Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Book Review - South: The Story of Shackleton's 1914-1917 Expedition - Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton 10*

Back when men were men. At the outbreak of WWI Shackleton had outfitted two ships and crews to try a continental crossing of the Antarctic.  He offered to halt the expedition but was ordered to continue by Winston Churchill.  Famously, the crossing never took place.  What did happen was an increasingly desperate fight to survive by the two ship's crews on opposite sides of the polar continent.

The book is largely made up of extracts from Shackleton's own diary and the diaries of some of the other expedition members, worked together into a strongly coherent narrative.  Shackleton charts the problems faced by his (the Weddell Sea) side of the expedition.  His ship, the Endurance, became stuck in sea ice in January 1915 where it drifted slowly across the Weddell Sea until it was crushed and sank in November of the same year. Shackleton's crew camped on the moving ice until April of 1916 when their ice floe broke apart and they were forced into the salvaged ship's boats to make a harrowing five day sea voyage to the dry land of Elephant Island.

Shackleton exhibits huge compassion for the suffering of his men. The rationing, the constant extreme cold and atrocious weather, the poor rations (including periods where the men were doing the backbreaking work of hauling sledges, after the deaths of the dogs, on rations of a single biscuit and a mug of cocoa a day), frostbite, boredom, ennui, scurvy, snow-blindness, exhaustion - the range of problems thrown against the men seems almost insurmountable, and yet, through it all, Shackleton keeps his group together working hard for each other's survival.

Parts of the tale are so epically British that you can't help but feel a swell of pride for a nation that produced men like these.  "The Endurance sank, but we saved the pennant of the Royal Yacht Club." Signs are important of course, and when throwing away almost of of their personal possessions after the sinking, Shackleton knew the importance of keeping just a few items, the pennant, an encyclopaedia, the men's pipes, that would remain as a tiny measure of normality and home comfort in the dark days ahead.

When everything seemed almost lost at the Elephant Island camp, with some of the men finally submitting to the throes of depression, Shackleton and a volunteer crew launched the ship's boat, the James Caird, a vessel slightly larger than a sailing dinghy and sailed 800 miles to South Georgia, arriving there due to the excellent navigational skills of the Endurance's captain Frank Worsely.  This voyage alone, through freezing, storm swept, mountainous souther ocean, would be enough for a heroic survival story, and upon landing on the wrong side of South Georgia the men still have to make a long and dangerous march in order to reach the whaling station and raise help.

The conditions faced by the crew of the Aurora across the continent in the Ross Sea were no less incredible.  The crew here followed in the tracks of Captain Scott, laying food and fuel depots for Shackleton's party to find as they crossed the continent.  The Aurora was ripped from its moorings and drifted, badly damaged, until the crew nursed it to New Zealand.  As Shackleton was organising the rescue for the Elephant Island team, so the Aurora's crew organised a rescue for their comrades on the ice near Ross Island.

South is a tremendous tale of survival against the odds, of what people can do when faced with extremis, when lying down and giving up would have been far easier than struggling on, for day after day, month after month.  It is an inspiring read, uplifting in its own way, and illuminates well how these men were the products of the era they lived in - after being rescued every man fit to serve signed up for military service in WWI.

South is currently available for free download from Amazon.

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