As you settle down for your lavish Christmas dinners, spare a thought for the crew of the Endurance, who, a century ago today, were busy attempting to escape their prison in the Southern Ocean. With their ship trapped, crushed and sunk by the Antarctic ice, they were forced onto the ice, taking only what they could carry with them.
On 17 December 1915, expedition leader Ernest Shackleton recorded in his memoir South, that ‘high temperatures, combined with the strong changeable winds that we had had of late, led me to conclude that the ice all around us was rotting and breaking up and that the moment of out deliverance from the icy maw of the Antarctic was at hand’.
“For the last time for eight months we had a really good meal – as much as we could eat”
Therefore, Shackleton announced to his crew his intentions to march west, over the ice, to close the gap between themselves and their destination, the remote Paulet Island at the far end of the Antarctic Peninsula. This involved dragging their three lifeboats, the James Caird, Stancomb Wills and Dudley Docker, across the ice until they reached open water.
With weight at a premium, and Christmas Day approaching, Shackleton also designated 22 December as the crew’s Christmas Day, so that they could get moving as soon as possible. Shackleton recalls: ‘Most of our small remaining stock of luxuries was consumed at the Christmas feast. We could not carry it all with us, so for the last time for eight months we had a really good meal – as much as we could eat. Anchovies in oil, baked beans, and jugged hare made a glorious mixture such as we have not dreamed of since our school-days.’
At 1am on 25 December 1915, breakfast rations were served to the men. They were by now on their third day of marching across the ice, and only the briefest of Christmas cheer could be acknowledged before returning to their endeavour. Shackleton recalls: ‘We wished one another a merry Christmas, and our thoughts went back to those at home. We wondered, too, that day, as we sat down to our “lunch” of stale, thin bannock and a mug of thin cocoa, what they were having at home.’
The dairy entry of expedition photographer Frank Hurley describes the day as tough and functional like any other: ‘Christmas Day. Today, driving the dog team and hauling the boats for dear life across the Weddell Sea pack ice... We had a strenuous time getting through hummocks and filling in small leads. We covered two and a half miles, but the surface was atrocious. The dogs did excellent work. Continuous wet feet for all. Temperature: plus 34º. We spied out a track this evening for two miles ahead for the morrow’s march. Wind favourable, and hauling the boats was assisted by hoisting our sails. Seal secured.’
Sadly for the crew, their week-long march had to be paused on 29 December, when they ran into some ‘un-negotiable’ ice. With the crew exhausted from a hard week’s work trudging seven and a half miles – and at that rate with an estimated 300 days of walking ahead – Shackleton ordered for the creation of a new ‘Patience’ camp. His hope: that the drifting ice would eventually carry the men to their desired destination.