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Women and Children First: How a Rarely-Used Maritime Practice Caused Confusion On Board the 'Titanic'

Michele Debczak
Titanic sinking on the cover of Showman's Guide for the Rank Organisation film ' A Night to Remember ' with Kenneth More.
Titanic sinking on the cover of Showman's Guide for the Rank Organisation film ' A Night to Remember ' with Kenneth More. / Culture Club/GettyImages
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When it was conceived, the principle of “women and children first” was meant to uphold a sense of order and decency during disasters at sea. In some cases it caused more chaos than it prevented. On board the Titanic, the code of conduct was put to its greatest test as the damaged liner slipped into the Atlantic.

The ship’s first and second officers both kept the maxim in mind as they evacuated the doomed vessel, but their interpretations varied. Did “women and children first” really mean “women and children only”? Was it OK to load nearby men into half-empty lifeboats when there were women and children elsewhere on the ship? Were the adult men who made it off the Titanic alive violating some centuries-old maritime law? 

The lack of clear answers to these questions may have contributed to the death toll on the early morning of April 15, 1912. One hundred and ten years later, the origins and true meaning of  “women and children first” remain a source of confusion. 

The Origins of “Women and Children First”

The practice of “women and children first” was popularized in 1852, 60 years before Titanic sank. Early that year, the HMS Birkenhead departed from South Africa carrying several hundred British troops and crew members, along with a few dozen women and children. The iron-hulled paddle steamer, one of the first of its kind, was meant to bring reinforcements for the Eighth Cape Frontier War, but it never made it to its destination. On February 26, the Birkenhead tore open its hull on some rocks and quickly began taking on water. 

It’s said that commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton ordered his crew to prioritize the vessel's youngest passengers and the women who cared for them. After loading and lowering the lifeboats, the remaining men went down with the ship as it sank into shark-inhabited waters. Most of the male passengers succumbed to drowning or shark attacks, but every woman and child on board the Birkenhead that day made it to shore alive thanks to the crew’s efforts.

Artist's depiction of the evacuation of women and children from the HMS Birkenhead.
Artist's depiction of the evacuation of women and children from the HMS 'Birkenhead'. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Saving women and children first was tied so closely to the disaster that the practice became known as the Birkenhead Drill. The world was inspired by the honorable conduct displayed at sea that day. King Frederick William of Prussia instructed the story to be read to every regiment in his army to set an example of bravery in the face of death. Writer Rudyard Kipling immortalized the victims in his 1893 poem “Soldier an’ Sailor Too." The verses read:

“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!”

An Exception, Not a Rule

Though the Birkenhead Drill was upheld as a “chivalric ideal” among sailors, it was never codified into maritime law. In fact, in the decades since the sinking of the troopship, it has proven to be a rare exception instead of the standard practice. 

A study published in 2012 claimed the idea that women and children are given preferential treatment in maritime disasters is a myth. For their report, a group of Swedish economists analyzed 18 famous shipwrecks to determine which passengers made it off the boats alive and which ones were left behind. Of the passengers included in their research, just 17.8 percent of women survived compared to 34.5 percent of men. The misconception of captains going down with their ships was also debunked in the study. The researchers found that captains and their crew members were 18.7 percent more likely to survive a disaster at sea than their passengers.

Though “women and children first" has been an ideal to strive toward, the study authors concluded that “every man for himself” is the default in life-or-death situations. They found two notable exceptions to this trend: the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead in 1852 and that of the RMS Titanic in 1912. The code’s use, or misuse, on board the Titanic may explain why the myth persists today.

Titanic’s Messy Evacuation

Though most of the crew and passengers didn’t know it at the time, the Titanic’s fate was sealed the moment it collided with an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912. Captain E.J. Smith promptly had the lifeboats uncovered, but he needed to be reminded to give the orders to load them 40 minutes later, possibly because he was in a state of shock. 

He reportedly told his first and second officers to “put the women and children in and lower away.” But the two men interpreted the command differently. Second officer Charles Lightoller, who was launching lifeboats from the port side, thought that only women and children were meant to go in the vessels. Meanwhile, on the starboard side on the opposite half of the ship, first officer William McMaster Murdoch prioritized young children and female passengers while allowing any men standing nearby to board the lifeboats if there was room for them. 

The RMS Titanic
The RMS Titanic / Print Collector/GettyImages

Lightoller’s actions led to many lifeboats, which could have carried 1178 people altogether, being launched at half capacity. Only 705 of the roughly 2200 people who boarded the ship lived. Titanic’s women were 50 percent more likely to survive than the men, and children had a 14.8 percent higher chance of survival than the adults.

In addition to causing loss of life, confusion over the “women and children first” policy caused trouble for the lucky men who made it off the liner. Many of the childless, grown men who survived were branded as cowards upon returning home. J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line which owned the Titanic, faced extra scrutiny. Rumors accused him of pushing ahead of women and children to escape into the first lifeboat, or dressing as a woman to secure a ride to safety. In reality, Ismay survived by leaping into one of the last lifeboats lowered from the ship. Though he was exonerated in both the official British and U.S. investigations into the sinking, tales of his cowardice followed him for the rest of his life.

The Maritime Myth Lives On

Miscalculations on the parts of many people led to the Titanic’s tragic end more than a century ago. Even moments of attempted chivalry and decorum, like the adherence to the Birkenhead Drill, may have harmed more than they helped. The effort to save women and children first plays a large role in the mythology of Titanic, and as a consequence, the practice’s ubiquity has become on of the biggest myths in maritime history.

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