Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Polar Explorer, author and Naval Officer

"Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isloated way of having a bad time which has been devised."

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, 1922

Apsley Cherry was born in Bedford in 1886. His family changed their name to Cherry-Garrard as a consequence of a large inheritance. It was this wealth that allowed ‘Cherry’ as he was known to join the Terra-Nova expedition to the Antarctic under Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Scott initially rejected Cherry, but after some persuasion by Dr Edward Wilson and Cherry’s donation of £1000 towards costs, he was allowed to join the expedition as assistant biologist (Cherry did not have a scientific background). At 24 years of age, he was one of the youngest members of the expedition.

Despite very poor eyesight, Cherry was chosen, along with Wilson and Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers to undertake a perilous journey during the Antarctic winter of 1911. This expedition within an expedition aimed to collect a number of Emperor Penguin eggs. The penguin rookery at Cape Crozier had been discovered on Scott’s previous expedition and Dr Wilson wanted to test a popular theory of the time. It was thought (incorrectly) that the Emperor penguin was a primitive form of bird. It was widely held at the time (also incorrectly) that the development of the individual appears to repeat the evolutionary development of the species. It was hoped that the study of the embryo of such a primitive bird would produce the missing evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds. Their five week journey, covering 120 miles in darkness and temperatures ranging from -40 to -56 degrees Celcius was one of the most extreme undertaken by humans. It took them 19 days to find the penguin colony and collect five eggs. Two broke on the way back. The group were then pinned down for long hours in their hastily built rock ‘igloo’ during a blizzard of unimaginable intensity. Their roof was ripped off by the gale, their tent blown a quarter of a mile away from base and for hours they lay exposed in their sleeping bags. After 48 hours they managed their first meal since the start of the storm. On their return, Scott wrote of their exploits “It makes a tale for our generation which I hope may not be lost in the telling.”

In 1922 Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote an account of his expeditionary exploits in ‘The Worst Journey in the World’, (listed by the National Geographic as top of the pole in its ‘100 Best Adventure Books of All Time’). His literary work during the expedition extended to him becoming the editor of ‘The South Polar Times’ (on the Discovery expedition Ernest Shackleton had filled this role). The self-generated newspaper was circulated amongst the expedition staff and did much to maintain morale.

‘Cherry’ as he was known was one of the party who discovered the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers where they perished inside their tent.

“We might have as well run a confectioner’s shop as try and work dogs”

Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s comments on efforts to use dogs in the war effort.

From the very outset of the Great War, Cherry was determined to contribute in any way he could. During his exploits in the Antarctic, Cherry had worked very closely with dogs. On 19 August 1914, just two weeks after war was declared, Cherry boarded a ferry with Major E H Richardson – and a pack of bloodhounds. At his early stage of the conflict, the extent of the horrors to be were unknown. The belief that dogs could be instrumental in tracking down wounded men was understandable, without the knowledge that the German army would sweep into Belgium and France before the stalemate of trench warfare. The failure of this scheme to use dogs was inevitable and Cherry returned to England just a few days after arriving on the continent. He wrote to the family lawyer to explain what went wrong:

Aug 23 1914
Dear Farrer
You will be surprised to hear we are back. It was an awful wild goose chase. From an early stage it was obvious that it could be impossible to work dogs. Then communications were cut by the Germans, we luckily behind. The Red Cross Staff came in by car & told us we had better get back – which we did. We might have as well run a confectioner’s shop as try & work dogs. It is most disappointing, but there it is.

The family doctor now refused to pass him as fit for service (his health had been poor since his experiences in the Antarctic). However, Cherry was still determined to ‘do his duty’. He bought a Douglas motorcycle with the intention of becoming a dispatch rider and subsequently accepted as a private in the Royal Engineers as a signaller. In mid-October a telegraph arrived from the Admiralty asking to accept an appointment with an armoured car company. He accepted a commission (leaving his motorcycle with his captain as a parting gift!) as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and appointed to the RNAS (Armoured Car Division). He also offered up his country house, ‘Larmer’ as a Red Cross Hospital.

Crucially, as an armoured car officer he did not need to undertake a Navy medical. He arrived in France with his squadron in April 1915. No 5 Squadron was based to the north of Dunkirk. Before the advent of trench warfare, armoured cars were usefully deployed as mechanised cavalry, but their dependence on road networks lessened their impact once opposing forces started to ‘dig-in’. Cherry felt frustration when his squadron returned to Britain in June 1915. Later that month, Cherry was ordered to Wormwood Scrubs to demonstrate a caterpillar-tracked experimental vehicle. The demonstration was watched by Churchill and the new minister of munitions, Lloyd-George.

Cherry had been ill for some time. He was mentally unwell and also continually suffered with colitis. The disbanding of his squadron spelled the end of his war, with the final decision preventing him from returning to active duty being made by a Navy doctor in 1916.