The Endurance Expedition (1914 – 1917).
“Tom Crean’s role in the escape from the ice, is unique in that he was the only member of the Endurance Expedition to take part in every aspect of it.”
The term ‘challenge’ is without doubt a gross understatement, if used in the context of the unbelievable survival story, that was the Endurance Expedition. Odyssey probably is too. Yet after much research, I settled on it, as perhaps the most suitable of existing words, to somehow convey the magnitude of what the men of the sunken ship Endurance, undertook in the wake of it’s loss.
Being trapped in the ice of the notorious Weddell Sea, in February 1915, was not a cause for huge concern, despite the unseasonableness of it’s occurrence. The ship being pulverised and eventually sunk, by the immense pressures of the ice floes, however, was!
Endurance, snapping and shattering, in it’s frigid white vice, was abandoned on October 27th 1915. The wreckage remained abob, awhile, until finally slipping below the surface, on November 21st.
The enormity of their predicament had of course registered with the group, long before the precipitation of the ship’s timbers, to the fathomless depths below.
All that separated them from an identical fate, was the very ice they stood upon. Ocean Camp, established within plundering distance of their shattered ship, had been their first settlement on the drifting floes.
Twenty eight men, a pack of dogs, one cat, stock, store and lifeboats, drifting helplessly in the southern ocean, on an immeasurable sheet of ice. They had made attempts to march westwards across the ice, hauling their provisions in two of the lifeboats. It was back breaking work, that yielded little distance. As Frank Hurley had noted, there was scarcely a square yard of flat ice. The conditions underfoot were in fact atrocious. The men sank in soft snow and the icy surface was a series of hummocks and pressure ridges.
The plan had been to strike for Paulet Island, Robertson Island or Snow Hill Island, all of which lay over 300 miles away. After a week of heavy exertion, which had seen the group cover a distance of only seven miles, Shackleton aborted the operation, citing that it would take them over 300 days to complete the trek. An optimistic calculation, given that it was formulated at their initial pace, and hardly factored in the inevitable deterioration of the participants over the course.
The Escape From the Ice.
“There were twenty-eight men on our floating cake of ice, which was steadily dwindling under the influence of wind, weather, charging floes, and heavy swell. I confess that I felt the burden of responsibility sit heavily on my shoulders; but, on the other hand, I was stimulated and cheered by the attitude of the men. Loneliness is the penalty of leadership, but the man who has to make the decisions is assisted greatly if he feels that there is no uncertainty in the minds of those who follow him, and that his orders will be carried out confidently and in expectation of success.”
― from “South: The Story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Expedition”
The expedition ship Endurance, was snared by the ice of the Weddell Sea, in February 1915, in latitude 77º south. Over the course of more than 1,000 miles, the ship and it’s helpless crew, would drift, at the mercy of the ice sheet that held them captive. At latitude 69º south the Endurance finally yielded to the immense pressures of the crushing floes, and sank.
The twenty eight men of the expedition, had no other choice but to remain on the ice, and try to eke out an existence. Foresight on their part had ensured they had afforded themselves a future chance of survival; as they had salvaged three lifeboats from the ship, before it was pulverised.
In order to sail however, they needed leads of water, when all about them was heavy pack ice. But even in Antarctic climes, ice melts, and once it begins it can be an alarmingly rapid process.
It would take months though, before the men of the Endurance would witness this. Their first settlement on the floes was dubbed Ocean Camp. From here the first escape from the ice was planned. All of the groups supplies were loaded into two boats, which the men attempted to drag across the ice. It was backbreaking work, that ultimately proved futile, and almost caused a mutiny.
The Voyage Of The James Caird.
April 24th – May 10th, 1916.
Tomorrow we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the James Caird reaching South Georgia, after a titanic 16 day, 800 mile journey, across the most volatile ocean on earth.
So slim were the chances of survival for the six man crew, as they left Elephant Island on April 24th 1916, that to all intents and purposes, it was their coffin that they dragged down the stony, perished beach, climbed aboard, and cast into the Weddell Sea.
The Weddell is a heaving, wind lashed, torturous monster, and the conditions the men endured, were simply horrific.
That they would emerge from a hurricane, 800 miles and 16 days later, and reach the rugged shores of South Georgia, is almost beyond comprehension.
But they did.
Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, Frank Worsley, Timothy McCarthy, Harry McNish and John Vincent – Remember them!
Arrival at Punta Arenas, Chile.
The Endurance Expedition.
“The Yelcho had arrived at the right moment. Two days earlier she could not have reached the island, and a few hours later the pack may have been impenetrable again.”
Within one hour of locating the 22 men of the Endurance, on Elephant Island, on August 30th 1916, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley, with the help of the captain Luis Pardo and his crew, had succeeded in getting all of them safely aboard the Yecho, and they steamed northwards for South America.
Rescue From Elephant Island.
The Endurance Expedition.
August the 30th 1916 would have dawned no different than any of the previous 127 days, for the 22 men stranded on Elephant Island, since their six comrades had departed the outcrop aboard the James Caird lifeboat, on a mission to raise rescue for them on April 24th 1916. As they had watched the tiny vessel disappear over the horizon into the monstrous Weddell Sea, Frank Wild optimistically opined that they would all be saved within four or five weeks.
But four long months had passed, and despite a daily rostered watch to keep lookout for an approaching ship, the castaways hopes had almost entirely diminished. It was all too probable that the Caird had been enveloped in the fearsome Southern Ocean, and the six brave crew had perished long before they had reached land. And no-one would know of the men on Elephant Island, and no-one was coming to rescue them either.
And as their hopes had dwindled, so too had their spirit, health, sanity and food supplies. Frank Wild, who had been given the unenviable task of commanding the group in Shackleton’s absence, had forbidden the stockpiling of seals and penguins, at a time when they were in plentiful abundance, as he deemed it a defeatist gesture. Now that the ice was closing in and encasing the island, the creatures had practically disappeared, and the group faced up to the very real threat of starvation. The ever fractious Thomas Order-Lees had noted “We shall have to eat the one who dies first …. there’s many a true word said in jest”* Continue Reading →
The Irish War of Independence
1919 – 1921
The ‘Black and Tans’ rolled into Ireland in 1920, their existence and purpose as devised by Winston Churchill was to provide numerical backup to an ever beleaguered R.I.C. force, who had become the bane of republican insurgents. Their initial brief was chillingly straightforward – revenge, retaliation and retribution.
And when a force compiled of men, most of whom had just returned from the atrocious theatres of death and destruction of World War 1, was allowed to dispense its own justice, unchecked and unquestioned, against an almost invisible enemy who had adopted guerrilla tactics , there was an unperturbed certainty that the civilian population would be recipient to the swift and brutal avengement.
Even today, almost a century later, there is scarcely a village or community across the land, that cannot recount some local tale of the barbarity and savagery, of the days when the ‘Tans’ rolled into town, or came knocking on the doors of rural homesteads. In a largely unmotorised Ireland, the wheels of nightmares were set in motion, upon hearing the approach of engines, winding menacingly through the ditch flanked, grass middled lanes, of the countryside.
The Voyage Of The James Caird Begins.
The Endurance Expedition.
April 24th 1916.
“The 20-ft. boat had never looked big; she appeared to have shrunk in some mysterious way when I viewed her in the light of our new undertaking.”
Ernest Shackleton on viewing the James Caird prior to the voyage.
The 28 men of the Endurance were stranded on Elephant Island, having reached the desolate outcrop on April 16th, after an utterly gruelling seven day voyage. They had sailed there in three lifeboats, salvaged from the expedition ship, before it was crushed and sunk, by the ice floes that had held it captive for months.
While it was a welcome relief for the crew to be back on land, after surviving on the drifting floes, since abandoning the ship on October 27th 1915, their survival chances were still very slim.
Elephant Island is a 29 mile long, fog shrouded, ice covered mountain, that supports virtually no vegetation, and was not remotely near any shipping lanes, which meant there was no hope of rescue from passing vessels. On examining their supplies, Shackleton estimated that they had approximately five weeks food, which could possibly be stretched to three months, at half rations. There was always the contingency of supplementing the stock with seals and sea elephants, but they appeared to have deserted the beach as soon as the men arrived.