Category Archive 'HMS Birkenhead'

22 Jan 2012

The Birkenhead Drill

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Lance Calkin, The Wreck of the Birkenhead, 1899

The recent wreck of the Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia, in which male passengers demonstrated that the age of chivalry was well and truly dead by trampling women in a rush for the lifeboats, quote:

An Australian mother and her young daughter… described being pushed aside by hysterical men as they tried to board lifeboats. …

Another woman passenger agreed, “There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboats.” Yet another, a grandmother, complained, “I was standing by the lifeboats and men, big men, were banging into me and knocking the girls.”

has provoked a good deal of negative commentary.

Rich Lowry, at National Review, mocked the spirit of our times with a short essay titled: Dude, Where’s My Lifeboat?

Mark Steyn resisted the temptation of Abe Greenwald’s prediction (offered via Twitter):

Is there any chance that Mark Steyn won’t use the Italian captain fleeing the sinking ship as the lead metaphor in a column on EU collapse?

And instead, drew larger meaning and comparisons.

Abe Greenwald isn’t thinking big enough. The Costa Concordia isn’t merely a metaphor for EU collapse but – here it comes down the slipway – the fragility of civilization. Like every ship, the Concordia had its emergency procedures – the lifeboat drills that all crew and passengers are obliged to go through before sailing. As with the security theater at airports, the rituals give the illusion of security – and then, as the ship tips and the lights fail and the icy black water rushes in, we discover we’re on our own: from dancing and dining, showgirls and saunas, to the inky depths in a matter of moments.

Today the wealthiest nations in human history build cruise ships rather than battleships, vast floating palaces dedicated to the good life – to the proposition that, in the plump and complacent West, life itself is a cruise, sailing (as the Concordia’s name suggests) on a placid lake of peace and harmony. Since the economic downturn of 2008, the Titanic metaphor – of a Western world steaming for the iceberg but unable to correct course – has become a little overworked, the easiest cliché for any politician attempting to project urgency. But let’s assume they’re correct, and we’re heading full steam for the big ‘berg. When we hit, what’s the likelihood? That our response will be as ordered and civilized as those on the Titanic? Or that we will descend into the hell of the Concordia?

The contempt for “women and children first” is not a small loss. For soft cultures in good times, dispensing with social norms is easy. In hard times, you may have need of them.

And a variety of commentators remembered the better example set by the men of the Titanic, and by those of the Titanic’s predecessor’s on the HMS Birkenhead.

Mark Steyn and several others quoted Kipling’s Birkenhead poem,“Soldier an’ Sailor Too”:

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!

We’re most of us liars, we’re ‘arf of us thieves, an’ the rest are as rank as can be,
But once in a while we can finish in style (which I ‘ope it won’t ‘appen to me).

HMS Birkenhead Memorial erected at Danger Point in 1936.

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