The curtain raiser at the 22 August lecture meeting, given by committee member John Murray, had the intriguing title 'The Micks', the self-chosen sobriquet of the Irish Guards.
The Micks hold a special relationship with South Africa. The heavy losses and conspicuous bravery of the Irish regiments fighting the Natal battles of the Second Anglo-Boer War evoked the sympathy of Queen Victoria. It was at her command that a fourth regiment of foot guards was established on 1 April 1900.
The Irish Guards was the first infantry regiment to be raised by the British Army in 76 years, and the first addition to the Guards Brigade in 244 years. It epitomised both the gratitude of the queen, and the pride of the Irish in their fighting men and their sacrifices. Sadly, perhaps, these same sacrifices also served to boost the Republican movement in Ireland, and now the Irish Guards is the surviving embodiment of the five Irish regiments that served in the Anglo-Boer War.
In the past four centuries the Irish have featured disproportionately in Britain's wars. Some 50 per cent of Wellington's Peninsular Army were of Irish origin. The Irish comprised an estimated 30 per cent of the British infantry that faced Napoleon at Waterloo. By the end of the 19th century one British soldier in five was Irish. Ireland was neutral in WW2, but the Irish contribution in two world wars remained outstanding.
There have been 184 Victoria Crosses won by Irishmen. This comprises 13,6 per cent of the total, a remarkable achievement for a country with such a small population. Similarly, the contribution made by Irishmen to the high command of the British Army is out of all Disproportion to their numbers. Names such as Wellington, Wolseley, Roberts, French, Alexander, are well known in military history circles. The name of Kitchener could be added, but he was only born in Ireland.
The first Irish Guardsmen to see active service in South Africa were 33 officers and men who arrived with No1 Guards Mounted Infantry Company in late November 1901. While these soldiers were winning the first of the regiment's many awards for gallantry, and sustaining the first of its many casualties in South Africa, the building blocks of its unique culture were being put in place. On St Patrick's Day 1901 the Irish Guards paraded for the purpose of donning the shamrock.
The Colonel of the Regiment, Queen Alexandra, presented these shamrocks, and the tradition of the annual presentation has continued to this day. After Queen Alexandra's death on 1925 it has been carried on by The Princess Royal, and after her death by the Queen Mother.
The British troopship Birkenhead was wrecked at 02h00 on 26 February 1852. In 1983 permission was given for a party led by Dr Alan Kayle to dive on the wreck and salvage what artifacts it could. Work began three years later. In the main lecture of the evening Dr Kayle described what was found.
The Birkenhead was one of the first Royal Navy ships to be built of iron instead of the traditional wood. She had originally been designed as a frigate, HMS Vulcan, and was powered by both sail and steam-driven paddles. But the Admiralty decided what it needed was a troop transport, and it was in that role that she sailed from the south-west Ireland port of Cork in January 1852 with reinforcements for the British regiments fighting the 8th Frontier War in the Cape Colony.
When the Birkenhead left Simon's Town in the evening of 25 February those aboard numbered 638, including seven women and 13 children. Eleven horses had also been embarked. The sea was calm that night as the ship proceeded on her engines, and the uncharted pinnacle of rock some 2km east of Danger Point was not visible to the lookouts. The bows rammed the pinnacle, ripping open the lower deck plates and drowning 100 or more soldiers sleeping in the forward area.
In the succession of disastrous events that followed, the women and children were rowed away in only three of the eight lifeboats that could be launched, while the majority of the soldiers aboard lined the stern watched them go. Some were able to escape the sharks and swim ashore, while others were later rescued clinging to the rigging. A total of 445 died in the worst maritime accident in South African history.
The salvage operations occupied many thousands of diving man-hours. The team designed and built its own equipment, including the closed-bell system, the first of its kind in the country, and provided all the undersea and diving experience. Safmarine and Pentow Marine provided the surface ships.
Legend has it that the Birkenhead was carrying 250 000 gold sovereigns when she foundered. Only 160 were found, plus half-crowns and smaller coins, personal monies scattered in the buried remnants of the officers' quarters. The fabulous paypacket has so far eluded the expedition. But the intention is to return to the wreck, and, to quote Dr Kayle, 'if it exists, it will be found'. This should solve the last remaining mystery of the ill-fated Birkenhead.
Meanwhile, those who wish to follow the details of the expedition's work so far, and see pictures of the wide variety of artifacts that have been retrieved, can obtain such information from Dr Kayle's book Salvage of the Birkenhead, published in March 1990 by Southern Book Publishers.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
Contact number in Cape Town: John (Jochen) Mahncke (021) 797-5167
Contact number in Durban: Dr Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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