Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Shackleton's War

Shackleton Statue, Royal Geographical Society

Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874–1922) was an Anglo-Irish explorer. He made four trips to the Antarctic, including leading the Endurance expedition during the first two years of the Great War for which he is best known. He planned to cross the Antarctic, but the ship was crushed and sunk by the ice, and after a series of life-threatening adventures, including rowing nearly 800 miles in a small boat in huge oceans, he returned with all his men alive in 1916. A remarkable achievement.

Birth and Upbringing 

Ernest Shackleton was born in County Kildare, Ireland. His father was a doctor, and the family moved to London when Shackleton was a child. He joined the Merchant Navy when he was 16 and qualified as a master mariner in 1898. He travelled widely but was keen to explore the Poles.

With Scott and Wilson on the Discovery

In 1901, Shackleton joined Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition to the Antarctic. Edward Wilson, from Cheltenham, was also a member of this trip. Shackleton and Wilson spent many hours doing scientific work together but also joined Scott on a trek toward the South Pole. The conditions were terrible, but before they had to turn back, they got closer to the Pole than anyone had before. Shackleton became so seriously ill that he had to return to the UK.

The Nimrod Expedition

Back in Britain, Shackleton spent some time as a journalist but did not abandon his dream of returning to the Antarctic. In 1908, he led his own expedition, on the ship Nimrod. During the expedition, his team climbed Mount Erebus, the world’s southern-most volcano, made many important scientific discoveries and set a record by getting even closer to the South Pole than before. He was knighted on his return to Britain.

The Endurance Expedition

Shackleton After the Sinking of Endurance

In 1914, Shackleton made his third trip to the Antarctic with the ship Endurance, aiming to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. The departure of the expedition coincided with the August outbreak of World War I.  The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, however authorized the expedition to proceed. 

Early in 1915, Endurance became trapped in the ice, and ten months later sank. Shackleton achieved the extraordinary feat of rescuing all his men, despite having to move from ice camp to ice camp, and then row to Elephant Island in three small boats. There he left most of the crew to live as best they could in two of the boats, upturned to form huts. Meanwhile Shackleton and five others rowed 800 miles to summon help through some of the strongest seas in the oceans to South Georgia. Even then they were not out of trouble, as Shackleton and two colleagues had to cross the mountains and glaciers of the island to reach the whaling station, Grytviken, a feat never before achieved. This epic trip led geologist J.B. Priestley to say, "For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton." All Shackleton’s men were rescued alive.

First World War

Shackleton returned to Britain in 1917, before the end of the First World War, and immediately volunteered his services to help the war effort. Shackleton had achieved remarkable things in the Antarctic, but Europe had changed while he had been away. He was too old to enlist and was not a well man (though he never admitted this). He begged the Government for a suitable job. He had good standing in Argentina and Chile: the people there had lined the streets in their hundreds to welcome the polar explorers back from their ordeal in the ice, and Shackleton had been lauded wherever he went. So he was sent on a mission to South America to promote Britain’s interests and find out exactly how Britain was regarded. He returned in April 1918, but it is doubtful if his report was ever acted on.

Major Shackleton in His Army Uniform at
the Time of the Northern Russia Mission

His next posting was to prospect for mineral wealth in Spitsbergen on behalf of the Northern Exploration Company, a job that in peacetime would have appealed to the treasure hunter in him. He was given shares in the company as an incentive and allowed to have some of his former comrades join him, and they set off to Norway to investigate. The real reason for the trip was undoubtedly to preserve mineral assets for the Allies; Russian exploitation was believed to be a real danger. But Shackleton had only reached Tromsø in Norway when the War Office recalled him for a more urgent job.

The War Office thought Shackleton was the ideal man to equip Allied troops with suitable clothing and equipment for overwintering 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Murmansk in North Russia was the only port in the area to remain open throughout the winter, and the Government wanted to ensure it was available for th—llies to use. The troops were also deployed to assist the counter revolutionary White Russians. Shackleton was delighted as he could at long last hold a military post, with the associated uniform—he was appointed a major—and the posting held the prospect of danger, sledging, and possible fighting. He was also able to recruit some of his former crew and also Scott’s. But the posting was not needed long, two weeks after his arrival in Murmansk the Armistice was signed. He returned to London in December and resigned from his role in February 1919.

The Quest Expedition

Shackleton's fourth and final expedition, in which he aimed to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent, was on board the Quest. He set off in 1921, but on 5 January 1922 he died of a heart attack off South Georgia and was buried, at this wife’s request, on the island.

Sources: The Cheltenham Trust


  1. Shackleton's name lived on into the '90s with the RAF's four-engine maritime patrol (and later AEW} aircraft the AVRO Shackleton.

  2. For those of you interested in following the footsteps of Shackleton, you should contact Angie Butler who owns a travel agency specialized in trips to Arctic and Antarctica.
    She already led a tour in 2014 on the journeys of Schackleton:
    Angie also published a biography of his right hand man, Frank Wild.
    Coincidentally, Angie is married to the famous British sculptor, James Butler, R.A., who has produced two WWI statues in honor the U.S. Rainbow Division, one in Fère-en-Tardenois (France) and the other in Montgomery (Alabama):
    Another work from James Butler, entitled the Return from the Argonne, will be inaugurated this November 11, 2021, in Montgomery, commemorating the Alabamians who fought in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in 1918.