Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917
Shackleton’s Original Team
The History Behind It All
In 1914, as the shadow of the First World War fell across Europe, an expedition led by veteran explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out to become the first to traverse the Antarctic continent. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, also known as the Endurance Expedition, would attempt the equivalent of a modern day lunar mission:
In Shackleton’s words:
“After the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen who, by a narrow margin of days only, was in advance of the British Expedition under Scott, there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeying – the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea”.
Polar explorations were a matter of national pride. At a time when many nations were racing to explore the last blank edges of the map, Shackleton took the lead in organising the first crossing of the Antarctic continent. In late 1913, Sir Ernest opened his headquarters at No.4, New Burlington Street and gave the expedition its iconic title in the hope that it would unite people across the British Empire. Soon after his public announcement, he bought a three masted icebreaker designed for polar travel and renamed it ENDURANCE after his family motto “By Endurance, We Conquer”.
Preparations for the Expedition
As for other preparations, his main tasks were threefold: the first was the recruiting of an outstanding crew; the second, to outline a scientific programme; the third, organizing equipment. The first task he enjoyed, the other two he felt were his duty. Shackleton had a talent for organisation and was a genius at fundraising.
Shackleton was a famous explorer, everyone wanted to work for him. In fact, so many people wished to serve alongside him that he received nearly 5000 applications. Frank Wild, one of Shackleton’s closest friends and second-in-command of the expedition, tore through thousands of letters, telegrams, and queries sorting them into three files marked MAD, HOPELESS, POSSIBLE’. Out of the last remaining hundred letters, Shackleton recruited about 30 men to crew the ENDURANCE and the AURORA, the expedition’s second support ship. The second crew would later become know as the Ross Sea Party; they would approach the Antarctic from the opposite side and lay food depots for Shackleton’s trans-continental team.
Life on polar expeditions however, wasn’t for dreamers. Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and driest continent on Earth, covered by a layer of ice three miles thick. The South Pole lies 2835 meters above sea level; the lowest ever recorded temperature was -89.2° Celsius. Most scientists and professionals who applied to join Shackleton were young men who had led comfortable lives. Most of them were unprepared for the solitude and rigor of work, which complicated the selection process. Of utmost importance to Shackleton, was the determination of a man’s character, loyalty and ability to follow orders to the letter. Shackleton described the task as:
“The men selected must be qualified for the work, and they must also have the special qualifications required to meet polar conditions. They must be able to live together in harmony for long periods of time without outside communication and it must be remembered that the men whose desires lead them to the untrodden paths of the world have generally marked individuality. It was no easy matter for me to select staff.”
Sir Ernest was a shrewd judge of character and insisted on face-to-face interviews. During his first encounter with many applicants, he held brief but intense meetings that lasted only a few minutes. How they answered was more important than the content of their replies. He was listening for enthusiasm and for subtle indications of their ability to be part of a team. What he was looking for in each man was optimism and the ability to share his vision.
Once Shackleton had found his unique band of scientists, explorers and sailors, he set about raising the necessary funds to secure the expedition’s finances. Shackleton had to do extensive fundraising; he took the very modern step of pre-selling the rights to photographs, films, and stories. Shackleton sent an elaborate prospectus and a personal letter to several hundred potential backers including the governments of Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. After months of fund-raising events, meetings and lavish dinner parties he managed to secure £50,000, the equivalent to £2.5 million in today’s money.
With funds secured, he turned his attention to stores and provision. He made sure the expedition was equipped with state of the art, scientific and photographic equipment and made sure that no one lacked anything. The very best dry-food provisions were bought ensuring they had a high content of vitamin C; the Endurance Expedition was one of the first pioneering expeditions to prevent the ravages of the scurvy, something that had affected Scott during his fatal trek to the South Pole three years earlier. Clothing, footwear, and camping gear were all bespoke and designed to Shackleton’s own specifications. In the end, the Endurance Expedition became the best equipped and best staffed venture of the age.
War was declared with Germany on August 1st, 1914 the same day ENDURANCE was due to sail from London. Shackleton knew where his duties lay; King and Country always came first. As soon as he received news that the Royal Navy had been mobilised, he relinquished his ship, his crew and equipment to the service of the nation. However, First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill under direction from King George V, sent a single word telegram: “Proceed”. Shackleton took this as a direct order and ENDURANCE set sail down the Thames Rives from West India Docks under the bright summer sun and the dark clouds of war in Europe.
After sailing nearly 8000 miles from London via Buenos Aires, ENDURANCE came to anchor in Grytviken Harbour, South Georgia. Here Shackleton would consult with the finest Southern Ocean navigators in the world, the Norwegian whaling fleet captains. Sir Ernest was warned that the pack ice between South Georgia and Antarctica was unusually thick for that time of year. After waiting a month for warmer weather he set sail southward leaving civilisation behind with the belief that the war in Europe would be over by Christmas.
Shackleton planned for a shore party to quickly establish a base camp at Vahsel Bay on the edge of the Filchner Ice Shelf. The men would make some initial scientific assessments of the coastal regions followed by a couple of forays inland. After fine tuning their equipment and plans to cross the continent, Shackleton and five other men would head south, using dog-drawn sledges and skis. Once they reached the South Pole, they would continue north towards the head of the Beardmore Glacier picking up stores and provisions laid by the Ross Sea Party earlier in the year. After descending from the polar plateau, they would rendezvous with the AURORA or the ENDURANCE at McMurdo Sound. In the event than neither of the ships was present, Shackleton had plans to overwinter in his old hut at Cape Royds the same hut he built back in 1909 during the Nimrod Expedition.
Sadly though, Shackleton’s optimism for an overland journey was short lived. After weaving a treacherous path through the ice fields of the Weddell Sea, Sir Ernest and his men came within eighty-five miles of the coast when their ship was trapped in sea ice one day’s sail away from Vahsel Bay. The temperature dropped dramatically overnight, cementing together the loose ice that surrounded the ship sealing their fate. Over a period of many months, immense pressure began to accumulate around the wooden hull and timbers began to twist and crack. The strong katabatic winds from the Antarctic plateau combined with the clockwise current of the Weddell Sea pushed the pack north-west carrying ENDURANCE and their hopes away from land.
Trapped in the Ice
Everyone knew that one of two things could happen, either the pack ice would thaw, break up and disperse in the spring, so freeing the ship, or it would consolidate and driven by the effects of wind and current over thousands of miles of sea would take hold of the ship and crush it like matchwood. The first real damage was to the stern-post at the rear of the ship when many of her frames twisted, she sprang a leak down below, and a desperate effort to keep her afloat had begun. Instead of being able to slip upwards with the increasing pressure, ice fragments 15 feet long began to raft up her sides pushing her over on to her port side. The bilge pumps were started and the leak was initially kept in check by the ships carpenter however, it was of no use, a death blow had been sustained. The rudder was torn clean off and freezing water flooded the engine room and provisions hold.
Eventually on October 27th 1915, ENDURANCE succumbed to the colossal pressure of the ice, sinking 2000 fathoms into the freezing depths below. With their ship gone, 28 men were left marooned on an ice raft floating about the surface of a frozen ocean. They had no control over the wind, the current, or the temperature. For five months, Shackleton and his men, were left drifting towards an uncertain end, they were castaways in one of the most savage and inhospitable regions of the world.
Prior to the ship sinking, Shackleton ordered three of the ships lifeboats to be saved along with, the sledging dogs, camping stores, and food provisions. Their larder was topped up with seal meat, dog meat, and penguins. The lifeboats were named after patrons of the expedition who had donated the most funds. Two of those, the JAMES CAIRD and DUDLEY DOCKER were manhauled in relays towards the nearest speck of land, Paulet Island. This proved to be an absolutely impossible task and the idea was soon abandoned to everyone’s bitter disappointment. Instead, Shackleton decided to sit tight and wait for the ice floe to move northwards towards the tip of the Palmer Peninsula. When the ice broke at the edge of the South Atlantic, they would all embark into the two little lifeboats and sail towards the nearest island.
Captain Frank Worsley felt that leaving the third lifeboat behind would summon bad luck; Shackleton who abided a great deal in the ways of the sea eventually agreed with his Captain. Men led by Frank Wild (Shackleton’s Second-in-Command) returned to the area where the ENDURANCE had been beset to retrieve the third lifeboat, the STANCOMB-WILLS. By a twist of fate, the third boat would be a blessing, on April 9th, 1916, all of the 28 men were forced into the boats, and there was barely enough space to move an oar! They rowed their way across open sea towards a bleak pinprick of land named Elephant Island, most of their journey endangered by the threat of colliding with tabular icebergs. Captain Worsley navigating their route by dead reckoning aboard the STANCOMB-WILLS would prove to be one of the finest polar navigators afloat.
Elephant Island was spotted on April 14th, 1916; it had been 497 days since they had last set foot on land.
That the men kept going during this time was a tribute to Shackleton’s leadership skills and his abilities and understanding of the importance of keeping up morale. The whole group were kept together in the monotonous and strenuous task of pulling laden lifeboats across broken up and ridged ice floes. It was now 14 months since the ENDURANCE had become frozen in ice and nearly 5 months since she had sank marooning them afloat an ice raft.
“As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company…Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm”
Stranded on Elephant Island
For the time being they were safe and more secure than they had been for a long time, but they were still stranded far from civilization with no-one knowing where they were or what their position was. There was no chance of rescue here. There were no shipping lanes in that part of the world. No radio at that time was capable of summoning help over such long distances. The outside world was not coming to Elephant Island!
Shackleton realised that in order to be rescued, he had to go and get help from the nearest inhabited place, that place was the remote island of South Georgia, 800 miles north-west across the stormiest ocean on Earth: The Southern Ocean. They expected to encounter waves 50 feet from tip to trough; many ships have succumbed to these waves never to be seen again. Shackleton would attempt this in a 22 foot long open rowing boat, the boat chosen for this legendary adventure with JAMES CAIRD (pictured above).
Worsley would navigate by sextant and a chronometer of unknown accuracy, at times estimating their position to within 10 miles. Accurate navigation depended on sightings of the sun to plot their transit across the ocean. For most of the voyage, the weather remained overcast limiting his navigation to dead reckoning with calculations made to ascertain a vessels position using course steered and distance covered. The influence of current and wind as well as errors in compass are taken into account before latitude and longitude are determined without the aid of a sextant. This is the most challenging test of a navigator’s skill and Worsley, excelled at it. The JAMES CAIRD sailed from Elephant Island on April 24th, 1916. Her crew were Shackleton, Worsley, Crean, McNeish, Vincent and McCarthy; the anticipated journey time was a month. It was to become one of the greatest open boat journeys of all time. After an incredible 800 mile journey across the Southern Ocean, immersed in salt water, sleeping on a bed of ballast stones, experiencing near starvation and dehydration, they made landfall on the west coast of South Georgia by sheer determination and a pinch of luck.
Once on dry land and fully recuperated from their ordeal, Shackleton made plans to cross the interior of the island to raise the alarm at one of the Norwegian whaling stations on the far western shore of the island. Shackleton, Crean and Worsley headed East across the uncharted interior of South Georgia, uncertain if they could cross it all but, the lives of 22 men left behind depended upon their actions. It would take them an amazing 33 hours to walk approximately 45 miles over vast field of glaciers, ragged mountains, and deadly crevasses. On May 20th, 1916, three men descended down the icy slopes overlooking Stromness Whaling Station. It would take a further four months and four rescue attempts to reach Elephant Island. Eventually all of the 22 men left behind were saved on August 30th 1916 by Shackleton aboard the Chilean ship YELCHO.
Later Shackleton would write:
“In memories we are rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in his splendor, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
Sir Ernest Shackleton
The Ross Sea Party
However, the story doesn’t end there.
The Ross Sea party was the second component of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and this episode is commonly referred to as the story of Shackleton’s “Forgotten Men”. Its task was to lay a series of supply depots across the Great Ice Barrier from McMurdo Sound on the Ross Sea to the Beardmore Glacier, along the polar route established by earlier Antarctic explorers such as Captain Scott. The trans-continental party, under Shackleton, was to land on the opposite side of the continent. Shackleton and five men would then march across the continent via the South Pole to the Ross Sea where a ship would pick them up. As the main party would be unable to carry sufficient fuel and provisions for the whole distance, their survival depended on the Ross Sea party’s stores depots, which would cover the final quarter of the overland journey.
When Shackleton set sail from London on ENDURANCE, bound for the Weddell Sea in August 1914, the Ross Sea party gathered in Australia prior to sailing south towards the Ross Sea aboard the AURORA. Organizational and financial problems delayed their start until December 1914, which shortened their first depot-laying season. After their arrival the inexperienced party struggled to master the art of Antarctic travel, in the process losing most of their sledging dogs. A greater misfortune occurred when, at the onset of the southern winter, AURORA was torn from its moorings during a severe storm and was unable to return, leaving the shore party stranded at Cape Evans.
Despite these setbacks, the Ross Sea party survived inter-personnel disputes, extreme weather, severe illness and the deaths of three of its members, to carry out its mission in full during its second Antarctic season. This success proved ultimately without purpose, because Shackleton’s main expedition was unable to land after ENDURANCE was crushed in the Weddell Sea ice. Shackleton eventually led his men to safety, but the trans-continental march did not take place and the Ross Sea party’s depots were not required.
The Ross Sea party remained stranded until January 10th 1917, when AURORA, which had been repaired and refitted in New Zealand, arrived to rescue them. To the astonishment of the Ross Sea party, Shackleton was onboard. After the ordeal of the trans-continental party aboard ENDURANCE, Sir Ernest travelled half-way round the globe to rescue the remainder of his men. It was at this point that they then learned for the first time the futility of their labours. After a further week spent in a vain search for the bodies of their missing friends lost in a blizzard, AURORA headed north for New Zealand, carrying the seven survivors of the original shore party. Public recognition of their efforts was slow in coming, but in due course four Albert Medals were awarded to members of the party, two posthumously. Shackleton later wrote that those who died “gave their lives for their country as surely as those who gave up their lives in France or Flanders.” What happened to those brave men forever stands as a testament to their strength of will and the power of human endurance.
Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. It is by far the most gripping, suspenseful and intense story anyone has ever told. One of the most harrowing survival stories of all time.
Sir Ernest Shackleton’s statue at the Royal Geographical Society, London (2011).