women and children first

from a review on History Cooperative (Journal of American History 96.1, June 2009):

In January 1852 the Birkenhead sailed for South Africa, carrying soldiers and some families. On February 26 the ship struck an uncharted rock just off the South African coast and joined many other sunken ships around the peninsula aptly named Danger Point. …The lifeboats on the Birkenhead were inadequate, and the soldiers were ordered to stand fast until their families had been evacuated. All the women and children (some 20 or so) survived, but 454 of the 600 military personnel either drowned or were eaten by the great white sharks that infested the sea off Danger Point. The courage and discipline of the soldiers was celebrated by Thomas Hemy’s 1892 painting The Wreck of the Birkenhead; recorded as “Birken’ead drill” in the 1896 Rudyard Kipling poem “Soldier an’ Sailor Too”; and in 1917 exalted by King George V as “the splendid tradition of the Birkenhead, ever cherished in the annals of the British Army” (“The Birkenhead Tradition,” London Times, March 29, 1917, p. 7)

from Women and Children First: Nineteenth-Century Sea Narratives and American Identity. By Robin Miskolcze. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. xxiv, 220 pp. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8032-3258-7.)The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives. By Hester Blum. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. xiv, 271 pp. Cloth, $59.95, ISBN 978-0-8078-3169-4. Paper, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-8078-5855-4.)

seems to suggest that the famous cry dates from 1852. There had to be some start date, I guess.

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