The Birkenhead Poems

As a companion post to ‘The Victorian Titanic’, here are the two commemorative poems by Francis Hastings Doyle and Rudyard Kipling celebrating the heroes of the Birkenhead, lost off Danger point, February 26, 1852…

‘The Loss of the Birkenhead’ by Sir Francis Hastings Doyle, 2nd Baronet, Professor of Poetry, Oxford

(Supposed to be told by a soldier who survived.)

From The Return of the Guards and Other Poems, 1866.

 

RIGHT on our flank the crimson sun went down,

The deep sea rolled around in dark repose,

When, like the wild shriek from some captured town,

A cry of women rose.

 

The stout ship Birkenhead lay hard and fast,

Caught, without hope, upon a hidden rock;

Her timbers thrilled as nerves, when through them passed

The spirit of that shock.

 

And ever like base cowards, who leave their ranks

In danger’s hour, before the rush of steel,

Drifted away, disorderly, the planks

From underneath her keel.

 

Confusion spread, for, though the coast seemed near,

Sharks hovered thick along that white sea-brink.

The boats could hold? – not all; and it was clear

She was about to sink.

 

“Out with those boats, and let us haste away,”

Cried one, “ere yet yon sea the bark devours.”

The man thus clamoring was, I scarce need say,

No officer of ours.

 

We knew our duty better than to care

For such loose babblers, and made no reply,

Till our good colonel gave the word, and there

Formed us in line to die.

‘The Wreck of the Birkenhead’ by Thomas Hemy, 1892

 

There rose no murmur from the ranks, no thought,

By shameful strength, unhonored life to seek;

Our post to quit we were not trained, nor taught

To trample down the weak.

 

So we made women with their children go,

The oars ply back again, and yet again;

Whilst, inch by inch, the drowning ship sank low,

Still under steadfast men.

 

What follows, why recall? The brave who died,

Died without flinching in the bloody surf;

They sleep as well, beneath that purple tide,

As others, under turf; –

 

They sleep as well, and, roused from their wild grave,

Wearing their wounds like stars, shall rise again,

Joint-heirs with Christ, because they bled to save

His weak ones, not in vain.

 

If that day’s work no clasp or medal mark,

If each proud heart no cross of bronze may press,

Nor cannon thunder loud from Tower and Park,

This feel we, none the less:

 

That those whom God’s high grace there saved from ill –

Those also, left His martyrs in the bay –

Though not by siege, though not in battle, still

Full well had earned their pay.

Illustration from History of the Scottish Regiments in the British Army by Archibald K. Murray, 1862

‘Soldier an’ Sailor Too’ by Rudyard Kipling

(The Royal Regiment of Marines)

First published in Pearson’s Magazine and McClure’s Magazine, both April 1896.

Collected in Barrack Room Ballads, 1896.

 

AS I was spittin’ into the Ditch aboard o’ the Crocodile,

I seed a man on a man-o’-war got up in the Reg’lars’ style.

’E was scrapin’ the paint from off of ’er plates, an’ I sez to ’im, “’Oo are you?”

Sez ’e, “I’m a Jolly – ’Er Majesty’s Jolly – soldier an’ sailor too!”

Now ’is work begins by Gawd knows when, and ’is work is never through;

’E isn’t one o’ the reg’lar Line, nor ‘e isn’t one of the crew.

’E’s a kind of a giddy harumfrodite – soldier an’ sailor too!

 

An’ after I met ’im all over the world, a-doin’ all kinds of things,

Like landin’ ’isself with a Gatlin’ gun to talk to them ’eathen kings;

’E sleeps in an ’ammick instead of a cot, an’ ’e drills with the deck on a slew,

An’ ’e sweats like a Jolly – ’Er Majesty’s Jolly – soldier an’ sailor too!

For there isn’t a job on the top o’ the earth the beggar don’t know, nor do –

You can leave ’im at night on a bald man’s ’ead, to paddle ’is own canoe –

’E’s a sort of a bloomin’ cosmopolouse – soldier an’ sailor too.

 

We’ve fought ’em in trooper, we’ve fought ’em in dock, and drunk with ’em in betweens,

When they called us the seasick scull’ry-maids, an’ we called ’em the Ass Marines;

But, when we was down for a double fatigue, from Woolwich to Bernardmyo,

We sent for the Jollies – ’Er Majesty’s Jollies – soldier an’ sailor too!

They think for ’emselves, an’ they steal for ’emselves, and they never ask what’s to do,

But they’re camped an’ fed an’ they’re up an’ fed before our bugle’s blew.

Ho! they ain’t no limpin’ procrastitutes – soldier an’ sailor too.

 

You may say we are fond of an ’arness-cut, or ’ootin’ in barrick-yards,

Or startin’ a Board School mutiny along o’ the Onion Guards;

But once in a while we can finish in style for the ends of the earth to view,

The same as the Jollies – ’Er Majesty’s Jollies – soldier an’ sailor too!

They come of our lot, they was brothers to us; they was beggars we’d met an’ knew;

Yes, barrin’ an inch in the chest an’ the arm, they was doubles o’ me an’ you;

For they weren’t no special chrysanthemums – 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).

But it makes you think better o’ you an’ your friends, an’ the work you may ’ave to do,

When you think o’ the sinkin’ Victorier’s Jollies – soldier an’ sailor too!

Now there isn’t no room for to say ye don’t know – they ’ave proved it plain and true –

That whether it’s Widow, or whether it’s ship, Victorier’s work is to do,

An’ they done it, the Jollies – ’Er Majesty’s Jollies – soldier an’ sailor too!


You can read a full account of the wreck of the Birkenhead and the subsequent court martial in my book Shark Alley, available here.

The Sunday Post also ran a piece on my Birkenhead research, which you can access here.

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