A time for discipline – remember HMS Birkenhead - Reflection from Mr Sean Geoghegan

Kent Nerburn in his book ‘Letters to my son’ wrote a chapter dedicated to tragedy and suffering. In that chapter he states: “Tragedy and suffering will come to you. You cannot insulate yourself from them. You cannot avoid them. They come in their own season and in their own time.” He goes on to say that the great lesson of suffering comes from the fact that when all is going well, our world is a small controlled experience bounded by our daily necessities. Going to Canelands, completing or marking an assignment, mowing the lawn – these are the levels of concern that occupy our daily lives. When tragedy and suffering come swooping in, they are unexpected, unforeseen, unprepared for. They shatter our tiny boundaries and break our world into pieces. There can be little doubt that the contagion of the Coronavirus will sorely test us in the days to come, but the most important lessons that our children will internalise, is how the adults around them reacted and dealt with such adversity. What kind of example will we set for them? It does not look promising. There are so many examples of acts of extreme selfishness, with people hoarding items and stripping supermarket shelves bare. The story of the discipline of the soldiers and sailors on HMS Birkenhead in the 1800s inspired an entire generation of Victorian Englishmen, on the virtues of discipline.

 

For those unfamiliar with the story, the sinking of the royal navy ship HMS Birkenhead in 1852, was a maritime disaster during which the conduct of the passengers, which included British soldiers, sailors and civilians became legendary. This ship, struck a hidden reef off the African coast. The ship broke in two and there were insufficient lifeboats for all on board. The soldiers were instructed to stand aside and they stood to attention on the deck of the sinking ship thereby allowing the women and children time to board the life-boats safely and escape. The soldiers' chivalry gave rise to the unofficial "women and children first" protocol when abandoning ship. The incident was later immortalised by the poet laureate of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling, whose poem came to describe discipline in face of the most hopeless circumstances.

 

 A British Army captain described the conduct of the soldiers:

 

The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be affected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service. Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion.

 

Unlike HMS Birkenhead, our circumstances are very far from being hopeless. However, we do need to abandon rumour mongering and practice profound consideration for others. The every-man-for-himself culture, which has become so pervasive in the twenty-first century, could yet prove to be our undoing. To every parent out there, our children are watching us – we dare not let them down.

war

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