THE GALLANT MIDDLESEX
Published in Cape Town in the ‘Cape Argus’ on 12 February 1917
The Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, which narrowly escaped going down in the Steamer Tyndareus off this Coast last week, awoke this morning to find itself famous.
The Middlesex Regiment, needless to state, has a great tradition behind it. It has distinguished itself in many heroic campaigns, but nothing in its Annals resounds more to its credit than the behaviour of officers and men on the occasion signalled by the King’s message of congratulation.
The Steamer Tyndareus was about to call at Table Bay for fuel and supplies. The weather was fine and the majority of the soldiers were watching another transport which was coming along behind, when suddenly a terrific shock was felt and the boat began to fill with water at a great rate. It was a critical moment for everyone on board. Panic or confusion would have resulted in a terrible disaster. But the men, from the highest to the lowest, behaved like heroes. All must have realised their danger. Indeed, they could not fail to do so, for the steamer could be seen to be going down by the head and threatening to take the final plunge at any moment.
The men responded to the commands of their officers as briskly and orderly as on parade and quietly turned up – with death apparently staring them in the face, they burst into song and cheered each other by joining in popular tunes. Boats were lowered quietly and carefully, and with the arrival of assistance all were got off, down to the favourite dogs. It was a magnificent exhibition of coolness, and worthy of the highest traditions, not merely of the British Army, but also of the British maritime service, for it must not be overlooked that the Captain, Officers and seamen of the Steamer displayed equal coolness and were under equally fine discipline.
His Majesty King George, in his message of congratulation to the gallant Middlesex, compares the Officers’ and men’s conduct on board the Tyndareus after the accident, with the behaviour of the heroes of the Birkenhead, whose exceptional coolness and bravery aroused the enthusiasm of the whole civilised world, and caused the King of Prussia to have an account of the incident read to his troops on parade as an example of splendid discipline and courage.
The Birkenhead was also rounding this coast and was in the proximity of Cape L’Agulhas, when she struck a reef. At once the ship began to fill with water. The soldiers and sailors, taken by surprise, and realising the danger facing them, sprang to attention at the word of command as though on land and in safety. There was no confusion, no panic – the Birkenhead, with the Tyndareus, went down at the head, and a well-known picture painted from fact supplied by an eye-witness, shows her with her stern high out of the water just as the Tyndareus is reported to have been at one time.
The great and gratifying difference between the two disasters was that those on the Tyndareus were saved, and the ship was towed into port in a sinking condition, whilst the majority on board the Birkenhead were drowned. They stood to attention to the last, some say, watching with a grim smile the sharks swimming around, and met their death like the brave men they were, without flinching. The loss of life was heavy, the Military loss being 358, and the Naval loss 87, but the story of that tragedy stands today as one of the grandest examples of bravery on record, and it is held in honour by the Navy as well as the Army of Great Britain.
And the coolness and discipline displayed by the officers and men of the Tyndareus have shown that the spirit which held the men of the Birkenhead together, still survives.
A fact which adds lustre to the incident is that the men of the Middlesex Battalion were not old and seasoned soldiers, they were many of them, at all events, young men fresh from civilian life. That they should have so quickly become impregnated with the highest traditions of the British Army and of the distinguished regiment to which they belong, is a wonderful proof of the great qualities of the British race.
My mother quotes this in her book of the letters, but frustratingly does not say which paper it was from. However, Nick Metcalfe told me it was the Cape Argus of 12 Feb 1917. Nick’s family is even more extensive than the Berrymans and he is researching the lives and military service of the 365 men buried in the United States who are commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves. Commission