This week the country is marking the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into the First World War. As Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in our House of Lords 1660-1832 section, explains, this was rather unfortunate timing for the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton…
Travelling to the Antarctic might appear a relatively extreme way of avoiding the opening action of the First World War, but this is what Sir Ernest Shackleton and his companions did in August 1914. Of course, there was no intention of avoiding anything; quite the reverse.
Almost from its inception, Shackleton’s expedition, which aimed to stage the first crossing of the continent, had experienced problems. After the disaster of the Scott expedition, appetite for this sort of venture had declined markedly. The Navy’s attitude was neatly summed up by the first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill: “Enough life and money has been spent on this sterile quest. The Pole has already been discovered. What is the use of another expedition?” [Roland Huntford, Shackleton, p.364] Shackleton, unsuccessful Liberal Unionist candidate for Dundee in 1906, was forced to call upon all his reserves of charm and charisma to persuade the establishment that another polar expedition was precisely what was needed and that the conquest of the continent could still be claimed for the Empire.
It was not just the purpose of the expedition that caused comment. Much of the funding came from private donation, but public money was involved as well in the shape of a government grant of £10,000. This had been queried in the Commons by one Member (Sir Arthur Fell) on 23 March and again in July by James Hogge, who wished to know which fund was being drawn on for the grant. The MPs’ concerns were valid. Shackleton spent much of his time avoiding frustrated creditors.
In spite of their reservations, Shackleton eventually persuaded the Admiralty to let him have one serving officer and any members of Scott’s expedition still in the Navy who were close to retirement. The army allowed him two officers, while Colonel Beveridge, a pioneer in the science of nutrition, helped design appropriate rations.
With just over a month to go, the international situation took a turn for the worse. On 29 June the papers ran with two prominent stories. One was of a substantial gift to Shackleton made by the Scots millionaire, Sir James Caird, bt.; the other carried a warning to Archduke Franz Ferdinand not to visit Bosnia. The latter proved rather late as the archduke was already dead, assassinated by the Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, the previous day. Throughout July as Shackleton continued to ready his ship for departure, negotiations between the great powers gradually broke down.
On 1 August, the expedition ship, Endurance, pulled out of port in London and made its way down the Thames, waved off by a small crowd and a single bagpiper. Two days later, Endurance was moored at Margate by which time Germany’s war machine had entered Luxembourg and was demanding unhindered passage through Belgium. By the time Shackleton stepped onto the quay, Britain’s Navy had been mobilized and his two army officers had quit the expedition to rejoin their regiments. The skipper of the Endurance, the Australian Frank Worsley, even advocated a small detour via a scrap with the German fleet before proceeding south. Shackleton cabled the Admiralty placing his men, ship and supplies at their disposal, but the Admiralty responded with just one word: ‘proceed’. Endurance left Margate almost at the same time that Germany formally declared war on France. Another stop at Eastbourne gave Shackleton another chance to assess the fast-changing pace of affairs. He was given another blessing (and union flag) by the king, though while he dallied he lost another member of his crew who had decided now was not the time to head for the Antarctic. Worsley too made an effort to be taken on by the Navy as a reservist, but was turned away. When Endurance finally left Plymouth on 8 August Shackleton was still in England settling last minute affairs and making a final attempt to offer his services to the Navy but was again rebuffed. He accepted his fate and headed south to rejoin his ship. An Austrian rival, Dr König, was not so fortunate. He and all his men were pressed into the Austro-Hungarian military and their vessel, Deutschland, commandeered by the Austrian Navy. It was later sunk in the Adriatic.
In the event, the expedition proved to be a disaster. Shackleton and his men never reached the mainland of Antarctica as their ship was caught in pack ice and crushed. Yet here too Shackleton proved his worth and was able to transform what might so easily have been a humiliation into a very British sort of success story. The expedition team salvaged what they could from the dying ship and made for the relative safety of solid ground in the form of Elephant Island. Shackleton and a small party then took to the open seas in one of the life boats, the James Caird, and made for the whaling station on South Georgia 800 miles away. Having arrived on the wrong side of the island, they were forced to traverse the forbidding mountain range dividing them from the station but made it there in time to telegraph for a relief ship from Chile to rescue the abandoned men.
Shackleton and his party returned to England in May 1917 beaten yet triumphant. Most promptly volunteered for service in a conflict that had far outlasted its original anticipated Christmas 1914 termination point. Shackleton himself was ruled out on grounds of poor health. Instead, he was despatched to South America to attempt to bring Chile into the war on the allied side. Of the 53 surviving members of the expedition, three were killed in the war and another five were wounded. Shackleton himself, who had been keen to emphasize the sacrifices of his men in answer to those criticizing the expedition, died a few years later while en route to yet another Antarctic expedition. He was buried on South Georgia.
Further reading: Sir Ernest Shackleton, South (1919); Roland Huntford, Shackleton (1985).