"In memory of Lieut.-Colonel Alexander Seton, Ensign Alex. C. Russell, and forty-eight N.C.O.s and men of the 74th Highlanders who were drowned at the wreck of HMS Birkenhead on the 26th February 1852, off Point Danger, Cape of Good Hope, after all the women and children on board had been safely landed in the ship's boats." (The inscription on a memorial in St. Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland)
"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" (Rudyard Kipling, "Soldier an' Sailor Too")
In an emergency it is a common practice to attempt to evacuate women and children first, not simply because they're the most vulnerable but because it's an established code of honor that has been passed down through generations. This is especially the case in situations where there aren't enough resources to rescue everyone, and this concept has been made famous by disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic, which didn't have enough lifeboats onboard for everyone.
Although the "women and children first" rule might seem like a common practice that has been observed for centuries, it was actually popularized by the 1852 shipwreck of the Royal Navy troopship HMS Birkenhead.
©2012 Charles River Editors (P)2015 Charles River Editors