It all started out with high expectations. The title was rather grandiose ‘The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition’ but the idea was simple, for a team led by Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, to cross the Antarctic continent. Funded by the British government, and many individual donors, including Scottish jute merchant James Caird, the expedition was given the go-ahead in August 1914 despite the outbreak of a European war a few days before the scheduled departure.
Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, one of two making the journey, was captained by Frank Worsley. An Irishman, Tom Crean, looked after the 70 dogs with names like Slobbers, Painful, Shakespeare, Bummer and even Amundsen, who were expected to haul the explorers and their equipment across the ice.
But it all went drastically wrong when, in early 1915, the Endurance was encased in an ice floe and inexorably crushed to destruction. She had already been abandoned when, in November 1915, she sank below the surface, an episode recorded by the movie camera of the expedition’s Australian photographer Frank Hurley.
Shackleton managed to get his crew to Elephant Island, almost 350 miles from where the Endurance had gone down. But the chances of rescue were slim. The celebrated decision was then taken to launch the small lifeboat, named the James Caird, after the donor whose money had helped create the predicament, and for six members of the crew, led by Shacklteon, to try and find help. Making the journey, in April 1916, with the famous explorer were two fellow Irishman, Kerryman, Tom Crean and Able Seaman Timothy McCarthy from Cork.
Taking only four weeks’ supplies of food Shackleton pointed the James Caird in the direction of South Georgia, more than 800 miles away. The navigational skills of the Endurance captain, Frank Worlsey, ensured that the small craft managed to reach its destination after 15 days but it was forced to land on the southern shore of the island. Help, in the form of a Norwegian whaling station, was far to the north.
This opened the next chapter of the unlikely rescue of the crew of the Endurance. Shackleton opted to go overland, across forbidding mnountains in freezing temperatures, in a journey that had never been attempted before. He took Worsley and Crean with him. Famously, after 36 hours, they made it to the Stromness whaling station, on 20 May 1916, to the absolute astonishment of the Norwegian occupants of this isolated outpost of civilisation. It was another 40 years before British explorer Duncan Carse emulated the achievement of Shackleton, Crean and Worsley.
It was not until August 1916 that he explorer was able to rescue the bulk of the original Endurance crew and bring them all to safety.
When Shackleton returned to civilisation one of the first questions he asked was about the final outcome of the war that had just broken out when he and his crew had left for the South Pole. He was shocked to be informed that the outcome was still to be decided. The Great War, already two years old, would continue for a further two years and three months.
The Endurance, after being slowly crushed by pack ice for ten months, finally succumbed and sank 99 years ago on this day.