Sunday, 4 January 2015

Shackleton's Forgotten Men - The Ross Sea Party - Part Two

Happy New Year. Let us kick off 2015 by concluding the story of the Ross Sea party.

To recap: In December 1914 the SY Aurora set out from Hobart carrying 28 men on a journey to the Antarctic. Their task had been to lay in supply depots for the final leg of Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which planned to cross the Antarctic continent from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. By the beginning of 1916 the expedition had turned into a disaster. Shackleton had abandoned the Endurance in the ice of the Weddell Sea and with it his hopes of crossing the continent. Instead he now focussed on getting the men under his command to safety. Meanwhile the Aurora, which had broken free of its moorings and been carried away in the drifting ice, taking with it much of the supplies required by the shore party as well as two of its members, remained trapped in the ice and in a precarious situation.

The wreck of the sinking Endurance Nov 1915 

Unaware of the fate of either Shackleton or the whereabouts of the Aurora, the ten men left behind on Ross Island had carried on with the task of laying the depots, trusting to the success of Shackleton and the eventual return of their ship. Having successfully moved almost 3000lbs of stores to a depot at Minna Bluff, at 79 degrees south, the shore party under the command of Aeneas Mackintosh now faced the task of establishing depots at 81, 82 and 83 degrees south.
The failure of two of the vital primus stoves forced a reduction in numbers on 8th January. Without sufficient means to melt snow, cook food and provide a little warmth, there was no choice but to send three men back to Cape Evans, there to join chief expedition scientist Alexander Stevens, who had remained behind to conduct meteorological observations and watch for the return of the ship.

This left six men to continue the work of moving the supplies south. With Joyce were 21 year old Australian science graduate Dick Richards and Victor Hayward, a 29 year old clerk with no taste for the nine to five and a thirst for adventure that had already seen him journey to Canada to work on a ranch.  With Mackintosh was Ernest Wild, younger brother of Shackleton's second in command Frank Wild. The last member of the party was Arnold Spencer Smith, a priest who had volunteered to join the expedition late on when another member had been called up for war service. There were also four remaining dogs, Oscar, Con, Gunner and Towser, who had not been used on the earlier trips.

The ten companions reached 81 degrees south on 12th January, establishing a depot for Shackleton and caching supplies for their own return journey. On they marched, through heavy snow fall that made visibility difficult. When the visibility was at its worst they were forced to stop to build snow cairns every two hundred yards in order to keep advancing in a straight line by keeping the last cairn in sight. Despite this and with the dogs pulling well, they reached 82 degrees south on 18th January, having made a respectable 10-12 miles per day. Here again they laid another depot. Once more they set out but after three more days Spencer Smith was at the point of collapse from exhaustion. He was left behind in a tent whilst the rest of the party pressed on to the final objective.

Mount Hope - 83 degrees south

As they moved closer to the Beardmore Glacier, the terrain became increasingly difficult to traverse, with pressure ridges and crevasses to be negotiated. The pace slowed and the landmark of Mount Hope at the foot of the glacier was not reached until 26th January. Here the last depot was laid, its position marked by a tall cairn of snow topped with poles and flags. The Ross Sea party had completed their mission and Shackleton's supplies, which he would never arrive to retrieve, were in place.

The men now set off on the return journey. They had 365 miles to travel to get back to Hut Point but conditions were deteriorating with frequent blizzards and the men's health was beginning to fail. Exhaustion and scurvy were setting in, attacking the joints and making walking increasingly difficult. Mackintosh in particular was struggling whilst Joyce was suffering from snow blindness. On 29th January they made it back to Spencer Smith, who they found to be a helpless invalid. Wrapped in his sleeping bag, Spencer Smith was loaded onto the sled and had to be pulled along by his companions. With a southerly wind at their backs, the men were able to rig a sail on the sledge to help them along and with the dogs and four men still in reasonable shape, they made good progress. They passed 82 degrees on 3rd February, 81 degrees on the 7th and 80 degrees on the 12th, picking up supplies along the way.

On the 18th February, just twelve miles away from the depot at Minna Bluff, a fierce blizzard struck. For five days it was impossible to head out whilst supplies dwindled and rations were cut. The rations were hardly appetising, comprising hard, salty biscuits and pemmican; a mixture of fat, dried meat and oats, which was heated to make a stew known as hoosh. By 22nd February the men were reduced to a quarter of the normal daily rations and food was almost exhausted. As luck would have it, the blizzard lifted on the 23rd but after going a short distance Mackintosh collapsed.
With two men down, Wild remained behind to care for Mackintosh and Spencer Smith whilst Joyce, Richards and Hayward pressed on with the dogs through deep snow drifts, at times sinking up to their waists, to the bluff depot in order to fetch back life-saving supplies. The blizzard returned with 80 mile per hour winds and progress slowed to a crawl. Tents and sleeping bags were torn and the men lay shivering in miserable, wet conditions. Joyce, by now effectively leading the expedition, resolved to press on regardless rather than share the fate of Captain Scott.

Joyce and Wild pull Mackintosh and Spencer Smith
On 26th February the three exhausted men and four dogs made it to the depot at 79 degrees, where there were plentiful supplies and they were able to recover some of their strength. Conditions were little improved as they set out to rejoin their companions, pulling 600lbs of gear on two sledges. It took until 29th February for them to make it back to Wild, Mackintosh and Spencer Smith, who had been encamped for twelve days and were entirely out of food. Both the invalids remained in a bad way and Hayward by now was also suffering badly with scurvy and was of limited use. There remained a journey of some one hundred miles back to Hut Point with only three men able to pull. By 3rd March Hayward was frequently riding on the sledge. When the three men pulling stopped for rests, Mackintosh and Hayward went ahead on foot as far as they could to help out. Spencer Smith meanwhile was helpless though uncomplaining and was cared for by Wild.

By 7th March concern for Spencer Smith was growing and Mackintosh volunteered to remain behind in a tent in order to lighten the load to allow the other two invalids to be taken back to Hut Point more swiftly. All non essential gear was dumped and the three 'fit' men carried on, towing the two invalids on a single sledge. Efforts were in vain however for two days later, just a few miles from safety, Spencer Smith died. Joyce's diary records the sad event.

March 9, Thursday.—Had a very bad night, cold intense. Temperature down to —29° all night. At 4 a.m. Spencer-Smith called out that he was feeling queer. Wild spoke to him. Then at 5.45 Richards suddenly said, ‘I think he has gone.' Poor Smith, for forty days in pain he had been dragged on the sledge, but never grumbled or complained. He had a strenuous time in his wet bag, and the jolting of the sledge on a very weak heart was not too good for him. Sometimes when we lifted him on the sledge he would nearly faint, but during the whole time he never complained. Wild looked after him from the start. We buried him in his bag at 9 o'clock at the following position: Ereb. 184°—Obs. Hill 149°. We made a cross of bamboos, and built a mound and cairn, with particulars.

They reached Hut Point on 11th March and found seals in abundance in the sound. Having restored their strength by dining on seal meat, Joyce, Wild and Richards set out to bring in Mackintosh on 14th March and by 16th the five survivors were safe back in the hut. They would have to wait at least three months for the ice to be thick enough to make it back to the rest of the party at Cape Evans and so settled in for a dull vigil, despondent that there was no news of the return of the Aurora, which they grimly assumed had been lost in the ice.

The hut at Hut Point, with the modern McMurdo base in the background

The Aurora however was not lost. Held fast in an ice floe a mile square, which was buckled all around into pressure ridges twenty feet high, she continued to drift with the pack. By late January the ice was breaking up all around them and hopes rose as at last the Aurora's floe began to fracture. On 12th February 1916 the Aurora was finally released from the ice floe. This was a time of great danger as large chunks of pack ice, carried on the swell, battered the ship. The crew were forced to continually fend off the floes as the ship fought its way through the ice towards open water. She became trapped in the ice once more after three days and remained immobile for a further two weeks before resuming her progress. Finally on 16th March 1916 after a 1,600 mile drift which had lasted for 312 days, Aurora fought free of the ice. The ship was in a bad way. With limited supplies of coal and a jury rudder, she was in no shape to attempt an immediate return to Cape Evans and instead Stenhouse  elected to make for New Zealand, where the ship could refit before setting out to rescue the shore party.

Aurora arrived in Port Chalmers New Zealand on 3rd April. Two months later Shackleton reached South Georgia and the world learned of the loss of Endurance. Once he had rescued his own men from Elephant Island, Shackleton made his way to New Zealand in order to accompany the Aurora to rescue the Ross Sea party. In the meantime the New Zealand authorities had dismissed Stenhouse, who was unfairly blamed for the ship being swept out of McMurdo Sound and replaced him with John King Davis, another experienced polar man who had sailed with both Shackleton and Mawson.
The Aurora reached Cape Evans on 10th January 1917 to pick up the survivors of the shore party, who numbered just seven men due to a final, tragic turn of events.

The survivors aboard the Aurora

Impatient with the wait at Hut Point and eager to check on the men at Cape Evans and perhaps hear news of the ship, Mackintosh had decided to risk the journey over the ice far too early. Accompanied by Hayward he had set out on May 10th against Joyce's advice. Later in the day a blizzard blew up. Joyce did not consider it prudent to attempt the crossing until 15th July and upon reaching Cape Evans with Wild and Richards he discovered that Mackintosh and Hayward had never made it. Their tracks had ended abruptly at a point where the sea ice had fractured and a thinner layer of new ice had formed. It seemed that they had been swept out to sea on the ice. With no provisions or equipment they would not have lasted long. Their bodies were never found. After all the efforts to bring the party safe back to Hut Point, Joyce could be forgiven for cursing Mackintosh's recklessness. John King Davis recalled that Mackintosh had ventured out onto thin ice before and got away with it. This time his luck had run out.

Mackintosh and his men have not enjoyed the lasting fame of Shackleton's Endurance party but the man himself was in no doubt as to their accomplishments. In his account of the expedition he wrote:

In spite of extraordinary difficulties occasioned by the breaking out of the Aurora from her winter quarters before sufficient stores and equipment had been landed, Captain ├ćneas Mackintosh and the party under his command achieved the object of this side of the Expedition. For the depot that was the main object of the Expedition was laid in the spot that I had indicated, and if the transcontinental party had been fortunate enough to have crossed they would have found the assistance, in the shape of stores, that would have been vital to the success of their undertaking. Owing to the dearth of stores, clothing, and sledging equipment, the depot party was forced to travel more slowly and with greater difficulty than would have otherwise been the case. The result was that in making this journey the greatest qualities of endurance, self-sacrifice, and patience were called for, and the call was not in vain, as you reading the following pages will realize. It is more than regrettable that after having gone through those many months of hardship and toil, Mackintosh and Hayward should have been lost. Spencer-Smith during those long days, dragged by his comrades on the sledge, suffering but never complaining, became an example to all men. Mackintosh and Hayward owed their lives on that journey to the unremitting care and strenuous endeavours of Joyce, Wild, and Richards, who, also scurvy-stricken but fitter than their comrades, dragged them through the deep snow and blizzards on the sledges. I think that no more remarkable story of human endeavour has been revealed than the tale of that long march which I have collated from various diaries.

Shackleton had equal praise for Joseph Stenhouse, who was shabbily treated upon his return to New Zealand but subsequently received the OBE for his command of the Aurora in the ice. Stenhouse, like virtually every member of Shackleton's expeditions, enlisted to fight in the continuing war and was awarded the DSC for his actions in sinking a Uboat. He served again during the Second World War and was again decorated for bravery in saving the life of a fellow crew member. He was lost in action in 1941. Incidentally, he had married the widow of Aeneas Mackintosh in 1923.

As for the Aurora herself, she too was a victim of war, believed sunk by enemy action en route to South America in 1917. Her luck too, finally ran out.

All quotes from Ernest Shackleton's South, the full text of which is available here:

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