With 643 men, women and children on board, the HMS Birkenhead slammed into an uncharted rock just off the coast of South Africa on February 26, 1852 at 2 a.m. All of the women and children were quickly put on boats and rowed to safety. This the origin of the phrase Woman and Children First and it's mentioned in Rudyard Kipling's Soldier an' Sailor Too -
“To stand and be still, to the Birken'ead Drill, is a damn tough bullet to chew.”
Here is one survivor's account of what followed next:
"I remained on the wreck until she went down; the suction took me down some way, and a man got hold of my leg, but I managed to kick him off and came up and struck out for some pieces of wood that were on the water and started for land, about two miles off. I was in the water about five hours, as the shore was so rocky and the surf ran so high that a great many were lost trying to land. Nearly all those that took to the water without their clothes on were taken by sharks; hundreds of them were all round us, and I saw men taken by them close to me, but as I was dressed (having on a flannel shirt and trousers) they preferred the others. I was not in the least hurt, and, am happy to say, kept my head clear; most of the officers lost their lives from losing their presence of mind and trying to take money with them, and from not throwing off their coats."
- Letter from Lt J.F. Girardot, to his father, March 1st, 1852.