“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” The explorer Ernest Shackleton famously placed an advertisement stating this in a London newspaper as he recruited personnel for his 1914 expedition to the Antarctic.
Whether or not this story is true remains to be seen, but he was certainly not short of applicants: he received over 5,000 entries from men (and a few women) who were desperate to join his crew. In the end, he left with just 56 carefully chosen men. 28 would be part of the Weddell Sea party, aboard the doomed Endurance, while the other 28 would be on board the Aurora as part of the Ross Sea party.
So who were these intrepid men who joined Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition?
What personnel did Shackleton need?
Antarctic crews needed a wide variety of people, with an assortment of different skills, to be present. In such a hostile environment and difficult conditions, it was vital to have people who were calm, level-headed and hardy. As much as exploration, the expedition also wanted to document what was founded in Antarctica.
The Endurance carried a photographer and artist, two surgeons, a biologist, geologist and physicist, several carpenters, a dog handler and multiple officers, sailors and navigators. It would have taken weeks to decide which men could go. Choosing the wrong men, as much as choosing the wrong equipment, could put an expedition in serious jeopardy.
Not for the fainthearted
Embarking on an Antarctic expedition meant knowing you would be leaving behind family, friends and a normal life for potentially years at a time. Even the planned length of time of expeditions was extremely long, let alone taking into account any disruptions such as getting stuck in the ice, getting lost or things going wrong en route.
Moreover, the Antarctic was an extremely hostile environment. Not only were there limited food supplies and perishingly cold weather, but it could also be dark (or light) virtually all day depending on the season. Men were required to occupy themselves for weeks or months on end in relatively cramped quarters, with no contact with the outside world and a tiny weight allowance for personal items.
Shackleton was an Antarctic veteran by this point: he set off prepared, allowing one of his men to bring a banjo and encouraging others to play cards, make and perform plays and sketches, sing together, write in their journals and read and swap books to help the time pass. It was also vital men got along well with one another: spending years at a time onboard ships meant that difficult personalities were not welcome.
The crew of the Endurance
The Endurance sank, crushed by the ice of the Weddell Sea, in November 1915. She wouldn’t be seen again for some 107 years, when she was found, beautifully preserved, in the waters of Antarctica by the Endurance22 expedition. Remarkably, all of Endurance‘s original crew survived the treacherous journey to South Georgia following the ship’s sinking. They were not completely unscathed, however: severe cases of frostbite led to gangrene and amputations.
Many of the men aboard Shackleton’s Endurance had no previous experience of polar expeditions. Here are 4 of the most notable crewmembers to accompany Shackleton on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Hurley was the official expedition photographer, and his photographs of the Endurance stuck in the ice have since become iconic. He used the Paget process to take photographs in colour, which was, by contemporary standards, a pioneering technique.
As time went on, Hurley became increasingly selective in his subject matter. When Endurance sank and the men abandoned her, Hurley was forced to leave behind 400 of his negatives, returning with just 120 shots of life aboard and around the Endurance.
A stowaway who boarded Endurance in Buenos Aires after he didn’t make the cut to join as staff, Blackborow was discovered three days out of port – too late to turn back. Shackleton was reportedly furious at Blackborow, telling him stowaways were the “first to be eaten” on polar expeditions.
He ended up as a steward on the ship, under the promise he would volunteer as the first to be eaten if they ran out of food on the expedition. Blackborow developed severe frostbite on the journey to Elephant Island, to the extent that he could no longer stand because of his gangrenous feet. His toes were amputated by the ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, and Blackborow survived, his feet relatively intact when the crew were rescued from South Georgia Island.
The Endurance‘s cook, Green was nicknamed ‘Doughballs’ because of his high-pitched voice. Well-liked amongst the crew, he did his best under extremely difficult circumstances to ensure the men were fed and as healthy as possible, cooking for 28 grown men with extremely limited resources.
Whilst originally the ship was stocked with plentiful supplies, including biscuits, cured meats and 25 cases of whiskey, these dwindled rapidly as the Endurance sat in the ice. After supplies ran out, the men existed almost solely on a diet of penguin, seal and seaweed. Green was forced to cook on stoves fuelled by blubber rather than conventional fuel.
Worsley was the captain of Endurance, although he was, much to Shackleton’s frustration, much better at following orders than giving them. Despite having little experience of Antarctic exploration or sailing, Worsley relished the challenge of Endurance‘s situation, although he underestimated the power of the ice and the fact that once Endurance was stuck, it was only a matter of time before she was crushed.
However, Worsley proved to be in his element when it came to open water sailing during the voyage to Elephant Island, and later South Georgia, spending almost 90 hours straight at the tiller without sleep.
He also had impressive navigational skills, which were invaluable in hitting both Elephant Island and South Georgia Island. He was one of the three men to cross South Georgia to find the whaling station: reportedly his crew did not recognise him when he returned, freshly shaven and washed, to pick them up.