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 journeyings — the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea.
When I returned from the Nimrod Expedition on which we had to turn back from our attempt to plant the British flag on the South Pole, being beaten by stress of circumstances within ninety-seven miles of our goal, my mind turned to the crossing of the continent, for I was morally certain that either Amundsen or Scott would reach the Pole on our own route or a parallel one. After hearing of the Norwegian success I began to make preparations to start a last great journey — so that the first crossing of the last continent should be achieved by a British Expedition.
We failed in this object, but the story of our attempt is the subject for the following pages, and I think that though failure in the actual accomplishment must be recorded, there are chapters in this book of high adventure, strenuous days, lonely nights, unique experiences, and, above all, records of unflinching determination, supreme loyalty, and generous self-sacrifice on the part of my men which, even in these days that have witnessed the sacrifices of nations and regardlessness of self on the part of individuals, still will be of interest to readers who now turn gladly from the red horror of war and the strain of the last five years to read, perhaps with more understanding minds, the tale of the White Warfare of the South. The struggles, the disappointments, and the endurance of this small party of Britishers, hidden away for nearly two years in the fastnesses of the Polar ice, striving to carry out the ordained task and ignorant of the crises through which the world was passing, make a story, which is unique in the history of Antarctic exploration.
Owing to the loss of the ‘Endurance’ and the disaster to the ‘Aurora’, certain documents relating mainly to the organization and preparation of the Expedition have been lost; but, anyhow, I had no intention of presenting a detailed account of the scheme of preparation, storing, and other necessary but, to the general reader, unimportant affairs, as since the beginning, of this century every book on Antarctic exploration has dealt fully with this matter. I therefore briefly place before you the inception and organization of the Expedition, and insert here the copy of the programme which I prepared in order to arouse the interest of the general public in the Expedition.
“The Trans-continental Party.
“The first crossing of the Antarctic continent, from sea to sea via the Pole, apart from its historic value, will be a journey of great scientific importance.
“The distance will be roughly 1800 miles, and the first half of this, from the Weddell Sea to the Pole, will be over unknown ground. Every step will be an advance in geographical science. It will be learned whether the great Victoria chain of mountains, which has been traced from the Ross Sea to the Pole, extends across the continent and thus links up (except for the ocean break) with the Andes of South America, and whether the great plateau around the Pole dips gradually towards the Weddell Sea.
“Continuous magnetic observations will be taken on the journey. The route will lead towards the Magnetic Pole, and the determination of the dip of the magnetic needle will be of importance in practical magnetism. The meteorological conditions will be carefully noted, and this should help to solve many of our weather problems.
“The glaciologist and geologist will study ice-formations and the nature of the mountains, and this report will prove of great scientific interest.
“Scientific Work by Other Parties.
“While the Transcontinental party is carrying out, for the British Flag, the greatest Polar journey ever attempted, the other parties will be engaged in important scientific work.
“Two sledging- parties will operate from the base on the Weddell Sea. One will travel westwards towards Graham Land, making observations, collecting geological specimens, and proving whether there are mountains in that region linked up with those found on the other side of the Pole.
“Another party will travel eastward toward Enderby Land, carrying out a similar programme, and a third, remaining at the base, will study the fauna of the land and sea, and the meteorological conditions.
“From the Ross Sea base, on the other side of the Pole; another party will push southward and will probably await the arrival of the Transcontinental party at the top of the Beardmore Glacier, near Mount Buckley, where the first seams of coal were discovered in the Antarctic. This region is of great importance to the geologist, who will be enabled to read much of the history of the Antarctic in the rocks.
“Both the ships of the Expedition will be equipped for dredging, sounding, and every variety of hydrographical work. The Weddell Sea ship will endeavour to trace the unknown coast-line of Graham Land, and from both the vessels, with their scientific staffs, important results may be expected.
“The several shore parties and the two ships will thus carry out geographical and scientific work on a scale and over an area never before attempted by any one Polar expedition.
“This will be the first use of the Weddell Sea as a base for exploration, and all the parties will open up vast stretches of unknown land. It is appropriate that this work should be carried out under the British Flag, since the whole of the area southward to the Pole is British territory. In July 1908, Letters Patent were issued under the Great Seal declaring that the Governor of the Falkland Islands should be the Governor of Graham Land (which forms the western side of the Weddell Sea), and another section of the same proclamation defines the area of British territory as ‘situated in the South Atlantic Ocean to the south of the 50th parallel of south latitude, and lying between 20 degrees and 80 degrees west longitude.’ Reference to a map will show that this includes the area in which the present Expedition will work.
“How the Continent will be crossed.
“The Weddell Sea ship, with all the members of the Expedition operating from that base, will leave Buenos Ayres in October 1914, and endeavour to land in November in latitude 78 degrees south.
“Should this be done, the Transcontinental party will set out on their 1800-mile journey at once, in the hope of accomplishing the march across the Pole and reaching the Ross Sea base in five months. Should the landing be made too late in the season, the party will go into winter quarters, lay out depots during the autumn and the following spring, and as early as possible in 1915 set out on the journey.
“The Transcontinental party will be led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, and will consist of six men. It will take 100 dogs with sledges, and two motor-sledges with aerial propellers. The equipment will embody everything that the experience of the leader and his expert advisers can suggest. When this party has reached the area of the Pole, after covering 800 miles of unknown ground, it will strike due north towards the head of the Beardmore Glacier, and there it is hoped to meet the outcoming party from the Ross Sea. Both will join up and make for the Ross Sea base, where the previous Expedition had its winter quarters.
“In all, fourteen men will be landed by the ‘Endurance’ on the Weddell Sea. Six will set out on the Transcontinental journey, three will go westward, three eastward, and two remain at the base carrying on the work already outlined.
“The ‘Aurora’ will land six men at the Ross Sea base. They will lay down depots on the route of the Transcontinental party, and make a march south to assist that party, and to make geological and other observations as already described.
“Should the Transcontinental party succeed, as is hoped, in crossing during the first season, its return to civilization. may be expected about April 1915. The other sections in April 1916.
“The Ships of the Expedition.
“The two ships for the Expedition have now been selected.
“The ‘Endurance’, the ship which will take the Transcontinental party to the Weddell Sea, and will afterwards explore along an unknown coast-line, is a new vessel, specially constructed for Polar work under the supervision of a committee of Polar explorers. She was built by Christensen, the famous Norwegian constructor of sealing vessels, at Sandefjord. She is barquentine rigged, and has triple-expansion engines giving her a speed under steam of nine to ten knots. To enable her to stay longer at sea, she will carry oil fuel as well as coal. She is of about 350 tons, and built of selected pine, oak, and greenheart. This fine vessel, equipped, has cost the Expedition L14,000.
“The ‘Aurora’, the ship which will take out the Ross Sea party, has been bought from Dr Mawson. She is similar in all respects to the ‘Terra Nova’, of Captain Scott’s last Expedition. She had extensive alterations made by the Government authorities in Australia to fit her for Dr Mawson’s Expedition, and is now at Hobart, Tasmania, where the Ross Sea party will join her in October next.”
I started the preparations in the middle of 1913, but no public announcement was made until January 13, 1914. For the last six months of 1913 I was engaged in the necessary preliminaries, solid mule work, showing nothing particular to interest the public, but essential for an Expedition that had to have a ship on each side of the Continent, with a land journey of eighteen hundred miles to be made, the first nine hundred miles to be across an absolutely unknown land mass.
On January 1, 1914, having received a promised financial support sufficient to warrant the announcement of the Expedition, I made it public.
The first result of this was a flood of applications from all classes of the community to join the adventure. I received nearly five thousand applications, and out of these were picked fifty-six men.
In March, to my great disappointment and anxiety, the promised financial help did not materialize, and I was now faced with the fact that I had contracted for a ship and stores, and had engaged the staff, and I was not in possession of funds to meet these liabilities. I immediately set about appealing for help, and met with generous response from all sides. I cannot here give the names of all who supported my application, but whilst taking this opportunity of thanking every one for their support, which came from parts as far apart as the interior of China, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, I must particularly refer to the munificent donation of 24,000 pounds from the late Sir James Caird, and to one of 10,000 pounds from the British Government. I must also thank Mr Dudley Docker, who enabled me to complete the purchase of the ‘Endurance’, and Miss Elizabeth Dawson Lambton, who since 1901 has always been a firm friend to Antarctic exploration, and who again, on this occasion, assisted largely. The Royal Geographical Society made, a grant of 1000 pounds; and last, but by no means least, I take this opportunity of tendering my grateful thanks to Dame Janet Stancomb Wills, whose generosity enabled me to equip the ‘Endurance’ efficiently, especially as regards boats (which boats were the means of our ultimate safety), and who not only, at the inception of the Expedition, gave financial help, but also continued it through the dark days when we were overdue, and funds were required to meet the need of the dependents of the Expedition.
The only return and privilege an explorer has in the way of acknowledgment for the help accorded him is to record on the discovered lands the names of those to whom the Expedition owes its being.
Owing to the exigencies of the war the publication of this book has been long delayed, and the detailed maps must come with the scientific monographs. I have the honour to place on the new land the names of the above and other generous donors to the Expedition. The two hundred miles of new coast-line I have called Caird Coast. Also, as a more personal note, I named the three ship’s boats, in which we ultimately escaped from the grip of the ice, after the three principal donors to the Expedition — the ‘James Caird’, the ‘Stancomb Wills’ and the ‘Dudley Docker’. The two last-named are still on the desolate sandy spit of Elephant Island, where, under their shelter twenty-two of my comrades eked out a bare existence for four and a half months.
The ‘James Caird’ is now in Liverpool, having been brought home from South Georgia after her adventurous voyage across the sub-Antarctic ocean.
Most of the Public Schools of England and Scotland helped the Expedition to purchase the dog teams, and I named a dog after each school that helped. But apart from these particular donations I again thank the many people who assisted us.
So the equipment and organization went on. I purchase the ‘Aurora’ from Sir Douglas Mawson, and arranged for Mackintosh to go to Australia and take charge of her, there sending sledges, equipment and most of the stores from this side, but depending somewhat on the sympathy, and help of Australia and New Zealand for coal and certain other necessities, knowing that previously these two countries had always generously supported the exploration of what one might call their hinterland.
Towards the end of July all was ready, when suddenly the war clouds darkened over Europe.
It had been arranged for the ‘Endurance’ to proceed to Cowes, to be inspected by His Majesty on the Monday of Cowes week. But on Friday I received a message to say that the King would not be able to go to Cowes. My readers will remember how suddenly came the menace of war. Naturally, both my comrades and I were greatly exercised as to the probable outcome of the danger threatening the peace of the world.
We sailed from London on Friday, August 1, 1914, and anchored off Southend all Saturday. On Sunday afternoon I took the ship off Margate, growing hourly more anxious as the ever-increasing rumours spread; and on Monday morning I went ashore and read in the morning paper the order for general mobilization.
I immediately went on board and mustered all hands and told them that I proposed to send a telegram to the Admiralty offering the ships, stores, and, if they agreed, our own services to the country in the event of war breaking out. All hands immediately agreed, and I sent off a telegram in which everything, was placed at the disposal of the Admiralty. We only asked that, in the event of the declaration of war, the Expedition might be considered as a single unit, so as to preserve its homogeneity. There were enough trained and experienced men amongst us to man a destroyer. Within an hour I received a laconic wire from the Admiralty saying “Proceed.” Within two hours a longer wire came from Mr Winston Churchill, in which we were thanked for our offer, and saying that the authorities desired that the Expedition, which had the full sanction and support of the Scientific and Geographical Societies, should go on.
So, according to these definite instructions, the ‘Endurance’ sailed to Plymouth. On Tuesday the King sent for me and handed me the Union Jack to carry on; the Expedition. That night, at midnight, war broke out. On the following Saturday, August 8, the ‘Endurance’ sailed from Plymouth, obeying the direct order of the Admiralty. I make particular reference to this phase of the Expedition as I am aware that there was a certain amount of criticism of the Expedition having left the country, and regarding this I wish further to add that the preparation of the Expedition had been proceeding for over a year, and large sums of money had been spent. We offered to give the Expedition up without even consulting the donors of this money, and but few thought that the war would last through these five years and involve the whole world. The Expedition was not going an a peaceful cruise to the South Sea Islands, but to a most dangerous, difficult, and strenuous work that has nearly always involved a certain percentage of loss of life. Finally, when the Expedition did return, practically the whole of those members who had come unscathed through the dangers of the Antarctic took their places in the wider field of battle, and the percentage of casualties amongst the members of this Expedition is high.
The voyage out to Buenos Ayres was uneventful, and on October 26 we sailed from that port for South Georgia, the most southerly outpost of the British Empire. Here, for a month, we were, engaged in final preparation. The last we heard of the war was when we left Buenos Ayres. Then the Russian Steam-Roller was advancing. According to many the war would be over within six months. And so we left, not without regret that we could not take our place there, but secure in the knowledge that we were taking part in a strenuous campaign for the credit of our country.
Apart from private individuals and societies I here acknowledge most gratefully the assistance rendered by the Dominion Government of New Zealand and the Commonwealth Government of Australia at the start of the Ross Sea section of the Expedition; and to the people of New Zealand and the Dominion Government I tender my most grateful thanks for their continued help, which was invaluable during the dark days before the relief of the Ross Sea Party.
Mr James Allen (acting Premier), the late Mr McNab (Minister of Marine), Mr Leonard Tripp, Mr Mabin, and Mr Toogood, and many others have laid me under a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.
This is also the opportunity for me to thank the Uruguayan Government for their generous assistance in placing the government trawler, Instituto de Pesca, for the second attempt at the relief of my men on Elephant Island.
Finally, it was the Chilian Government that was directly responsible for the rescue of my comrades. This southern Republic was, unwearied in its efforts to make a successful rescue, and the gratitude of our whole party is due to them. I especially mention the sympathetic attitude of Admiral Munoz Hurtado, head of the Chilian Navy, and Captain Luis Pardo, who commanded the ‘Yelcho’ on our last and successful venture.
Sir Daniel Gooch came with us as far as South Georgia. I owe him my special thanks for his help with the dogs, and we all regretted losing his cheery presence, when we sailed for the South.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00