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.
Denied but undefeated the men established Patience Camp, where they would sit and wait, for either the ice to break up, or to drift them to within striking distance of attainable land.
The former transpired first. On April 8th 1916, with the seas around them a brash brine of churning water and ice, their floe began to crack underfoot. It would be the following day before a lead of open water that could afford passage presented itself. But once it did, the 28 men and all they could carry, crammed into the three boats and set sail in search of land.
It is at this point that we can draw a line under the ‘confinement on the ice’ chapter of the story. The escape had now begun. It was a multi faceted journey, fraught with constant peril, cold, hunger, sickness, and stalked, at every stage along the way, by the impending doom of the near impossibility of the endeavour.
As they rowed away from Patience Camp that day, few on the boats could realistically have imagined how they could manifest rescue for themselves. But they did. The escape from the ice, would culminate with a pioneering traverse of an uncharted island, that lay a journey of more than 1,000 miles, from their position that day. On May 20th, Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, stumbled down from the interior of South Georgia, into Stromness Whaling Station, to reach the only vestige of civilisation, in the vast realms of the southern ocean. From here the seeds of the rescue of their comrades were sown.
It would take many months and three failed prior attempts, but on August 30th the impenetratable ice that had encapsulated Elephant Island, for so long, finally afforded passage to the rescuers, aboard the Yelcho. Within one hour of locating their comrades, all were plucked from the island, and they steamed away, bound for Punta Arenas, Chile.
Of course the saga was much more complex than the above paragraph can convey. Having initially set sail in the three lifeboats, on April 9th, the group would endure a gruelling seven day voyage, before making landfall at Elephant Island. It was the first time in 497 days, that the weary men had stood on land, and they became the first humans to ever set foot on the isolated outcrop.
A camp was hastily erected and hot food prepared and consumed, before a much needed night’s sleep was had by all. What Shackleton did not impart to the crew that night, was the fact that high tide markings, evident on the beach, meant their stay there, could only be a temporary one.
The following day, April 17th, the search for a site to establish a permanent camp, was put in motion. Frank Wild set off on an exploratory journey, in the Stancomb Wills, with Marston, Crean, Vincent, and McCarthy. Meanwhile Shackleton and Hurley explored the island, westwards, by foot, but turned back without finding anything suitable. Wild and the crew meanwhile returned, having identified a sand spit, seven miles westwards.
With no delay, all 28 men were back aboard the lifeboats, for the journey to the place they would call Cape Wild. It’s easy to consider this trip a comparative jaunt, when measured against their previous voyage to the island, but in the high seas of the southern ocean, this was to prove to be another perilous passage. Constantly they were battered and tossed by wind and waves, coming close to being smashed against the island’s towering cliffs on several occasions. Sailing close to the rocky approaches of landfall, especially when that land is in all reality, nothing more than a desolate rock itself, was the most treacherous of their endeavours thus far.
The Dudley Docker was almost swept out to sea, and when the Wills and the Caird reached their destination, the Docker was nowhere to be seen. Fearing the worst, as half an hour of securing and unloading the boats had elapsed, the men let up a mighty cheer, on seeing the Docker finally approach. Another desperate battle with the sea had been won, but their greatest of challenges still lay ahead.
They had established safe quarterage, but their hope of rescue was nil, as they were far removed from any of the era’s commercial shipping lanes. They were on their own. If they were to be rescued, they would have to rescue themselves. They needed a plan. Few, if any, would have determined that an 800 mile voyage, across one of the most violent stretches of water on the planet, in a lifeboat, during the onset of the Antarctic winter, was a feasible solution. In fact it never was. It was ludicrous proposal that bordered on suicidal. Yet it was their only hope of salvation.
The Voyage of the James Caird, was set in motion on April 24th 1916. It was Easter Monday in the civilised world the men yearned to return to. But the civilised world had collapsed utterly in their absence, and the battlefields of Europe were awash with the blood of a generation of their peers. Though they weren’t to know it, their destitute footing, on the desolate shores of Elephant Island, was perhaps a better station, than that of the slaughter and carnage of the Western Front.
Shackleton, Crean, Worsley, McCarthy, Vincent and McNish, would make the journey in the lifeboat, whilst the rest of the group remained on Elephant Island, under the command of Frank Wild. South Georgia was their target, and it lay a daunting 800 miles away. It would take them 17 days, to make the crossing, beset by wind, waves, cold, fatigue, thirst and hunger. Though glorious in it’s outcome, the voyage was an appalling ordeal for the six men, and conditions aboard the boat were simply wretched. To compound their gallant efforts, as they almost dared to celebrate, when approaching the black cliffs of South Georgia, they were enveloped in a violent hurricane. They would spend that night, and the following day in a desperate battle for their lives.
Ultimately, miraculously, they made landfall, but on the western side of the island. Stromness lay on the eastern flanks, hence the traverse of the uncharted interior, by Shackleton, Crean and Worsley. Harry McNish and John Vincent were extremely ill, after the boat journey, and remained behind at a place the men had named Peggotty Camp, in the care of Timothy McCarthy. The trio were picked up by the Norwegian whalers, shortly after their comrades had reached Stromness.
Timeline Of The Escape From The Ice
April 9th 1916 – Departure from Patience Camp to Elephant Island
The Lifeboats and their crews.
The James Caird
Captain – Sir Ernest Shackleton
Crew – Wild, Vincent, McCarthy, Hurley, Clark, Orde Lees, McNish, James, Wordie, Hussey and Green.
The Dudley Docker
Captain – Frank Worsley
Crew – Greenstreet, Cheetham, Macklin, McLeod, Marston, Kerr, Lees and Holness.
The Stancomb Wills
Captain – Hudson & Crean
Crew – Bakewell, How, McIlroy, Blackborrow and Stephenson.
April 16th 1916 – Arrival at Elephant Island
April 17th 1916 – Exploratory journey of Elephant Island (to Cape Wild), undertaken to locate a suitable site, for establishing a permanent camp.
Boat & Crew
The Stancomb Wills – Wild, Crean, Marston, Vincent and McCarthy
April 17th 1916 – Voyage to Cape Wild
All 28 men made this journey, in the three lifeboats.
April 24th 1916 – Voyage of the James Caird
Boat & Crew
The James Caird – Shackleton, Worsley, Crean, McCarthy, Vincent and McNish
May 10th 1916 – Arrival of the James Caird at South Georgia.
May 19th 1916 – The traverse of South Georgia’s interior.
Shackleton, Crean and Worsley
May 20th 1916 – Shackleton, Crean and Worsley arrive at Stromness, and the escape is complete.
May 21st 1916 – McCarthy, Vincent, McNish, and the James Caird are picked up by a relief ship, sent from Stromness.
Tom Crean, Ernest Shackleton and Frank Worsley were the three men who would transcend the entire ordeal of the Endurance Expedition. Given the desperateness of circumstances, considering the magnitude of the obstacles overcome, and the sheer enormity of sufferings and deprivations endured, it is a feat that will never be matched.
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. Whilst it can be said that Shackleton, Crean and Worsley completed the entire saga, it is worth noting that Crean’s inclusion in the crew of the Stancomb Wills, for the first journey to Cape Wild, on April 17th, sets him apart as the most travelled man of the endeavour.
That is not to detract from the enormous role played by all of his comrades in the saga, but merely a factual footnote, to the contribution of the mighty Irishman, in the odyssey that was the Endurance Expedition. Crean was a colossus, and his presence was always a calming and reassuring entity, to those around him.
He had joined the expedition, within a year of returning from Captain Scott’s ill fated Terra Nova Expedition. Crean had trekked to within 150 miles of the South Pole, before returning in the last support party, with Edgar Evans and Bill Lashly. They were the last men to see Scott and his companions alive. Tragically all five men, of the polar party would die on their homeward march, having reached the pole; discovering that Roald Amundsen had preceded them there, over a month before their arrival.
For the last 100 miles of their 1,500 mile round trip, Crean and Lashly had to haul Lt. Evans on their provisions sledge, as he was ravished by scurvy. On February 18th, 1912, Crean embarked upon his epic solo march; covering the final 35 miles of the journey, alone, and in 18 hours, to reach Hut Point and raise rescue for Evans and Lashly. For this feat he was awarded the Albert Medal.
The crew of the Endurance knew that in Tom Crean, they had a stalwart Antarctic explorer. A man who never shirked in the face of any, of the many perilous situations they were faced with. In fact when Shackleton planned to leave Crean on Elephant Island, to assist Frank Wild, with the remaining group, he was aghast. Rather than thank his blessings that he hadn’t been selected as one of the six to sail to South Georgia, he begged to be included. For days he pleaded. Eventually Shackleton relented, and would not regret his decision. In both of their memoirs, Shackleton and Worsley reference the spirit and character of Crean, over the course of that epic journey. His singing, albeit badly, at the tiller, as wind and sea battered them relentlessly, always raised the spirits of those huddled within.
Ernest Shackleton will always be remembered as the great leader of men, who defied all the odds, to bring his entire crew home from the drifting sea ice of Antarctica, having lost their ship.
Tom Crean should be remembered as the only man to take part in every aspect of the remarkable escape.
Photographs – From South With Endurance – The Photographs of Frank Hurley.