“TO STAND and be still to the ­Birkenhead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew.”

The sinking of the Birkenhead, from a print by Thomas Hemy

Kipling’s words recall the heroism of a famous naval disaster. The last few days have seen the anniversaries of the sinking of two troopships – and both had Huntingdonshire men on board.

Tuesday was the anniversary of the loss of the Kent on March 1, 1825. The ship was taking the Huntingdonshire regiment, the 31st Foot, to India when she caught fire in the Bay of Biscay.

There were only enough lifeboats for the women and children sailing with the regiment. Luckily, another ship, the Cambria, came into sight in the nick of time. She took the passengers out of the boats, which then began shuttling between her and the burning Kent.

The captain of the Kent and the colonel of the regiment were the last to leave the stricken ship before it blew up.

But thanks to the soldiers’ discipline only 76 of the 640 people on board died – and one ­soldier’s wife gave birth to a daughter in the midst of the rescue, and she was named ­Cambria.

When disaster struck the Birkenhead there was no other ship to help. The troopship hit a reef off South Africa on February 26, 1852. Once again the women and children were sent to safety in what few lifeboats there were.

The soldiers on board were drawn up on deck and stood on parade as the ship broke in two and sank. They knew that if they tried to reach the lifeboats they would swamp them. The number on board was almost exactly the same as the Kent – 643 – but this time 450 drowned.

Among the few soldiers to survive was Private John Smith, 19, of the Queen’s Royal Regiment of Foot. He managed to reach the shore after 14 hours clinging to a raft in the shark-infested water.

Private Smith was born in St Ives and returned there when he left the army. When the 50th anniversary of the sinking was marked in 1902, he was nearly 70 and one of 11 survivors still living.

The officers of his old regiment clubbed together and sent one pound to the mayor of St Ives, who passed it on to Mr Smith in ­instalments of 2s 6d (12½p) a week.

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