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Picture Library catalogue: Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1916

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Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1916

By 1914 both the North and South Pole having been attained, Shackleton chose a new goal for his next expedition, setting his sights on being the first to traverse Antarctica. The plan was to use two boats to land sledge parties at either side of the Antarctic with the aim of meeting on top of the Beardmore Glacier, and sledging together to reach the Ross Sea. Shackleton would lead the Endurance from the Weddell Sea, the second ship the Aurora was to head for the Ross Sea.

Shortly before departure Britain was getting ready for what was to be the First World War, which prompted Shackleton to contact the Admiralty and offer his ships, men and supplies for the war effort. They declined in a one-word wire ‘proceed.’ They left Britain on 8 August 1914 and sailed towards the Weddell Sea. Here they found much greater amounts of heavy pack ice than they had been expecting. They steamed along the barrier for a few days, discovering and naming the Caird Coast. They made slow progress through pack ice and on 19 January 1915 at 76°34’S the Endurance was beset in consolidated pack ice which had closed in around the ship during the night.

Whilst stuck in the ice the men lived comfortably but eventually they would need to leave the ship as the pressure from the ice was slowly crushing it. Frank Hurley, the ship’s photographer, took a series of photographs that depict the damage by the ice on the Endurance. By the 30 September lateral cracks were opening up along the ship and nearly one month later on 27 October the ship was damaged beyond all hope when her stern was crushed. On the previous day Shackleton had given the order to abandon ship and they had taken three boats, sledges and approximately a months supply of food, the rest inaccessible amongst broken timbers in the hull. A camp was established on the ice floe, but this could only ever be temporary due to dangers of its inherent instability. All ambitions of crossing Antarctica vanished as Shackleton now worked to get his men home safely.

On 28 October the men were instructed to get together no more than two pounds of essential personal gear and pack this onto the sledges. Hurley returned to the ship and rescued 400 of his negatives, but as he could carry no more than 150 he was forced to select the best ones. To make sure he would not be tempted back to collect anymore, he smashed the rest of his glass plate negatives. Ocean Camp was established on 1 November 1915 and a camp routine was established with each man given an occupation to prevent boredom or despondency setting in. The Endurance finally sank on 21 November. Three whaling boats had been taken from the Endurance: the James Caird, the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills, which had been put on sledges and dragged northwards in relays. There was a fear the boats would be damaged and so they moved to the strongest floe they could find and here set up Patience Camp. The ice floe on which they were camped broke off and got smaller and smaller. Shackleton ordered that the boats be packed and ready to go at a moments notice should the ice crack. On the 10 April 1915 the 28 men piled into the three boats and into the Weddell Sea, heading towards Elephant Island.

After a difficult journey the men reached Elephant Island on 15 April 1915 where they were overjoyed to be on firm land. Whilst this was a more comfortable camp they still had no means of communicating with the outside world and their chance of discovery on the island was remote. Their best chance of raising the alarm was on the island of South Georgia which had a large whaling station. However, this was 800 miles away and Shackleton felt that many of the men were too ill to continue on such an arduous journey. He therefore decided that he and a small crew would take one of the boats and sail to South Georgia after they had recovered from their journey. The James Caird was modified to make the 800 mile trip, sledge runners, crate lids and the cooks canvas windscreen were used to build a cover for the boat.

Shackleton, Worlsey, McNeish, Vincent, Crean and McCarthy set sail on 24 April 1916. They spent the journey divided into two watches of four hours on, four hours off. The men suffered terribly from seasickness, and were wet through for the entire journey. On the rare occasions they saw the sun Worsley had to be held steady by two men so he could read the sextant to position them. At one point the ship was almost overwhelmed by a huge wave and all hands had to set to bailing water, and for a while they did not know if it would be possible to save the vessel.

Eventually, they reached South Georgia, but unfortunately landed on the opposite side to the whaling station. Their best bet of reaching the whaling station was to walk across the interior rather than putting their boat to sea again. However, the interior of the island had never been traversed and was assumed to be impassable. The men rested in a cave and ate the island’s albatrosses and seals. When they were a little recovered Shackleton, Worsley and Crean set off to get help at the other side of the island. The distance was approximately 17 miles but the terrain was very heavy going. They set off at 3am on 19 May and walked without stopping across the Allardyce mountain range, arriving after a 36-hour trek at the whaling station on the 20 of May. In their shaggy, worn appearance they were hardly recognisable as human, but the Norwegian whaling manager was hospitable and gave them food and beds and arranged for the rescue of the men on the other side of the island. Worlsey accompanied the rescue ship; in his clean, shaven state he was unrecognisable to Vincent, McNeish and McCarthy with whom he had spent the last eighteen months!

Shackleton discovered not only that the war imminent on their depart was still in progress but that his other party – the Ross Sea Party, had also run into trouble. The Aurora had broken away from its winter quarters and had reached New Zealand after a long drift, the fate of the shore party was unknown. Shackleton therefore arranged two rescue trips, one for the Weddell Sea party still on Elephant Island and another for the party at the Ross Sea.

The men trapped on Elephant Island were under the charge of Frank Wild. Wild had managed to construct a camp, using two upturned boats, stones and a canvas which resulted in a reasonably comfortable shelter, where they stayed for 138 days living off penguin and seal meat. Each morning Wild would order ‘Lash up and stow boys, the Boss [Shackleton] may come today’. After a couple of failed attempts Shackleton did reach his men on 30 August 1916 in the Chilean steamer the Yelcho. All the men were well and all had survived their wait and were on board the Yelcho within the hour.

Shackleton then turned his attentions to rescuing the other party stranded at the Ross Sea. The Aurora had been blown out to sea and was imprisoned in the ice for a year before being towed to New Zealand. The Ross Sea party had managed to carry out their role in the expedition and had laid their sledging depots. The Aurora left New Zealand with Shackleton on board to rescue the men, reaching McMurdo Sound on 10 January 1917. Of the ten members who had been stranded, three had died, including the leader Captain Aeneas Mackintosh. The ship arrived in New Zealand 9 February 1917, bringing all the remaining members of the expedition to safety.

Many of these men would serve in the First World War including Shackleton who was sent to South America, and North Russia in charge of Arctic Equipment and Transport.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 13th June 2023.