Antarctic Philately Home Page Hall Collection B.U.T. Continued

American Society of Polar Philatelists


A monthly reprint of the longest-running feature column in the Ice Cap News


( Back Up Tidbits )

B.U.T. is intended to provide snippets of additional information or extracts of pertinent, existing facts about expeditions and their postal history that may cause us to muse or be amused by some unusual element of polar history philately.

From the Ice Cap News, Vol. 40, No. 1 (JAN - MAR 1995)

"Generation X" calls singer Bruce Springsteen the Boss. B U T --

polar aficionados have known for nearly four generations who the Boss was. This is the highly respectful moniker given to Sir Ernest Shackleton by those who accompanied him on his Antarctic adventures.

He triumphed but suffered on Scott's first (1901-03) expedition (fig. 1) 1. Then he fully redeemed his reputation the first Antarctic expedition he led (1907-09), while making Antarctic traverse and polar philatelic history (fig. 2) 2. The war years Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17) probably is his most compelling polar project (fig. 3). He lost a ship, stranded an expedition, however, didn't lose one member during years of survival ordeal. 3

Shackleton ended his polar career in a manner that could have been scripted by Hollywood. The Boss succumbed unexpectedly in his sleep aboard his vessel Quest at South Georgia on 5 January 1922. It was just about to head farther south to explore the Antarctic continent on the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition (fig. 4). 4

He remains buried on South Georgia, near to where his heart was, B U T --

this renown figure of the Heroic Age for his Antarctic exploration - - also had an Arctic side. It isn't as monumental as his south polar experience. And certainly isn't as well known. There were triumphs and misfortunes, as there were with his Antarctic encounters. And as with his Antarctic history, the Arctic interlude even can be postally documented.

Sir Ernest felt uncomfortable that he wasn't militarily serving his country while his colleagues were engaged in World War I. 5 Shackleton first spent most of the war period on his failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Then he used much of what was left of it to rescue the remainder of his scattered expedition.

There is an impression that the British powers really weren't interested in his services, once he made himself available for a war that almost was at an end. 6 Finally on 22 September 1917 he was given (as a civilian) a war-related semi-diplomatic mission to South America. He still was eager for uniformed service when returning the following April from this "propaganda" assignment. 7

Fortunately for the Boss there just had been a Russian Revolution. Unfortunately for the Allies, it meant the end of their Eastern Front. Russia's leaving the war was leaving the Allies with many concerns. One of their primary anxieties was the possibility that a favorable settlement between the new government of Russia and Germany would grant their enemy some major advantages at a crucial time in this conflict.

Some of these involved the possible capture of over 60,000 Czech forces now abandoned in Russia (fig. 5/5a). 8 There also were the numerous prisoners of war that now might be repatriated for service again at the front (fig. 6) 9 The Allies of Russia had provisioned it well. Now these supplies might fall into the other side's hands. Raw materials also could have been more available to their adversary, as might have been some bases in the west. There also was some chagrin by the Allies at the precedent of a Communist government being established in their midst. 10

These concerns prompted a British-inspired, Allies-supported intervention of Russia. Essentially it concentrated in two theatres. One called the North Russia Expeditionary Force (NREF) was situated in and around the Murmansk-Archangel sub-Arctic region (fig. 7). 11 The other, independent of NREF, was mainly a USA operation (fig. 8/8a) called Allied Expeditionary Forces, Siberia (AEF Siberia). 12 Both theatres had forces from a number of nations, including Americans in NREF (fig. 9) 13 and about 70,000 Japanese (fig. 10) 14 in AEF Siberia. 15 The Siberian contingent fanned out from Vladivostok, generally paralleling the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

This virtually forgotten, and hardly understood (even by the public while it was occurring) military action has prompted several embarrassments. Most recently was the comment by (then) President Reagan to his Soviet counterpart that although the two nations always had been adversaries, they never resorted to military action against each other. Someone might have told the former president about the large number of medals of valor awarded to USA doughboys during combat in sub-Arctic Russia - - against other than their WW I antagonists.

One of this episode's first embarrassments was at the 11th hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. In spite of what school children were taught, fighting from World War One did not end at that time. The Allied Intervention of Russia, begun about six months before the cessation of WW I hostilities, continued into the early 1920's (fig. 11) 16 Most USA casualties during the Intervention occurred well after the World War I armistice.




It was this ferocious, yet halfhearted affair to which Sir Ernest found himself summoned in August 1918. He would be going in Army uniform as a Major to the NREF front. They would draw upon his skill and knowledge at outfitting personnel for survival in polar climes. After helping to design and order some specialized gear, he was posted to Murmansk to serve in logistics on the staff of Commanding General C.A. Maynard (fig. 12). 17 By February 1919 he would feel utterly useless and resign his commission to return the next month to England. 18

By that time he already had made a name for himself after having been in NREF for less than six months. The troop's specialty-designed boot would be named after him. He probably would not have minded declining this honor, because the Shackleton boot was roundly maligned by all the troops.

The modified finnesko was oversized without enough of a heel to enable sure footing. 19 It was discarded by those troops that could find other footwear. The rest developed odd ways of walking in them that left bitter memories in even the last veterans of this awkward conflict. 20

The rest of the Arctic kit he planned was greatly appreciated by the arriving troops. However, those awful boots had thousands cursing the Boss's name. Some sources note how well he meshed with the men serving around him. His personality always seemed to be agreeable to the troops and his peers, even if he didn't always seem to be well received by his superiors. This quality of his might have been what led to what probably is an apocryphal anecdote of this WW I sideshow.

A battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment was needed forward in early 1919 to reinforce and replace some USA forces that now were battle weary after having sustained high casualties in bitter weather conditions south of Murmansk during some of the worst fighting. As the story goes, someone was needed to lead this already-beleaguered unit several hundred miles through rough polar terrain to their new positions. Major Shackleton is credited by some with that leadership. 21

This unit, under another officer who would be its newly arrived commander, then would mutiny shortly thereafter. This is said to have precipitated similar refusals to fight in the units of other nationalities. The inference is that the troops followed well under Shackleton, but were uncontrollable once devoid of his commanding presence.

There is no question that the Boss had earned this title under rigorous conditions commanding personnel, which were not unlike a combat situation. However, other authoritative accounts of his life don't support this leadership story.

Shackleton's official title on General Maynard's staff was (in part) Director of Equipment, Clothing, Rations and Transport. 22 He was a staff officer in what today we would call an Area Command. Staff officers previously may have been leaders. They also may be capable of being very good leaders. Regardless, as a staff officer, they don't command. It is unlikely that a British Army Commanding General would have directed that a newly-commissioned Army staff officer (from the Merchant Marine, no less) does so, when so many other experienced Army commanders were present.

This probably fictitious leadership anecdote sometimes is supported by an entry referenced in The American Sentinel. This weekly publication by the American Red Cross at Archangel is said to have commented on a talk given later in Archangel by this officer from Murmansk. As we will see later, this event seems to have been confused with another one of Shackleton's North Russia perambulations.

His Arctic service seemed to have been routine. It appeared to have been too dull for him to accept. He is reported to have mixed well with his peers and the troops, but he felt that his best contribution had been made before departing for the front. So he took the opportunity to resign from this Arctic exposure for what would become his last Antarctic expedition. His resignation after having been in uniform for less than a year might appear to have been the act of a somewhat selfish, disappointed adventurer. BUT--

though he obviously now wanted to be free of his military service, there seems to have been more to this than simply the acceptance of a bored officer's commission.

Some of his fellow officers disapproved of his mixing personal business with his official duties while in Murmansk. Shackleton's persistent urge to find a financial brass ring wasn't cooled in North Russia. He conceived a plan to develop the rich natural resources he saw so abundantly around him. This was discussed with local leaders. It seems he even may have sought General Maynard's support, who is reported to have seen that his ideas were "officially recognized in London."

This might explain how this officer with very little service, in a theatre where almost everyone serving there and at home wanted the troops gone, was able to so easily secure his release. It now appears that officialdom may have seen a large economic development project as helping to preserve the tenuous anti-Bolshevik government in North Russia.

The departing officer didn't leave North Russia until taking a last look around at the area he was going to develop. He actually traveled alone to Archangel. 23 This was a sizable distance through some difficult terrain in the midst of a war zone.

Incidentally, this is probably when he delivered his talk to the troops at Archangel about his Antarctic experiences, which was reported in the Red Cross newspaper. With the exception of a short official trip with Maynard back to England in late 1918, there are many references to his not otherwise having left Murmansk during service on the General's staff. This pre-departure visit (not leading troops) appears to be the only credible indication of his ever having been at Archangel.

Back in London by March 1919, civilian Shackleton sought backers for his North Russia scheme. It never will be known whether this was the business pot-of-gold that Sir Ernest had been pursuing all his life. As with all of his business speculations, this one also came to naught. There was nobody to fund his investment in North Russia after the Allies ceded this region to the Communists in late 1919.

He now was gone forever from the Arctic. Soon he would be bound for that other polar region where he would succumb in an environment that he probably found far more agreeable. BUT --

his NREF experience was not his only Arctic exposure. In fact, it wasn't even his only Arctic adventure of 1918.

Just when it seemed in the summer of 1918 that Sir Ernest could not find any sort of meaningful appointment, he suddenly had two offers. One brought an Army officer's commission and eventual (though brief) duty in North Russia. The other was a commercial venture. Oddly, it too would be a bit of a strange endeavor with complicated motivations. And it also would be in the Arctic.

The Northern Exploration Company (NEC) had been involved in periodic mining exploration on Spitsbergen since at least 1905. It was one of several competitors of differing nationalities independently seeking to exploit Svalbard's mineral resources. They prospected in a sort of Wild West environment, free of governmental authority and rife with claims-jumping. NEC's last expedition from Great Britain had been interrupted by the onset of WW I. Its resumption didn't wait for the war's end. 24

Ernest Shackleton was asked to be the 1918 NEC expedition's leader. He prevailed upon the British Government to relieve Endurance expedition veteran Frank Wild from his military duties in North Russia, so that he could be second-in-command. Naval officer Wild had been assigned there since 1917 to assist with the arrival of supplies from the West to aid Russia when it still was a WW I ally. All this government cooperation for just a private mercantile activity during a war? Not quite.

Certainly NEC was a civilian business undertaking. Its principal purpose was exploitation of mineral resources for financial gain. BUT--

surely there was more to this in order for the 1918 NEC expedition to have been able to pursue its Arctic trip in the midst of a war through possibly unfriendly waters. This becomes especially evident when noticing that their expedition vessel was an armed merchant ship (Ella). Further supporting the subtle official sanction of this expedition was the fact that Shackleton apparently was granted permission to accompany the expedition, even after having been commissioned on 22 July for duty in NREF.

It seems that Britain was concerned about Germany's open claim to Spitsbergen. The 3 March 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty, that had Germany take Russia out of the war, contained a clause obligating revolutionary Russia now to support its former foe's claim to Spitsbergen. Not only could this provide Britain's current enemy with important natural resources, it also posed a danger to Arctic approaches to the North Sea.

There was an en route expedition delay at Tromsø that prompted two ominous events. One was his recalling by British authorities to fulfill his NREF planning duties. Wild assumed the expedition's command. The other was his sudden illness, for which Shackleton refused to be examined by the expedition's doctor (another Endurance veteran, James McIlroy). Dr. McIlroy suspected a heart condition. 25

The former event eventually would lead him to another business-quest dead end, driving him south for his last expedition. The latter would be a precursor of the fate his next expedition would hold for him.

So there were two opportunities in 1918 for Sir Ernest Shackleton to have been a part of some Arctic historical event. BUT--

these two chances might not have been his first. There was an earlier brush with an Arctic possibility that would have preceded all of these. It came between his duties on Scott I and those on the first Antarctic expedition he would lead.

The Russo-Japanese War just had ended. Russia was eager to withdraw and redeploy most of its troops as expeditiously as possible. They were in a vile mood, having been severely beaten by the Japanese (fig. 13). 26 Many were awaiting relocation from their positions in and around Siberia. One of the schemes with which Shackleton was a party at this time had him providing transport to Russia for sailing troops from a Siberian port to the Baltic.

Shackleton had just lost a bid for a Parliament seat in the 17 January 1906 elections, when a friend (George Petrides) offered him 1000 shares in a steamship company that didn't yet have any ships or customers. Shackleton saw himself as the new firm's "traffic manager." The other owners apparently saw him only as a silent partner, whose reputation might help with the Russian negotiations.

The loser in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) didn't have the capacity to quickly relocate all its forces in the East. It was seeking bids to move 40,000 passengers from Vladivostok at £40 for each officer and £12 per lesser ranks. Shackleton saw himself "making £30,000 in just a few days."

However, Russia wasn't the only loser from this event. It appears that the wily Russian negotiators only were using Shackleton's proposal to obtain more favorable treatment from the German Hamburg-American Line. 27

The fledgling firm didn't get the sub-Arctic contract. Shackleton had had another flirtation with failure. BUT--

for a while in 1905, it seemed as if the future Boss of the Antarctic, might have been beginning an Arctic career.



1 "Scott I" departure postcard with both Scott and Shackleton's autographs (ed. note: Scott is facsimile) and a Cowes, Isle of Wight, 6 August 1901 cds, even though the legend on the card states there will be a London cancellation.

2 See the "B.U.T." columns in ICN's May-June 1974, Jul-Aug 1974, Mar-Apr 1982 and Sep-Oct 1983 for more details about Shackleton's expeditions and the establishment of Antarctica's first on-the-continent post office. Figure 2 bears Shackleton's typewritten name in the sender's portion of an envelope from this first polar expedition he led, which is struck 4 March 1909 with his (and Antarctic mainland expeditions') very first expedition cancellation device.

3 Technically there was loss of life on this, his aborted attempt to become the first to traverse Antarctica. Captain A.E. Mackintosh, Rev. A.P. Spencer-Smith and V.G. Hayward died on the other side of Antarctica, while on a depot-laying traverse in preparation for the arrival of Shackleton's party, that, of course, never would appear. However, the deaths occurred in a far away supporting shore party landed at Cape Evans, adjacent to the Ross Sea, which was not directly under Shackleton's command. Historians tended to make this distinction when crediting Sir Ernest with miraculously leading first the survival, then the rescue, of the doomed Endurance party. Figure 3 shows both sides of a 5 December 1914 South Georgia-cancelled "Shackleton II" expedition envelope with its 28 November 1914 enclosure.

4 Hubert Wilkins sends mail to Prof. Innes in South Africa from the Shackleton-Rowett shipboard post office, with the expedition date stamp (25 May 1922) striking postage overprinted with one of the expedition's three types of boxed destination markings.

5 " . . . but the sound of distant guns in Flanders . . . affected him so deeply that he could not stay, and rushed back to London to obey their call and enlist." (Hugh Robert Mill, The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton [Boston: Little, Brown, And Company, 1923], p. 250).

6 Roland Huntford, Shackleton (New York: Atheneum, 1986), p 650. This was in spite of the lowering of standards that accompanied Britain's introduction of conscription (after enduring the first 18-months with volunteers). Sir Ernest technically was exempt (over age 41). He might have been rejected anyway, since even then he gave an indication of suspecting he was suffering with a heart condition (" . . . didn't want Army doctors to listen to his heart." [p. 649]).

7 Mills, pp. 251, 256.

8 Official intra-unit mail between a doctor with one of the Czech Legion's formations in Siberia and a headquarters element to the east at Vladivostok, struck with a "dumb" Czech Legion cancellation #1, probably mailed in early 1919. Barely visible red circular marking in bottom left is the section's cachet.

9 Example of prisoner of war (POW) Siberian camp mail, cancelled at Omsk, Russia, 11 September 1914, from one of the first (in this case an Austrian) WW I prisoners taken by Russia and interned in a Siberian camp. Censoring officer uses a manuscript censoring mark (lower right border) instead of a stamper that would see much use later. Red censoring circle in upper left shows additional censorship done upon card's arrival in Austria. POW identification SL cachet (in French) across center of card bears a spelling error that would be corrected in a later version of this marking.

10 John Silverlight, The Victors' Dilemma (London: Barrie & Jenkins Ltd., 1970), p. 1.

11 There was an extensive series of military post offices with cancellation devices for use of the scattered elements of the NREF. However, it was not in place for use of the first arriving troops. Their mail only can be identified by one of the distinctive censoring marks (in this case, "X20" in an oval) used then in North Russia, and an "H.M. Ships" receiving slogan with a UK cds (in this case dated 10 Sep 1918 on a card manuscript-dated by the soldier-sender, 25 August 1918).

12 Unlike other USA military post offices established during WW I, troop mail from this theatre had one of several distinctive cancellation devices clearly identifying the sender's location in a strike that made no mention of its being an APO (fig. 8). The "Siberian" dies weren't ready for the initial troop mail, that was struck (in this case on 15 October 1918) with a borrowed duplex device from the USA Post Office at Shanghai, China (fig. 8a), that had been brought by an incoming troop ship that had made an en route stop there.

13 Example of U.S. Army corporal with NREF passing a correspondence on Y.M.C.A. stationery through the British military post office at Archangel (designated "P.B. 2"). There was no USA military post office for this theatre.

14 Japanese soldier in the 7th Inf. Regiment of the Japanese 9th Division with his nation's forces at Vladivostok writes to Ishikawa, Japan, on Japanese Y.M.C.A. stationery from FPO 9 on 31 October 1921.

15 Christopher Dobson and John Miller, The Day They Almost Bombed Moscow (New York: Atheneum, p. 44).

16 A crudely-struck (as many examples are) of the large-size "U.S. Postal Agency / Siberia" hand cancellation, that ironically was used at Vladivostok on the last full day of World War One (10 Nov 1918). The U.S. Army Infantry Private First Class sending this letter to Iowa would find himself in Siberia still fighting well into 1919 - - and possibly later.

17 Self-censoring signature (authorized for officers) on mail to London by Major E.H. Shackleton through "P.B. 1" (the NREF British Military Post Office at Murmansk).

18 Margery and James Fisher, Shackleton (London: Barrie Books Ltd., 1957). By the end of that year, almost all of the Allied troops of the Intervention (with a few exceptions and most of the Japanese), also would be gone.

19 Fisher, #434.

20 Dobson, p. 118.

21 E.M. Halliday, The Ignorant Armies (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1960), pp. 180-81.

22 Fisher, p. 433.

23 Huntford, pp. 671-2.

24 Angus B. Erskine, "Victor Campbell and Michael Barne in Svalbard: the 1914 Voyage of William Barents," Polar Record, p 173 (April 1994), #117. This land would be terra nullius until 1920 when Norway would be granted sovereignty (while acknowledging certain other limited spheres of authority).

25 Huntford, p. 662.

26 Letter to Estonia cancelled 11 January 1905 at the post office of "Staff, 3rd Siberian Army Corps," from soldier in 283rd Infantry Regt., who apparently had moved from the sub-Arctic with his unit to meet the Japanese in Manchuria.

27 Huntford, p. 150.


Back to the ASPP Home Page   |   Back to the South-Pole Home Page  |  Next Page