I am overboard and in the water, clinging to a spar, a bit of wreckage that I have reached, I know not how.  I have rushed on deck in my shirt and greatcoat, just as I have been roused from sleep, and in this clothing I am adrift in the Indian Ocean, a non-swimmer, and doomed to an eighteen hours struggle in the sea to keep myself alive.  I do not know that my fight will not be for so long or so terrible, or I could never see it through; but I still have faith in my salvation, and grip my spar and look about for help.

And what do I see – what do I hear?

All around me are men who have been hurled to a pitiless death, some struggling fiercely, and some clinging to any floating object from the wreck.  There are awful sounds which I come to know well as the last groans or screams of men who sink to rise no more – and still more terrifying outbreaks which I do not for the moment understand, but the cause of which I quickly learn.  They are the hopeless victims who are seized and killed by sharks.  Remember, we are in the southern waters, in the southern summer, and the Indian Ocean thereabouts is swarming with these cruel monsters.

And yet, in all that time of suffering and terror, I am strangely undisturbed in mind.  I cannot swim, but I have my spar to keep me up, and the knowledge that I am so near land is wonderfully comforting and helpful.  I have a feeling too, that, having escaped so far, when so many have been swept to death, I shall be saved at last – and the conviction grows upon me even as the number of my comrades lessens.

Picture for yourself the long-drawn agony of those hours of darkness, in spite of all this, hope fills me, and the senses which are growing dulled; and imagine, if you can, the scene when the night is passing, and the tropic dawn comes quickly.

The daylight shows me dangers that the gloom has mercifully hidden.  The mainmast of the sunken Birkenhead shoots upwards from the sea, and its spars and rigging are crowded with men, clinging, fly-like, to the ropes and timbers.  With bits of mast and wood from the deck, trusses of hay, cabin furniture, and anything and everything that will float, men are holding their heads above water, casting yearning glances towards the shore which is so near and yet so far, and always looking for a sight of sail or help.

What is that strange object which is moving stealthily and swiftly through the water near me?  It disappears suddenly, and I know that it is the fin of a shark, which has turned on his back for his savage and always sure attack.  There is a piercing cry, and a tingeing red of the sea – and the number of survivors is lessened.  Time after time that awful drama is played, and the senses are dulled until even such a death is robbed of terror.

Yet even now I cannot help wondering why some are taken and some are left by these monsters of the deep.  I do know – and I am thankful for it – that they do not molest me, nor throughout my stay in the water does a shark so much as make a rush at me.  They say that the sharks that night and day seized mostly those who were naked, while I had still my greatcoat on, and I keep it on for some time.  But it goes at last.

The hours pass slowly, and I am parched with thirst; but I do not let the hope within me die.  I am drifting to the land, inch by inch only, because I am held a prisoner in a mass of sea bamboo, which is worse than any weed, and proves the death of many a poor fellow who might otherwise escape.  It is like a floating jungle.  Through this enveloping obstruction I and my spar are driven by the tide towards the coast, and at last I am within a stone’s throw of the land.

All this time the men, exhausted, are dropping from the mast into the sea, and are letting go their frail supports; but I am absorbed in my own position, full of my own miseries, able only to think of my own salvation.  I have reached the limit of my endurance, and am the plaything only of the sullen swells that roll ashore.

And now, just when salvation seems assured, I am met by my greatest danger.  I am hurled into the heavy surf, which is like to break or crush me.  It is as if the ruthless sea is making one last effort to claim me, who have defied it so long, and is determined to wrench me from my spar.  But I struggle desperately still, and at last, just after sundown, I am thrown, like flotsam on the beach, bruised and bleeding, hungry, thirsty, almost senseless, utterly exhausted, and stripped of every scrap of clothing – after eighteen hours in the remorseless sea.

I lie where the waves have thrown me, caring nothing, and fall into a log-like sleep until morning, when I join some of my unhappy comrades who have been saved also.

There – that is my old man’s story.  What else is there to tell?  What else can there be?

I join my regiment, and march and fight as if there has been no Birkenhead disaster.  It is soldiering – and it is discipline.

Yes, that all-conquering discipline – for of all the women and children not one is lost.

Because of that, and because we obeyed – I and the rest of us are satisfied.

Corporal W. Smith

Methinks these were men who would agree with Joel Northrup and Nancy Morgan regarding what makes a man.

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  1. 2 Apr 2011 at 12:21 AM

    Great piece, ‘Face..

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