Ernest H. Shackleton

Shackleton Returns to Europe

As Shackleton returned to England, in May of 1917, the war continued to rage on in Europe. At 42 years of age, Shackleton was one year beyond conscription age. Even though authorities were lowering acceptance standards, joining the Army meant a medical exam; under no circumstances would he allow Army doctors to listen to his heart. Meanwhile, more than 30 members of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition, from both the Weddell Sea and Ross Sea branches, were fighting with the forces. McCarthy, who had survived the open-boat journey, had already been killed at sea. Possibly fearing rejection by the medical doctors, his attention turned elsewhere. By August 1917, Shackleton was bombarding the War Office with offers to go to France to serve on front-line transport. He tried the Foreign Office for a mission to Italy. But all attempts resulted in failure. He was drinking a little too much and his appearance was of a man aged well beyond his years. Shackleton was introduced to Sir Edward Carson, an Anglo-Irishman who had just become Minister without Portfolio in Lloyd George's War Cabinet. Carson, dissatisfied with the conduct of the war in general and propaganda in particular, dispatched Shackleton to South America where propaganda was notably inept. Shackleton sailed for Buenos Aires, via New York, on October 17, 1917. German U-boats were sinking 300,000 tons of British shipping every month but even they couldn't stop Shackleton from his new mission. Immediately upon arrival in Buenos Aires, Shackleton dove into his work. "Dispatch no more propaganda literature to Argentine", Shackleton wrote back to London. He had found twenty tons of outdated printed matter collecting dust in warehouses around the city. Shackleton decided to aim his efforts at persuading the governments of Argentina and Chile to forsake neutrality and enter the war on the side of the Allies. It was all to little effect. In January 1918, Shackleton lost his patron in London when Carson resigned over Home Rule. Shackleton left Buenos Aires in the middle of March to return to London, via Santiago, Panama and the United States. When he arrived in London at the end of April, he was given the cold shoulder. There simply was no place in the official hierarchy for an amateur diplomat.

Shackleton now became involved in an undercover enterprise. A company, the Northern Exploration Company, was preparing an expedition to Spitsbergen. Shackleton was asked to be the leader. Ostensibly, the company was going to mine mineral claims owned since 1910 by the company. Since 1910 the Germans had a meteorological station at Ebeltofthaven in West Spitsbergen, which was only withdrawn at the start of the war. Spitsbergen was a delicate issue as it was administered by Norway, a neutral country. With the backing of the British Government, the Northern Exploration Company could establish a British presence on the islands. To prove it's commitment, the government provided the expedition with an armed merchant ship, the ELLA. Frank Wild, now commissioned as a temporary lieutenant in northern Russia, was selected by Shackleton as his assistant. By the middle of August, Shackleton was in northern Norway, at Tromsø, on his way to Spitsbergen; it was the first time he had crossed the Arctic Circle. It was in Tromsø that Shackleton suddenly became ill. He "changed colour very badly", as McIlroy put it. He suspected a heart attack. Shackleton refused to undress so McIlroy could listen to his heart. This was the first hint that Shackleton might be suffering from heart disease. Shackleton had to turn back, arriving in London in early September. Meanwhile, the leadership of the expedition was placed under Frank Wild.

The northern Russia campaign, said General Ironside, "was a side show of the Great War". Soldiers could hardly be spared from the front lines so troops were scraped from the bottom of the barrel to be sent to Russia. At this point, no one was going to worry about the condition of Shackleton's heart. Early in October Shackleton sailed for Murmansk. As Shackleton wrote, it was a "job after my own heart...winter sledging with a fight at the end". As he crossed the Barents Sea, he wrote to Janet Stancomb-Wills, "All is sheer beauty and keen delight. The very first...snow-squalls bring home to us the memories of our old South Lands. There is a freshness in the air, a briskness in the breeze that renews one's youth". "This day 3 years (ago) the 'Endurance' was crushed in the ice," Shackleton wrote to his younger son Edward, on October 26, "and we all were...sleeping on, rather moving about on, the moving ice with no home to go to. I have been to many places since then, now it is the other end of the world". Shackleton had just landed at Murmansk. A fortnight later, on November 11, the Armistice was signed. The war with Germany was over. However, war in northern Russia was not yet at an end; the Allied forces were now fighting the Bolsheviks instead. The north Russia force had attracted various polar explorers: Macklin, Worsley and Hussey from the ENDURANCE EXPEDITION; Stenhouse, from the AURORA branch of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition; Victor Campbell, the leader of Scott's Northern Party; Dr. Edward Atkinson, from the Scott camp and Dr. Eric Marshall from the NIMROD EXPEDITION. Shackleton's official job description was "Staff officer in charge of Arctic equipment". In all actuality, he was a glorified storekeeper. He had done most of his work in London and the outfits he now provided were doubtful; his own expeditions had been struggles against poorly designed equipment and clothing. The American troops in the region discarded the Shackleton clothing and boots and reverted to their own. Shackleton was now kept at headquarters in Murmansk with little to do. Shackleton wrote to Emily, "I have not been too fit lately. I am tired darling a bit and just want a little rest away from the world and you". The strain of a divided self was showing itself in Shackleton. "I am strictly on the water wagon now", he wrote to Emily at the end of January, 1919. He got thoroughly drunk on Christmas Day and, in his own words, "after a thought I have cut it right out it does me no good and I can tell my imagination is vivid enough without alcohol it makes me extravagant in ideas and I lose balance...I did not upset my superiors everyone was awash only it seems to take different people different ways. If I had not some strength of will I would make a first class drunkard". Shackletons' affairs were in a poor state; money was in short supply. Emily was fending for herself while Cecily was at Roedean and Ray, the eldest boy, was at Harrow. Shackleton hoped to cover the school fees from selling shares of his stock in the Northern Exploration Company, but the transaction never happened. By the end of March, 1919, Shackleton was back in London and demobilized after five months in the field. He was regarded well enough by The Times that an interview was requested. In that interview, Shackleton stated that nearly half a million people "threw in their lot with us...against the Bolshevist menace. It is thus not merely a question of saving our own troops, but a moral obligation to civilization...No domestic or political consideration should be allowed to interfere with steps being taken immediately to prevent anything in the nature of a reverse to our arms in these regions...In Murmansk, as elsewhere, the peasant is not a Bolshevist...but without armed support he is not let us be too late...the British people do not yet realize what Bolshevism is...becoming far worse than German militarism".



The Voyage of the QUEST


Shackleton was now reduced to lecturing on the ENDURANCE EXPEDITION. From December 1919 until May 1920 he appeared two times a day at the Philharmonic Hall in Great Portland Street. It was extremely boring to him and, besides, little money was raised as he often lectured to half-empty houses. The legend of Scott and his heroic but tragic march to the Pole was more the spirit of the times. At the Hall, Shackleton gave live commentary on Frank Hurley's silent film of the expedition. Images twice each day were presented on the screen, Shackleton having to live again and again through the death of all his dreams. Shackleton was repelled by the thought of working on the book of the expedition but, at the end of 1919, it appeared as South. The text was originally dictated to Saunders in New Zealand and Australia in early 1917. Shackleton had not touched the work and lacked the money to pay Saunders. The chronometers brought back by the Ross Sea Party were sold and the proceeds given to Saunders. Leonard Hussey did the final editing, without payment. The critics, in general, praised South. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who had been with Scott and was now promoting his own work, The Worst Journey in the World, praised the work. In his review of South Cherry-Garrard wrote of a comparison between Shackleton and Scott (two losers, in his opinion, with Amundsen the clear winner), "Do not let it be said that Shackleton has failed...No man fails who sets an example of high courage, of unbroken resolution, of unshrinking endurance. Explorers run each other down like the deuce. As I read with a critical eye Shackleton's account of the loss of the ENDURANCE I get the feeling that a good man to get you out of a tight place. There is an impression, of the right thing being done without fuss or panic. I know why it is that every man who has served under Shackleton swears by him. I believe Shackleton has never lost a man: he must have had some doubts as to whether he would save one then. But he did, he saved them every one. Nothing is harder to a leader than to wait. The unknown is always terrible, and it is so much easier to go right ahead and get it over one way or the other than to sit and think about it. But Shackleton waited...and waited, it seems quite philosophically...Through it all one seems to see Shackleton sticking out his jaw and saying to himself that he is not going to be beaten by any conditions which were ever created. Shackleton had always given an impression of great grip--I should watch with joy the education of a shirker who served under the Boss. A picture haunts my mind--of three boats, crammed with frost-bitten, wet, and dreadfully thirsty men who have had no proper sleep for many days and nights. Some of them are comatose, some of them are on the threshold of delirium, or worse. Darkness is coming on, the sea is heavy, it is decided to lie off the cliffs and glaciers of Elephant Island and try and find a landing with the light...Many would have tried to get a little rest in preparation for the coming struggle. But Shackleton is afraid the boat made fast to his own may break adrift...All night long he sits with his hand on the painter, which grows heavier and heavier with ice as the unseen seas surge by, and as the rope tightens and droops under his hand his thoughts are busy with future plans". South sold well but Shackleton earned nothing from it. None of the money borrowed for the ENDURANCE EXPEDITION had been repaid and most of his benefactors had written off their loans. One exception was Sir Robert Lucas-Tooths' heirs; his executors required Shackleton to repay the loan and since his only asset was the book rights, in settlement he assigned all rights to them.

Shackleton was drinking heavily again. He was also smoking and eating too much. He was putting on weight and was constantly hit with colds and fevers, and what he called "indigestion", which meant severe pains across his shoulder blades. As for money, he still had none. In the spring of 1920 he began expressing a desire to see the polar regions just one more time. In August 1920, taking Emily's advice, Shackleton wrote to Teddy Evans, now Captain E.R.G.R. Evans, DSO. Shackleton wrote, "I know you have always been a good friend to me; that there is not a spark of jealousy or backbiting about you, that both publicly and privately you have always boosted my work and myself, and stood by me so that I count you a real friend. This is no balderdash or gush on my part". Since taking part in Scott's second expedition, Evans had bitterly disliked Scott. He had befriended Shackleton, and in a rebuttal of Scott's constant belittling of Shackletons' achievements he wrote, "Those of Captain Scott's followers who made...the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier, were amazed at Shackleton's fine performance...His descriptions were so easy and so careful that every landmark was recognised...We easily saw from the copies of his diary, which we carried along, where we might look for coal and other interesting geological specimens...on the plateau we met with just the conditions he had described...we used his splendid charts, and generally benefited by his praiseworthy pioneer work. Indeed, Shackleton and his companions set up a standard that was extremely difficult to live up to, and impossible to better".

"Now", Shackleton wrote, "my eyes are turned from the South to the North, and I want to lead one more Expedition. This will be the the North Pole...Amundsen, I know from the Siberian side is planning to reach the North Pole. Why should I not get there before him?" Financing was once again an issue. Shackleton visited Canada and obtained the cooperation and financial backing from several prominent Canadians along with a promise of aid from the Canadian government. Shackleton now proceeded to gather a core group of experienced men and a hundred sledge dogs. While busy in preparing for the expedition, the Canadian government suddenly withdrew their support. At this critical point, an old school friend, John Quiller Rowett, came to the rescue. Rowett was an independently wealthy man, a man of many interests in scientific affairs. He was particularly instrumental in the founding of the Rowett Institute for Agricultural Research in Aberdeen. Rowett agreed at first to only finance part of the expedition but in the end agreed to pay for almost everything himself. Shackleton, once more, promised repayment out of future lectures, films and a book. But it was now too late for the Arctic that year so the Northern Expedition was canceled. Shackleton could not bare to wait any longer so he swung his attention from the north to the south. He would use the Antarctic summer to go south instead and, fortunately, Rowett generously agreed. Since little time was left, the dogs were canceled as not being needed and the program turned to concentrate on observation and scientific data rather than the making of a prolonged land journey.

The route was to be St. Peter and St. Paul's Rocks on the Equator, South Trinidad Island, Tristan da Cunha and the nearby islands of Inaccessible, Nightingale and Middle Island, Gough Island and then on to Cape Town which was to be the home base for operations in the ice. From here, the route would lead eastward to Marion Island, Crozet Island, Heard Island and then through the ice generally westwards to emerge at South Georgia.. From here, they would head back to Cape Town to resupply and refit the ship for the return journey via New Zealand, Raratonga, Tuanaki Island, Dougherty Island, the Birdwood Bank and home via the Atlantic. The goal was to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent, looking for "lost" or uncertain sub-Antarctic islands. He wanted to look for Captain Kidd's treasure on South Trinidad in the Atlantic and for a certain pearl lagoon in the South Seas. Also, he wanted to determine, "once and for all, the history and methods of the Pacific natives in their navigation across the Pacific spaces hundreds of years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic". The vessel in which they sailed was in pitiful shape and uncomfortable. Shackleton purchased her in Norway at the beginning of the year. She was a wooden sealer of 125 tons originally called the FOCA I. At Emily's request, she was renamed the QUEST. A baby "Airo" seaplane, the first plane to be used in polar exploration, was carried aboard.

The QUEST was refitted at Hays Wharf and on September 17, 1921, from St. Katharine's Dock, under Tower Bridge, Shackleton finally sailed. The QUEST had been intended for the Arctic expedition and was not suited for a long, trans-oceanic journey. She lumbered heavily in the trade winds, her engines too weak. Out at sea her boiler was found to be cracked. She needed repairs at every port of call. Against all this, Shackleton seemed to fight as he had always fought. Shackleton wrote to Janet Stancomb-Wills from Rio de Janeiro, "The years are mounting up. I am mad to get away. If I knew you less well I would not write like this but I want to open up...we...go into the ice into the life that is mine and I do pray that we will make good, it will be my last time I want to write your good name high on the map and however erratic I may seem always remember this, that I go to work secure in the trust of a few who know me and you my friend not least among them". The expedition seemed to have a beginning but, conversely, no end. The expedition geologist, Vibert Douglas, "hoped to find some mineral deposit that would get him out of his financial straits". The cameraman, an Australian named George (later Sir Hubert) Wilkins, believed this voyage was "to be a long, but not entirely selfish joy ride...a last expedition (Shackleton) was determined to have". Dr. Macklin wrote, "There is something different in him this trip as compared with the last which I do not understand". It was late December and they were being tossed about in the South Atlantic on their way to South Georgia. On board QUEST, Shackleton was constantly ill. His broad face was pale and pinched. At Rio de Janeiro, Shackleton had a massive heart attack but, as usual, refused to be examined. Macklin knew he was suffering from heart disease. All the physical problems which Shackleton had tried so hard to hide were now falling into a pattern. It went back at least three years to the suspected heart attack during the Spitsbergen expedition; at the time Macklin simply thought it angina. Shackleton was noticeably drinking more. He drank champagne in the morning, possibly to ease the pain. Against Macklins' orders, Shackleton insisted on staying on the bridge four nights in a row during a storm. More than anything else, Shackleton's mental changes troubled Macklin. He had no plans, and the only certainty was that South Georgia was to be their first port of call after leaving Rio. A great deal of the time was spent listening to Hussey strumming his banjo, the same banjo he had on Elephant Island. "The Boss", Macklin wrote on December 31, 1921, "says...quite frankly that he does not know what he will do after S. Georgia. I do not understand his enigmatical attitude". Another of the men on board, James Dell, was suddenly confided in by Shackleton. Dell, his old messdeck friend from DISCOVERY, held similar views of Scott. After all the years, Shackleton still burned with resentment at the way Scott had made him publicly give up rights to McMurdo Sound, and thus forced him to break his promise when he sailed there on the NIMROD after all. That was the albatross around his neck.

Finally, on January 4, 1922, the QUEST came within view of South Georgia. "Like a pair of excitable kids", said Worsley, he and Shackleton "were rushing around showing everyone where we first came over the mountains on our 1916 tramp across S.G. from King Haakon (Bay) to Stromness Bay after our boat journey from Elephant Id. Finally the 'Boss' called me when I was on the bridge to come & show some of the others a point he wasn't quite sure of, but I couldn't leave here at the time & came down later, but the dear old 'Boss' was quite prepared for me to let the ship wander along on her own". The Quest anchored outside the whaling station of Grytviken; it had been eight years since Shackleton had sailed up the same fjord in ENDURANCE on his way to the Weddell Sea. Surprisingly, many of the same old faces were there. Fridthjof Jacobsen was still station manager. He came out in a boat and took Shackleton ashore. Macklin was not surprised when in the early hours he was called to Shackleton, and found him in the midst of another heart attack. Macklin, as many times before, told him he would have to change his style of life. Macklin said that Shackleton replied, "You're always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?" A few minutes later, in the wee hours of January 5, 1922, Shackleton was dead.

Shackleton's body was to be sent back to England for burial. With it went Hussey, who had no heart for the expedition now that his leader was dead. When Emily heard what had happened, she decided that her husband should be buried on South Georgia. His spirit had no place in England...if he had a home on earth, it must be among the mystic crags and glaciers of the island in the Southern Ocean which had meant so much to him. So from Montevideo, Hussey turned around and brought the body back to South Georgia. There, on March 5, he was laid to rest in the Norwegian cemetery, along with the whalers amongst whom he had felt at home.

Built by His Shipmates, Shackleton's Memorial on
South Georgia Island at King Edward Point



Shackleton, by Roland Huntford.

The Heart of the Antarctic, by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Aurora Australis, by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Shackleton's Lieutenant, by A.L.A. Mackintosh.

South, by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest, second edition.

Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events, by Robert K. Headland.

The History and Postal History of Tristan da Cunha, by George Crabb.