EXACTLY one hundred years ago today, on 20 January 1915, Ernest Shackleton and his crew, on board the Endurance, were waking up to the reality that they were stuck fast in an ice floe and were going no further. The evening before, the early frosts took their toll on the ship’s progress and, deep into the Waddell Sea, the Endurance finally ground to a halt.
The Endurance was one of two ships on Shackleton’s third Antarctic expedition – the Imperial Trans- Antarctica Expedition 1914-17. The expedition departed British waters on 8 August 1914. Despite the fact the Britain was at war, Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, directed Shackleton’s expedition to proceed.
Quite apart from the huge public interest which existed, I expect the notion of a British expedition expanding the reach of the empire and making new discoveries was high on the list of factors which decided that this adventure would proceed. In fact, though they were by no means the biggest sponsor, the British Government contributed £10,000 to the cost, which in today’s money, would be in the region of £750,000.
This expedition, ironically, became more famous for the solutions that Shackleton arrived at when things went wrong rather than the achievement of the original purpose– the crossing of Antarctica. This ambition would not be achieved for another 40 years, when a Commomwealth expedition succeeded in 1955.
But what strikes me about the whole adventure, when put into the context of today’s world, was the absolute isolation and, more particularly, the lack of communication.
Today, we are used to instantaneous information. This was very evident in recent weeks with some of the horrific events on the Paris streets captured by amateur video and broadcast to the world. In the same vein, though on a happier note, the chance video capture of Stephanie Roche’s goal in the Peamount v Wexford Youths match, catapulting her to world fame, resulted in her otherwise unlikely neck-and-neck placing with two footballing greats in the Ballond’Or Awards.
At least for Shackleton and his crew, they knew the reality of their situation, and certainly stretched human endurance to its absolute limits in overcoming what must have seemed impossible odds.
But spare a thought for their families, not to mention the sponsors of the expedition who were completely in the dark for an astonishing length of time.
To put it in context, up to the time their ship came to a halt, the last human contact for the crew of the Endurance would have been when they departed South Georgia on 5 December 1914, bound for the Weddell Sea. Six weeks later they were stuck fast, and they would now spend the next eight months at the mercy of the drifting ice-floe.
Throughout this time, there remained the hope that, when the spring came, which would be around September, they would be able to resume their voyage. But for the world at large, by September 1915, they had been out of contact for nine months.
Today, when people haven’t checked in with family or friends for 24 hours, or even less, there are alerts on social media, and we are very quickly at the stage of searches being organised. And taking this age of instant information a stage further, according to a recent study, it seems that the separation anxiety triggered by being deprived of your smartphone can even reduce some people’s ability to perform functions normally. Were the people of yesteryear made of sterner stuff?
Even if they were, it is still unbelievable to think that, since their departure from South Georgia in December 1914, the outside world would not hear again of Shackleton and his men until his arrival, with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, at Stromness in South Georgia, was reported in the newspapers on 2 June 1916, briefly knocking the War from the top spot in the headlines.
But the war did eclipse their return to Britain. No fanfare greeted them and many went straight to active duty in the Naval Service. For many years, their story fell through the cracks of history.
If I have managed to jog your memory about this amazing feat of human endurance, or, indeed, if the story had not been on your radar up to now and you want to explore the full story, I have a few suggestions for you. There are countless books and any amount of internet and online accounts of this story. But if you are in a position to, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to our neighbouring county’s, Athy Heritage Centre, there is a permanent exhibition including some original artefacts relating to the exploits of their native son, Sir Ernest Shackleton. The exhibition includes a scale model of the Endurance.
Equally, if you find yourself in the environs of Dún Laoghaire harbour, the Endurance Photographic expedition is a must see. There, for a very modest fee, you can see the stunning photographs which were amongst those which Frank Hurley, the expedition’s photographer, rescued from the sinking wreck of the Endurance circa November 1915.
There have also been a number of documentaries made, even one re-creating the epic open boat voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia. And I understand a biographical film on Shackleton is to be released later in the year.
Though all of these things may give us some notion of what this band of men endured, you would wonder if you could ever really tell the full story of the boatful of men who, one hundred years ago today, were stuck fast in the ice.
Now… where did I leave my phone.