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Mawson organising the rescue of Shackleton

by Robert C. Brears Blog

On May 12th 1916 Sir Douglas Mawson received a telegram informing him that on that very same day a Committee was to be arranged for the rescue of Shackleton’s lost expedition to Antarctica: Shackleton’s expedition had planned to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Ice Shelf.
Antarctic Peninsula

Mawson organising the rescue of Shackleton

An Antarctic cruise offers the chance to connect with some of the most important moments of humanity’s exploration of our planet. Let’s step into history and take a look at one of most followed geographical investigations that the Earth’s population had ever seen – the rescue of the Shackleton expedition.

On May 12th 1916 Sir Douglas Mawson received a telegram informing him that on that very same day a Committee was to be arranged for the rescue of Shackleton’s lost expedition to Antarctica: Shackleton’s expedition had planned to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Ice Shelf.

Shackleton left England for the Weddell Sea on the Endurance. The ship was to return to Buenos Aires after landing Shackleton and his party on the ice. However, Shackleton and his party had got stuck in the ice of the Weddell Sea where they had hoped to find a landing place at the end of January 1915. Instead, the ship was subjected to heavy high pressures and drifted until October 27th when the ship was crushed and the crew forced to take to the ice floe. The ship sank on November 20th but the icepack continued to drift northwards and so the party stayed on the ice camping on it until April 7th 1916 when they sighted Clarence Island.

The next day they launched their small boat and made for land. With difficulty Shackleton and his men made it to Elephant Island, landing on a difficult spot comprising of a small beach under inaccessible cliffs. The party cut holes into the ice above the waves and the men set in for the long haul: prepared to stay until they ran out of their stores and provisions. Nonetheless, they were well stocked with enough rations to last five weeks without having to resort to fresh seal meat.

Shackleton along with some of his party then made a push to reach the island of South Georgia on April 24th. The island was around 750 miles away, which the men accomplished in 17 days. A few days later Shackleton left South Georgia in a small whaling boat, provided and equipped by managers of the Norwegian Whaling Station, hoping to return to Elephant Island to pick up the rest of his men. Ice though prevented the boat from getting too close forcing Shackleton to abandon his rescue attempt. He then headed to the Falklands Islands for assistance. Meanwhile the Aurora landed Captain Macintosh and his party at Ross Sea where they made their winter quarters. In May 1915 the Aurora had broken away from her moorings in the Ross Sea and became stuck in ice until she was freed on February 13th 1916; however Macintosh and his men were lost after travelling over unsafe ice. 

Planning to find the lost Shackleton expedition

Meanwhile back in London, Mawson wrote to his wife about the Committee saying:

‘’A meeting was being held at 3 p.m. of a committee to arrange for the relief of the Shackleton Expedition and that I was on the committee. I just got there in time and they were very glad to see me. We drew up the broad lines and I understand the Government will pay for whatever we recommend. It is a one-sided affair as they practically rely on me for everything. Dr Bruce (looking older) was the only mad there with Polar knowledge. Sir Lewis Beaumont (Admiral) in the Chair’’.

On the Committee along with Mawson was: Sir Lewis Beaumont, formerly Commander-in-Chief on the Australian station and served with the Arctic Expedition of 1875-6, Major Leonard Darwin, who had been on several scientific expeditions and was the President of the Royal Geographical Society and Dr W. S. Bruce, a well-known Polar explorer who led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-04.

In addition, there was a naval hydrographer, Sir John Parry, grandson of Sir Edward Parry of Arctic exploration and representatives of the Treasury and the Board of Trade. The Committee received instructions on May 10th from the Admiralty that two relief expeditions was essential. The first to rescue Captain Macintosh and his party from the Ross Sea shores and the other to be dispatched to the Weddell Sea to search for the Endurance or if they had landed, the members of Shackleton’s party.

The Committee was then to submit complete proposals with an estimate of the cost. On May 19th the Committee made their report and on the same day the British Government accepted the committee’s proposal of rescuing Shackleton and his men at a cost of GBP 65,000. Mawson calculated that:

‘’The programme would cost GBP 45,000 but the remainder of the Committee was unanimous in asking for GBP 65,000 so it went in as such…The search to cover, if necessary, a summer and a winter to include the landing of a party of eight men. The Government has decided not to pay the salaries of members of the expedition. The Treasury representative has asked for a statement of the expedition’s assets and liabilities’’

Mawson wrote to his wife on May 22nd letting her know of his concerns particularly that it would mean being away from November 1917 to March 1918 at least.

Shackleton reaches safety

Then on May 30th the ‘’unexpected has happened, Shackleton turning up at this time of the year. I have been hard at work all the afternoon making English of what Shackleton has sent, it all of course very much cut down and scrappy as a cable’’.

The reappearance of Shackleton and his men and a known position for the remainder of this entire party put an end to the Committee’s search expedition believing it would not be too difficult to find locally a suitable vessel to rescue all of the men. On May 30th Mawson came away from the Hydrographer’s office as numerous cables were going to, from, and between Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and others to determine if there was in fact a suitable vessel to take to Elephant Island at this time of year. It was reported to the committee that it was difficult to find a vessel to carry out the rescue even with the assistance of the Governor of the Falkland Islands and the British High Commissions in Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Santiago.

The Committee recommended that the Aurora be used and advised that the governments of Australia and New Zealand should prepare to get the ship ready in time. However, the Government of New Zealand informed the Committee on July 12th that the Aurora could not be made ready in 60 days and in fact said they could not guarantee the ship being ready for sea at any date. On this advice the Committee then chartered the Discovery for 6 months.

The Discovery to the rescue of Shackleton

The Discovery was prepared, manned and equipped in a very short moment with it arriving at Montevideo on September 11th, 9 days ahead of schedule. The ship was loaned to the British Government free of charge by the Governor and Company of the Hudson’s Bay Company with Lieutenant Fairweather – an experienced whaler, captain and ice master – in command. Before the arrival of the ship, Shackleton had again made a rescue attempt in which the Chilean Government put at his disposal the steamer Yelcho complete with crew and equipment. On board the vessel, Shackleton left Punta Arenas on August 22nd and Picton, New Zealand on the 28th. Two days later he reached Elephant Island reaching the camp of marooned men. 

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