Just got to the end, exhausted, of Alfred Lansing’s 1959 account of Shackleton’s 1914-16 Imperial TransAntarctic Expedition which ended up with the famous and quite improbable rescue of his men after a 650-mile sail on the meagre James Caird to seek help. I listened to it in the car, read very ably by Simon Prebble.
There are so many things to take from this never-to-be-repeated adventure, or folly, depending on your viewpoint. Shackleton himself was an extraordinary character: ambitious and materialistic on land, heroic on water. He left a wake of failed businesses after his death and never seemed able to control his impetuous nature; indeed, many have subsequently accused him of endangering the lives of his men by ignoring the advice of the Antarctic whalermen who urged him to wait a season before setting off to cross the polar continent, as the ice in 1914 was the worst in living memory.
But having brought his men to the freezing edge of mortality, his heroism and leadership qualities thereafter ensured that not one of them would die. It simply beggars belief but the faith he inspired in them was so strong that they all believed he would save them.
Endurance left Plymouth on the 8th August 1914; on 27th October 2015, Shackleton ordered his men to abandon ship and as they set up camp on the ice that had trapped the vessel, they watched with horror as the monstrous slabs closed in and crushed the boat. The bulk of the men were not rescued until August 2016 – they survived for almost a year by living on seal and penguin meat.
Throughout the ordeal, with one or two very minor exceptions, his 28 crew never once complained nor did they fall into gloom, despondency or despair. In fact, their diaries – which Lansing makes much use of in his brilliant book – display an unwavering optimism, often illustrating a jaunty delight in the challenges which they faced.
I was telling a friend of mine about how remarkable the attitude of those men was. He, a retired Army officer, looked at me with surprise and said, ‘Well, it’s not good to whinge, is it?’