Shackleton Finale - Concluding Post
Having survived an arduous 36 hour march across the treacherous interior of South Georgia, Sir Ernest Shackleton, accompanied by his companions Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, arrived at the Norwegian whaling station of Stromness on 20th May 1916. It marked the culmination of a miraculous odyssey to escape the ice-laden seas of the the Antarctic that had devoured their vessel, the Endurance, some 6 months earlier, and with it any hope of completing a crossing of the Antarctic continent. However Shackleton’s mission to ensure the safe return of all 28 men of the Endurance expedition was still to be accomplished, and he would spend the following months in a single-minded effort to rescue the men he had left behind.
The Crew of the James Caird
Shackleton’s most pressing task on arrival at Stromness whaling station was the rescue of the remaining three crew members of the James Caird, who had accompanied him in a death-defying 800-mile voyage across turbulent seas from Elephant Island to South Georgia. McNish, Vincent and McCarthy had been left behind at Peggoty Camp in King Haakon Bay, when Shackleton, Worsley and Crean had set out on foot across South Georgia’s unbreached interior in an attempt to reach civilization. The following day, 21st May, a whaler was commandeered to recover the men, directed to Peggoty Camp by Frank Worsley. The remaining three men were recovered without difficulty and their wait under the upturned James Caird was at a welcome end. Curiously the rescued men failed to recognise Worsley, and were incongruous as to why none of the trekking party had accompanied the relief boat, such was the disparity between the well-kempt and clean-shaven figure of the man stood before them, and the wild and disheveled man who had left them just a few days before.
Above Stromness Whaling Station, South Georgia [Credit: Frank Hurley | Scott Polar Research Institute | Royal Geographical Society]
Try, try, try again
With the crew of the James Caird all safely accounted for, Shackleton’s focus turned to the rescue of the 22 men left on Elephant Island. Just three days after arriving in Stromness, Shackleton secured the services of a large whaling ship, The Southern Sky, and set off for Elephant Island with a volunteer crew assembled from the Norwegian whalers, who were eager to assist their fellow seafarers. On their first few days at sea they made good progress, but the temperature was dropping rapidly. When the mist cleared on the morning of 28th May, they encountered impenetrable pack ice, still some 70 miles from Elephant Island. Only too aware of the difficulties the ice posed, and with the steel-hulled Southern Sky unsuitable to break through even the thinnest of pack, Shackleton reluctantly retreated to Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands, where their remaining coal supplies could deliver them.
Shackleton was to make two further unsuccessful attempts to rescue the men on Elephant Island over the following months. With the British Admiralty dragging their heels, and unable to provide a suitable rescue vessel before October, Shackleton first loaned a trawler from the Uruguayan government, the Instituto de Pesca No 1, which set sail on 10th June from Montevideo, only again to be thwarted by dense sea ice. Painfully aware that the lives of their comrades might be the cost for unnecessary delay Shackleton, Worsley and Crean travelled to Punta Arenas in Chile, to find an alternative vessel capable of the treacherous journey south. There they met Allan MacDonald, a prominent British ex-patriate who worked relentlessly to aid their cause, securing them sufficient funds to charter the forty-year-old oak schooner, Emma, which was up to the task. They set off once again on 12th July, only to met with the same fate: their journey once again halted by unnavigable sea ice.
The Yelcho [Credit: Frank Hurley | Scott Polar Research Institute | Royal Geographical Society]
By mid-August the situation was getting desperate, and with no way of knowing the condition of the remaining crew on Elephant Island, Shackleton pleaded with the Chilean government to give him the use of a small tug boat, the Yelcho. The Chileans cooperated and, captained by the courageous naval officer, Luis Pardo, they set out on yet another rescue attempt on 25th August. As they sailed south, Shackleton clung onto the slim hope that the pack ice surrounding Elephant Island had dissipated and allow him to recover the 22 men still stranded on that most remote of outposts in the Southern Ocean.
The Men of Elephant Island
When Shackleton set sail from Elephant Island on 24th April 1916, he had entrusted the command of the remaining men to his close comrade Frank Wild. In the intervening months and under Wild’s able leadership, the men of Elephant Island had endured unfathomable hardship.
Letter from Shackleton to Wild, 23rd April 1916, Elephant Island
In the event of my not surviving the boat journey to South Georgia you will do your best for the rescue of the party. You are in full command from the time the boat leaves this island, and all hands are under your orders...I have every confidence in you and always have had. May God prosper you and your life. You can convey love to my people and say I tried my best.
Blackborow’s frost-bitten feet had become gangrenous, and the surgeons McIllroy and Macklin were forced to amputate the offending toes under candlelight using the last remaining chloroform. Rickenson had suffered a suspected heart attack on landing at Point Wild, and was in need of constant care. And Hudson showed the worst symptoms of the depression that threatened all the men in such a bleak situation.
With winter approaching they had established a more permanent shelter. Nicknamed “the Snuggery”, it was improvised from the upturned hulls of the two remaining lifeboats, propped up on low stone walls and covered with canvass. Although makeshift in construction, it provided reasonable, if cramped, accommodation for the party, and protected them from the worst of the cruel weather. Yet even with a much-improved shelter, and with a regular routine in place to eradicate the worse of the tedium, the condition of the men was deteriorating.
“The Snuggery”, improvised shelter on Elephant Island [Credit: Frank Hurley | Scott Polar Research Institute | Royal Geographical Society]
Wild was initially convinced that rescue would arrive within a month of Shackleton’s departure, and was therefore adamant that the long-term stockpiling of seal and penguin meat was defeatist. Unfortunately Wild’s prediction would be proven woefully over-optimistic and he was eventually forced to relent, recognising that the encroaching pack ice now threatened to render them unreachable for many months.
“All safe, all well, Boss”
Unbeknownst to Shackleton the condition of the men on Elephant Island was increasingly desperate, and by August 1916 Wild was forced to contemplate a dangerous sea crossing to Deception Island that December in the hope of intercepting a passing whaling ship.
Captain Luis Pardo of the ‘Yelcho’ to his father prior to his departure to Elephant Island:
‘By the time you receive this letter, I shall be dead or have returned with the shipwrecked men. For alone I will not return.’
On successful completion of the rescue of the men on Elephant Island, Pardo became a national hero in Chile. He turned down a £25,000 reward from the British government, saying he had simply been carrying out his duty as a Chilean naval officer.
But as fortune would have it, Shackleton was at that moment steaming towards them in the small steel-hulled tug, the Yelcho - his fourth rescue attempt. As they closed in on Elephant Island they discovered, much to Shackleton’s enormous relief, that the pack ice had broken up sufficiently to allow an approach. With no time to waste - as the capricious currents threatened to re-close the pack around them at any moment - they ventured forward. On the morning of 30th August 1916, with a heavy fog lifting, Worsley spotted the distant figures of the abandoned men signaling to them from their snow covered camp.
The rescue of the twenty-two men left on Elephant Island, 30th August 1916 [Credit: Frank Hurley | Scott Polar Research Institute | Royal Geographical Society]
Remarkably, and despite their sorry state, all twenty-two men had survived their ordeal. As Shackleton landed on the beach he called out to Frank Wild, “Are you all well?”. Wild responded, “All safe, all well, Boss.”
Within an hour they were all safely aboard the Yelcho and bound for Punta Arenas, and from there, home. Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance had defied insurmountable odds to escape from the Antarctic. It was, and remains, one of the most incredible feats of mental courage, physical endurance and steadfast leadership in the history of human exploration.
A letter from Ernest Shackleton to his wife, Emily. Dated 3rd Sept 1916
I have done it. Damn the Admiralty. I wonder who is responsible for their attitude to me.
Not a life lost and we have been through Hell. Soon will I be home and then I will rest. This is just a line as I have only arrived today and the Steamer sails at once.
Give my love and kisses to the children
Your tired Micky
When Shackleton finally returned to Britain in May 1917 he was greeted with little fanfare. The First World War was raging on, and the achievements of the Endurance Expedition had been understandably overshadowed. On reaching Stromness Shackleton himself remarked on the horrors of the war, “We were like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad. Our minds accustomed themselves gradually to the tales of nations in arms, of deathless courage and unimagined slaughter, of a world in conflict that had grown beyond all conceptions, of vast red battlefields in grimmest contrast with the frigid whiteness we had left behind us.”
Notably, Shackleton never successfully completed any of the stated goals of his Antarctic expeditions. He was not the first man to reach the South Pole - that honour fell to his contemporary, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Nor was he the first man to cross the Antarctic continent - that prize would not be obtained until 1958. Yet Shackleton’s legacy lies not in his apparent failures, nor even the boundless scientific discoveries his expeditions provided to the world, but in his relentless desire to explore. And it is Shackleton’s unique mix of unwavering optimism and staunch pragmatism, of individual endeavour and strong leadership, of physical endurance and mental courage, that continues to inspire people to this day.
Behind the Campaign
The research for this campaign was primarily conducted from Shackleton’s own account of events as described in ‘South - The Endurance Expedition’, and other third party accounts. In the course of our research we were fortunate enough to gain access to a copy of Shackleton’s original Endurance diary held at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge.
The surviving section of Shackleton’s diary covers an brief period in January 1915, and from October 1915 to March 1916, when the expedition party were marooned on the ice floes of the Weddell Sea. Although understandably concise, the diary entries reveal a man determined to deliver all his men to safety, in significant personal discomfort (made worse by his sciatica), and yet steadfastly optimistic of their chances of survival.
Some of Shackleton’s most expressive and revealing diary entries are listed below:
1st January 1915
I wonder what the year will bring forth for us. All hands seem very happy on board.
27th October 1915
The end came at last about 5pm. The pressure started again irresistibly and surely but slowly pressed her rudder over to port cracking and splitting the sternpost. They were gone: She was doomed: no ship built by human hands could have withstood the strain.
29th October 1915
I pray God I can manage to get the whole party to civilisation and then this part of the Expedition will be over.
1st November 1915
Strenuous day. Snowing hard all morning, cleared about 10am. Hurley, Wild, Worsley and (my)self went to end of floe on high pressure. Black outlook.
3rd November 1915
Went on board (Endurance) with (Mc)Ilroy’s team. Ship looks awful. Stores such as petrol driven through galley into wardroom.
4th November 1915
Fine and fortunate day. Rescued stores. First barrel nuts. Next sugar. Loud cheers. Next soda crystals. Groans.
6th November 1915
Snowing hard and blowing from South-East all day. Good fair wind thank God. We ought to be drifting North. Decided to have full rations till end (of) January then if ice not North abandon boats and make for shore. Everyone cheerful and happy.
7th November 1915
We made splendid run. 11 miles. This is really good.
9th November 1915
Beautiful day. Worked all day on fixing camp up. Sealing parties out. 3 Emperors (penguins hunted by) McIlroy. Good hoosh. Cook makes brown cakes. Hurley finishes negatives. 2 petrol tins full. Lee’s stores like country village shop. Every(one) fit and cheerful. Banjo going tonight.
10th November 1915
I saved my sponge from ship. Also chronometer. Rescued photos of Belgica Strait. Everyone full of food. Cheerful.
16th November 1915
Carpenter is making a splendid job with the whaler. Tonight salt beef and pickles and carrots excellent. Lunch swede pudding. Everyone cheerful and happy. Wild as usual calm and useful. Takes a lot of details off my shoulders. +27 today. Trust that this will dissolve the floes. Ship seems about the same. Exercised 3 of the teams.
17th November 1915
No news today. Reading ‘Eothern’ charming book. Men variously employed. 3 out with dog teams. Also seal hunters (had) no luck. Confined to this floe as ice is broken up a lot.
18th November 1915
Cheetham poisoned hand. 2 Emperors came to us. Killed for hoosh. Good hoosh.
19th November 1915
McIlroy cut hand. Cheetham poisoned. All little nasty cuts. Penguin steak (for) breakfast- tough.
Put footstep of courage unto stirrup of patience
21st November 1915
She went today: I was standing by H’s sledge at 4.50, saw the funnel dip behind a hummock suddenly: ran out to the lookout: at 5pm she went down by the head: the stern the cause of all the trouble was the last to go underwater.
I cannot write about it anymore. Sunday always seems the day on which things happen to us. Perhaps 10 days in the boats may put us safe ashore.
25th November 1915
Banjo concert (in) our tent tonight. Good hoosh. Lumbago better. McIlroy fixed my foot.
6th December 1915
Crean had to whip Surly. (He) severely tried to bite him. These dogs wonderfully tough’
Have cold and Sciatica but hope soon well
13th December 1915
Sciatica nearly well. Temp about 20+. Curiously have cold in head due to medicine for Sciatica.
14th December 1915
Sciatica practically all right: went for a walk. Trust we may keep this wind for another week at least. We are practically all ready for a start at 2 hours’ notice.
25th December 1915
Curious Christmas. Home thoughts. Seal steak and tea. The dogs are marvels.
28th December 1915
H and self went to pioneer. Passed heavy pressure and bad country then got onto thin ice then from the top disintegrating ice. Did not sleep. Thought the whole matter over and decided to retreat to more secure ice. It is the only safe thing to do. 24 hours sleep. Am anxious. I do not like retreating but prudence demands this course. Everyone working well except the carpenter: I shall never forget him in this time of strain and stress.
31st December 1915
The last day of the old year. May the new one bring us good fortune, a safe deliverance from this anxious time and all good things to those we love so far away.
1st January 1916
I long for some rest free from thought but thank God all are well and fit and safe. Cook doing well.
9th January 1916
Anniversary of our furthest south(ern position) last expedition. What a change in fortune.
14th January 1916
Finally decided in view (of) shortage of food to shoot the dogs. Wild shot 4 teams: death instantaneous.
21st January 1916
Wonderful. Amazing. Splendid. The most cheerful good fortune for a year for us: we cannot be much more than 170 away. Everyone greeted the news with cheers.
22nd January 1916
Better and better. 11 miles to the North. 155 miles to go!
7th February 1916
I am tired and anxious to get all out safely
19th February 1916
We may get out of this
21st February 1916
60 penguins. 20 penguins for 1 day cooking. Penguins very fat.
22nd February 1916
Penguin legs good cold.
26th February 1916
We are gradually nearing our destination. I only hope we can do it within a month and get out this year.
10th March 1916
People seem to be feeling the enforced idleness as no one can leave the floe owing to looseness of the ice.
23rd March 1916
A day to remember. I saw the land at 7.30. A black island. Long looked for. Cheered up by sight of land. Please God we will soon get ashore.
In Praise of Sir Ernest Shackleton
“For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” Sir Raymond Priestley, Antarctic Explorer.
“Shackleton had a genius—it was neither more nor less than that—for keeping those about him in high spirits. We loved him. To me, he was a brother. The men felt the cold it is true; but he had inspired the kind of loyalty which prevented them from allowing themselves to get depressed over anything.” Frank Arthur Worsley, Captain of the Endurance.
“Shackleton’s first thought was for the men under him. He didn’t care if he went without a shirt on his back so long as the men he was leading had sufficient clothing.” Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of the Endurance.
“Shackleton’s sense of responsibility and commitment came with a great suppleness of means. To get his men home safely, he led them across ice, sea and land with all the tools he could muster. This combination — credible commitment to a larger purpose and flexible, imaginative methods to achieve a goal — is increasingly important in our tumultuous times.” Dr. Nancy F. Koehn, New York Times, 2011.
In memory of Sir Ernest
On the 5th January, 1922, at 0250, Shackleton suffered a fatal heart attack aged 47. He died in his cabin on board his ship, Quest, while the vessel was in harbour in South Georgia. He had been preparing for his fourth expedition and the final episode in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Sir Ernest’s wife Emily, when hearing of her husband’s passing, insisted that he should be buried in South Georgia. And there he rests, in Grytviken graveyard. The head of his grave is the only one that points South, towards his spiritual home, Antarctica. All the others point east.
On the front of his stone is the nine pointed star, that belonged to the Shackleton family, and was used as a personal emblem by Shackleton himself.
And on the rear, a line from one of Shackleton’s favourite poets, Robert Browning, reads: “I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.”
The Shackleton company exists to protect and contribute to the long term legacy of “The Boss”.
We are a brand for those who possess the spirit of Shackleton, the doer of deeds, for those in pursuit of their own prize. The moments that make you. Your personal Antarctic - whatever that may be.
Shackleton - Made for the journey.
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