Ernest Shackleton

Polar Explorer and Army Major

"...from the moment of his arrival to the time of his departure he gave me of his very best and his loyalty from start to finish was absolute"

Major General Charles Maynard, Officer Commanding, SYREN Force, North Russia

Submitted by Carl Watts


Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton CVO OBE FRGS, is well known for his heroic role in Antarctic exploration. He reached the ‘Farthest South’ point on 9 January 1909 (88 degrees, 23 seconds) just 97 nautical miles from the pole. His decision to return, rather than press on southwards undoubtedly saved his own life and those of his three companions.

Saving life is a dominant theme in the narrative of Shackleton’s exploits – the ill-fated ‘Endurance’ expedition, in which Shackleton aimed to cross the Antarctic continent for the first time, would have defeated lesser leaders. The expedition’s ship, Endurance became ice-bound in January 1915 and Shackleton organised the ship as a winter station, waiting for the ice to release Endurance in the spring. The pressure caused by the break up of the ice crushed her hull and the ship gradually broke up during November before sinking on 21st of that month.

Provisions, lifeboats and equipment had been unloaded and over time the crew transfered the essentials across ice-floes, always trying to find a way to Paulet Island (stores had been cached here, but the island was 250 miles distant). While they came within 60 miles, the intervening ice was impassable. Shackleton again took decisive action. On 9th April he ordered the men into there lifeboats, a move which began their journey to remote Elephant Island. The journey caused the men five days of peril, but eventually they reached land, 350 miles from the point where the Endurance sank.

Lack of food and shelter, along with the remote nature of Elephant Island forced Shackleton into action again. To save the lives of his men he had ‘Chippy’ Harry McNish (ship’s carpenter) strengthen and modify the strongest of the lifeboats, ready for the voyage to South Georgia. Shackleton and five of his crew launched the ‘James Caird’ on 24th April 1916, desperate to cover the 720 nautical miles which could offer the chance of rescue to the men he had taken to the Antarctic.

On 9th May, and after unimaginable hardship, Shackleton landed the James Caird on the shore of South Georgia. The inhabited whaling stations lay on the far side of the island and so, taking only two of the party with him, Shackleton crossed the unmapped mountainous interior of the island. Their equipment comprised of a carpenter’s adze and 50 feet of rope. After 32 miles of grueling terrain, the group reached Stromness on 20th May.

Having sent a boat to fetch the three men left on the other side of South Georgia, Shackleton now organised the rescue of his men on Elephant Island. Three rescue attempts were prevented by ice. Eventually Yelcho, a Chilean tug and the British Whaler SS Southern Sky reached Elephant Island on 30 August 1916. All of the men who ventured to the Antarctic on ‘Endurance’ had survived against enormous odds.

As his intention had been to cross Antarctica, a second group (The Ross Sea Party) had been laying depots of supplies on the far side of the continent. This group became stranded at their base at Cape Evans after their ship the ‘Aurora’ was driven out to sea by severe winds, eventually retreating to New Zealand. Again Shackleton organised the rescue of these men, though by the time the Aurora reached them, three of the party had died.

North Russia
Shackleton (left) en route to Russia

It seems surprising that such a well known figure should effectively disappear from history after his return from the Antarctic. Most historians move on to discuss his final expedition and fatal heart attack in 1922. However, Shackleton and his men returned to Britain in May 1917 while the Great War was still being fought.

Shackleton was determined to become involved, initially being turned down for active service because of his age. This gap in the historical record is even more surprising when you consider that during it he attained the army rank of Major, was awarded a military OBE, was mentioned in despatches and granted an audience with the king to discuss the campaign. The key to this ‘black hole’ in Shackleton’s story is that he was involved in Britain’s failed intervention in the Russian Civil War, a part of our history to which we rarely pay attention.

Following the Russian Revolution, Britain sent thousands of soldiers to Russia, on the pretext of overseeing stocks of Allied munitions and weaponry stockpiled at the Northern Russian port of Murmansk. Some in the British political establishment were determined to stop Bolshevism in its infancy and they were not alone. A multinational force became involved in the war in Russia in support of the ‘White’ traditionalists against the Bolshevik ‘Reds’. Conditions in Russia were extreme (temperatures vary from around 34 degrees in summer and minus 45 degrees in winter) and so the skills that Shackleton had to offer immediately became extremely relevant. Shackleton was appointed ‘Staff Officer, Arctic equipment, North Russia Expeditionary Force’ – his role was to equip, advise and train British troops in the use of the Arctic equipment he had selected and brought from Britain.

His involvement made a real difference to men who were not used to sub-arctic conditions. The cold was so extreme that soldiers could not touch their rifles with bare hands for fear of skin sticking to the bare metal. Time was spent training men in new modes of transport. Snowshoe and ski platoons were formed and Shackleton used his expedition experience to develop a system for packing supply sleighs for each of the attacking mobile columns. Each sleigh carried a specific quantity of supplies and equipment for a specific number of men for a specific number of days. Shackleton and Lieutenant Joseph Stenhouse (who had been master of the Aurora) planned the transfer of the 6th and 13th Battalions of the Yorkshire Regiment from Murmansk to Archangel, arranging food depots, winter clothing and other equipment. The 550 mile journey took 7 days – Shackleton was justly proud of the achievement, “The mobile columns there had exactly the same clothing, equipment, and sledging food as we had on the Expedition. No expense was spared to obtain the best of everything for them, and as a result not a single case of avoidable frost-bite was reported.”

British troops withdrew from Archangel in September and Murmansk in October of 1919 – without the munitions they had supposedly been sent to secure. With the withdrawal of the multinational force and defeat of the White Russian Army, the victory of the Red Army paved the way for the establishment of Soviet Russia.

While Shackleton tried and failed to pursue business interests in North Russia, he was rewarded for his role there with the military OBE, British War Medal and Victory Medal (the oak leaf on the ribbon indicates Shackleton was mentioned in despatches). He also received the Imperial Russian Order of St Anne.