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Sir E.Middleton and I went off to meet them and found 7 only - Mac and Haywood lost at sea and Smith from scurvy. We got them aboard and heard their story. They all looked awful …
It is often assumed that there was no loss of life on Shackleton’s 1914-1917 expedition to cross Antarctica but this was not the case. The story of the survivors of the Endurance in the 'Weddell Sea' has been told many times but the adventure of the second party to the ‘Ross Sea’, and the subsequent death of three of their company is not as well-known. These men were marooned when their ship, the Aurora, which was encased in ice, drifted out to sea during a storm which separated it from the rest of the surrounding ice.
Ten men were left behind under the command of Aeneas Mackintosh, who had been tasked with creating supply depots for the last leg of Shackleton’s journey across the continent. Unfortunately what many thought would be the less arduous part of the trans-antarctic expedition turned out to be another test of human endurance which eventually took three of its members, including Mackintosh.
After a number of delays in England, Mackintosh and the nucleus of the party arrived in Sydney in October 1914, just two months after World War One was declared. Here they found their ship, the Aurora, unfit for departure and the expedition funds would not cover its repair and fit out. Desperate to keep to schedule Mackintosh approached Professor Edgeworth David, who had served as chief scientist on the earlier Nimrod expedition, and he was able to help them raise the funds they needed.
Eventually, the Ross Sea Party that left for Antarctica on New Year’s Eve 1914 it was quite different from the one that had been originally enlisted. The delay and lack of money led to some of the original crew resigning and this forced them into hiring a number of raw recruits with little knowledge of polar expeditions.
Arriving off Ross Island on 16 January 1915. Mackintosh decided to establish an on-shore base at Cape Evans, Captain Scott's headquarters during the 1910–13 Terra Nova Expedition, and to find a safe winter mooring nearby for the Aurora. The delayed arrival had caused Mackintosh some anxiety as they were completely unaware of the fate of Shackleton's Endurance party. Thinking Shackleton may start as soon as he had landed on the other side of the continent he decided to lay out the first depots almost immediately. With little time to acclimatise and prepare three parties set out on the 24 and 25 January leaving the Aurora to find anchorage while they were away.
The initial sledging trip was not a success. Not all the stores reached the depots, the motor tractor’s engine failed and all ten dogs taken on the journey perished during the return. By the time they reunited at Hut Point (Scott's old Discovery base at the edge of the Barrier) on 25 March, the men were exhausted and frostbitten, and the condition of the sea ice in McMurdo Sound made the journey back to Cape Evans and rendezvousing with the Aurora impossible.
Further disaster struck the party when, on 6 May 1915, the entire ice in the bay north of Cape Evans broke away from the shore. This tore the Aurora from its moorings and carried it out to sea trapped in a large ice floe and left the sledging party marooned. The Aurora, stuck in the ice, drifted for over nine months before she eventually broke free on 12 February 1916. But her rudder was broken and unable to go back to Antarctica she was forced to limp back to Port Chalmers, New Zealand, arriving there on 2 April 1916.
In the meantime, the group of ten men left behind were initially in desperate straits as most of their personal gear, food, equipment and fuel was still aboard the ship. Luckily the group were able to make use of food and materials left behind at Cape Evans by Scott's and Shackleton's earlier expeditions.
Still unaware that the Endurance and Shackleton's party was stuck in the ice and hopelessly behind schedule the Ross Sea Party decided to move the 3,800 pounds of depot stores inland to Mount Hope. Nine men started this mammoth task on the 1 September 1915 with Alexander Stevens, a Scots geologist, left behind at Cape Evans in case the ship returned. The first two stages, while exhausting work, was completed by the end of December 1915.
On New Year’s Day 1916, six of the men started out on the third and final leg of the journey, the scientists, John Cope, Keith Jack and Irvine Gaze having returned to Cape Evans due to the failure of a Primus stove.
The others sledged south but as they neared Mount Hope, Arnold Spencer-Smith collapsed, unable to proceed. Leaving him alone in a small tent the others laid the supplies at Mount Hope on 26 January 1916 but the return home proved far harder as Spencer-Smith had to be loaded on top of the sledge which was being pulled by the others in the party. To make matters worse Macintosh by this time was only able to stagger next to the sledge leaving the hard work of manually dragging the sledges to Ernest Joyce, Victor Hayward, Dick Richards, and Ernest Wild (whose brother Frank Wild was locked in the ice with Shackleton on the other side of the continent).
On the 9 March, 1916 Spencer Smith died of scurvy. Worn out and exhausted the remaining five finally made it to Hut Point on the 16 March. From the start of the hauling of loads from Cape Evans on 1 September 1915 to the arrival of the survivors back at Hut Point, a total of 198 days had passed, the longest sledging journey in terms of time undertaken on an expedition up to that point.
Although the remaining crew slowly recovered their health at Hut Point they were not yet able to make the journey back to Cape Evans due to the thin ice. On the 8 May, after nearly two months waiting, Mackintosh and Hayward decided to risk the journey. Soon after leaving the hut they were quickly engulfed in a blizzard and were never seen again. When the others went to look for them they found only tracks leading to the edge of the broken ice.
Richards, Joyce and Wild waited until 15 July and then successfully made the trip to Cape Evans, where they were at last reunited with Stevens, Cope, Jack and Gaze. Finally on 10 January 1917, the Aurora returned to Cape Evans to rescue the survivors.
Shackleton who had just completed his own epic voyage of survival had made his way to New Zealand in December and insisted on accompanying the Aurora to pick up the last members of his expedition. As a result, the remaining men were unexpectedly greeted by their commander and learned for the first time how events that had unfolded for the Weddell Sea Party. Below are the excerpts recording this moment from Morton Henry Moyes diary, 10 January 1917, which is held by the State Library of New South Wales.
Ross Sea party 1914–17, Wikipedia article
Antarctic Tragedy, The Argus, 6 February, 1917
Polar Castaways, the Ross Sea Party (1914-1917) of Ernest Shackleton, Richard McElrea and David Harrowfield, Canterbury University Press, 2004, https://search.sl.nsw.gov.au/permalink/f/1ocrdrt/SLNSW_ALMA21109561230002626
The Lost Men, the harrowing saga of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party. Kelly Tyler Lewis, Viking Press, 2006, https://search.sl.nsw.gov.au/permalink/f/1ocrdrt/SLNSW_ALMA2197384550002626
Early Antarctic Adventures, State Library of New South Wales
Geoffrey Barker, State Library of New South Wales, 2017