THE PROPER THING TO DO
“Swimming here in the dark is nothing like I’m used to in the North Sea back home, Miss. But at least I can swim, not like those poor devils... I’m a soldier, just like them. Soldiers have little need to swim, I suppose. My father taught my brothers and sister too. Seaside people should know how to save themselves, he said. God rest his soul, he was right enough.
“Everything happened so fast, didn’t it? One minute I was asleep, the next we was called up on deck and fell in.
“Two o’clock in the middle of the night it was.
“Heaven knows, we was used to the ship’s odd hours and strange goings-on, what with their bells clanging and lookouts calling. And we’d had our fair share of musters and drills on our way out. We’re soldiers, after all, off to fight them Xhosa tribesmen in the Kaffir War. Many of us haven’t fired a weapon in anger but we’re ready to fight. I’ll be seventeen next month.
“Rumour spreads quick on a ship – worse even than barracks. We heard the ship had hit some hidden rock not on the charts. A bit of bad luck, Miss.
“I wish you could have met Sam, my pal. Worked on a farm before joining up. He had a feeling for animals, like. He asked the officers to do something about the horses, they was frantic, whinnying and kicking.
“Give Sam his due, he was persuasive. Sam got them to blindfold the poor creatures so they wouldn’t panic and then they cut the horses loose and carefully dropped them over the side. Good swimmer, a horse, Miss. Even with a man on its back.
“God, it was awful, watching the sharks attack them horses! Sam was terrible distraught. Sorry, Miss, me blaspheming like that, my Ma would give me a right rollicking if she could hear me now. Soldiers tend to swear a bit, but we usually minds our Ps and Qs near ladies like yourself, Miss.
“The ship’s captain ordered the lowering of the cutters. You probably know that. But did you notice some fittings didn’t work? The shackle, tackle, whatever was rusted something horrible. Whoever was responsible for those boats being fit to use would have been on a charge in quick time if he was in the Army, I can tell you. They tried hammers, swords, anything to free the boats. I think the ship had eight, but I see only three got off.
“I was certain glad you and the other ladies was given a cutter to get away in, with the children.
“Seems right to me, for them to let the women and children on the boats first. Everybody seemed orderly, no pushing and shoving. Not one soul begrudged you and the rest the privilege.
“Truth be known, Miss, I was scared, watching your boats pull away.
“The ship’s captain gave the order to abandon ship, to swim for the cutters. Our last chance, you see. But then up pipes our Colonel, his face twisted with a strange kind of emotion and he says we shouldn’t do that, ‘cos we’d swamp your boats. He didn’t order us, mind, just asked, most reasonable and un-officer-like.
“He said, ‘Do not do this. I ask you to stand fast.’ In only a few seconds his officers repeated his words and, as the deck tilted, we all seemed to agree it was the best thing to do and stood firm. We reckoned we was all in this together. All in the same boat, like. A joke, that.
“Don’t cry, Miss.
“We lined up in ranks, regiment by regiment. Proud we was, even though many of us wore only under-garments and no shoes.
“I shook hands with Chalky White, Spider Webb and Sam standing next to me. Sam was grieving over the poor horses. We told him some probably got away, but he was really upset. We tried cheering him up – a bit difficult, under the circumstances.
“One man shouted, ‘God Bless you all’. I think he was calling out to you here in the boats. But in the main, there was no shouting, no wailing and no cries of help.
“Don’t cry, Miss.
“We all stood firm. For the sake of the women and children. It was the proper thing to do.
“From here you must have seen the ship break its back on the reef. That was a horrible moment. My heart lurched as much as the ship. We all staggered and some of our ranks lost their footing and fell overboard. Bits of wood and metal and even paddle-wheel flew everywhere. I saw the ship’s captain crushed by a falling mast.
“Those of us left, we were steady, even then. We linked arms and tried to stand fast as the deck under our feet sloped and the water started to rise.
“The water was up to our chests. It wasn’t really cold, but we was shivering. Afraid of the end, I suppose.
“Bits of luggage must have burst out of the hole in the hold, because suddenly out of nowhere some of the bags hit us – it was like being hit with a medicine-ball – and it broke our grip on each other.
“I thought I was going to drown, praying with half a mind while frantically swimming up to the surface where I trod water, spluttering and coughing.
“Somehow, I found a floating case and clung on to it and looked back in time to see some of my chums still standing firm as the water washed over their heads. Sam and Chalky...
“Firm to the end, they was. Done their duty, as they was asked.
“Please don’t cry, Miss. They did the right thing.
“I feel horrible, leaving them to their watery grave.
“So with a heavy heart I swam to your cutter a bare ten minutes ago, Miss; yet it seems an age...
“It’s awful crowded here in this little boat, but I’m grateful there’s room for a little chap like me.
“I can’t stop shivering. Talking like this helps stop my teeth chattering. But the water isn’t so cold. It’s shock, I expect.
“Look, Miss, there’s a soldier drowning over there. I know him. He’s a pretty fair sergeant in our regiment. If we can steer the cutter towards him. He’s a father with six kiddies. It would be a crying shame to leave him.
“Here, I’ll give a hand on the oar.
“My parents were so proud of me when I was in the passing out parade, in my spanking new uniform. My father took the sickness a few weeks later, but we all reckon he died happy knowing I had a secure future in the Army.
“It takes it out of you, this rowing lark. I’m fair puffed... I thought I was fit. Nearly there... Let’s hope he can hold on, he looks in a bad way...
“Tell my Ma if anything happens, what I’ve just said, please, Miss. The lads did the proper thing. She still has my brothers Walter and Eric and sister Lillian. She mustn’t grieve. I’m a soldier, after all, and she could lose me at any time...”
After saying that and extracting a reluctant promise from me, Private Eddie Ross reached over the gunwale of the cutter and grabbed hold of the hand of the father of six.
Before I knew what he was intending, he scrambled over the side into the sea and helped heave the drowning man into the boat. All this sudden activity made the vessel wobble but the small craft did not take in any water, thank God.
Eddie hung on and assured me he would be all right, he could swim, unlike the man he had saved.
But he was mistaken. There are no sharks in the North Sea where he swam as a youngster. He had forgotten about them, as had I, otherwise I might not have let him give up his place so readily. One moment he was hanging on there, talking about family in the seaside resort of Whitley Bay, the next moment he was dragged under the surface, gone forever.
These, then, Mrs Ross, are your brave son’s last words on that fateful day in February, 1852, when Her Majesty’s Ship ‘Birkenhead’ was lost at sea off the coast of South Africa with over four hundred lives. Some twenty-five women and twenty-nine children were saved. I hope his words bring you some small consolation.
I know that my thoughts will always hark back to that tragic day when so many brave men selflessly gave up their hopes and dreams for us women and our children.A great tradition was born that day, I feel sure.
Based on a true event, 1852
Previously published in Costa TV Times, 2010
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014
So, if you liked this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’. He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.