The Imperial Trans-Antarctic ‘Endurance’ Expedition 1914-1917

Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was to become one of the most famous rescue stories of all time. Early in 1914 Shackleton had published his plans for the expedition, which aimed to cross the Antarctic continent via the South Pole whilst a supporting party laid depots from the other side of the continent to enable the 1800 mile journey. Public interest in the expedition was high, with the venture funded exclusively by private donations and Shackleton receiving more than 5000 applications to join the crew. Eventually a crew of twenty-eight was selected for each of the two ships.


On 3 August 1914, despite the outbreak of the First World War, Endurance departed for South Georgia. Although early ice slowed her progress, and by 19 January 1915 Endurance had become frozen in an ice floe. On 24 February, realising that they would be stuck until the following spring, Shackleton ordered the ship be converted to a winter station. Endurance drifted northwards with the ice for months, but by spring the breaking of the ice put extreme pressure on the hull. On 24 October water began pouring into the ship and, after a few days, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. All provisions and equipment were transferred to camps on the ice, and on 21 November 1915 the wreck of Endurance slipped below the surface.

Patience Camp

Stranded on the ice, the expedition camped and hoped to drift towards Paulet Island. After failed attempts to cross the ice to the Island, a more permanent camp (Patience Camp) was established. By 17 March 1916 they were within sixty miles of Paulet Island but unable to reach it. On 9 April the ice floe broke, forcing the men into the lifeboats to head for the nearest land. After five days at sea, the men landed their three lifeboats on Elephant Island, standing on solid ground for the first time in 497 days.

James Caird

With little hope of rescue on Elephant Island, Shackleton decided to risk crossing the 720 nautical miles to South Georgia using one of the lifeboats, despite them only being 20-foot long and open to the elements. The James Caird, modified for the trip as best they could, was launched on 24 April 1916 with a six-man crew of Shackleton, Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, John Vincent, Timothy McCarthy and McNish. Sailing for fifteen days across the Southern Ocean, on 8 May South Georgia came into view and a landing was made the next day after waiting out a hurricane-force storm. That the men had survived the stormy seas in such a small boat, and navigated sufficiently accurately to reach South Georgia, was miraculous.

Crossing South Georgia

Having landed on the unoccupied side of South Georgia, Shackleton decided to attempt a land crossing of the Island. After a period of rest, and leaving three men at the landing point, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean crossed the mountainous terrain, travelling thirty-two miles over thirty-six hours to reach Stromness whaling station on 20 May 1916. A boat was immediately sent to pick up the men on the other side of South Georgia, whilst Shackleton began to organise the rescue of the men stranded on Elephant Island. Whilst the first three attempts at a rescue failed due to sea ice, the Chilean vessel Yelcho reached Elephant Island on 30 August 1916 along with the British whaler SS Southern Sky, and all twenty-two men were evacuated.

Elephant Island

Frank Wild had been left in charge of the men on Elephant Island, with orders that if no rescue had occurred by spring they were to try and reach Deception Island. The men used the two remaining lifeboats to fashion a crude hut, turning them upside down and placing them on low stone walls as well as using tent and sail fabric to keep the wind and weather out. A blubber stove was used to provide heat and cook the penguin and seal meat the party lived on, but conditions were cramped and food was in short supply. When finally rescued, it had been 128 days since the James Caird had left the Island.

The Ross Sea Party

Meanwhile the Ross Sea Party, who had sailed for Antarctica on 24 December 1914 aboard Aurora, had immediately begun preparations for the laying of the depots on their arrival in January 1915. With Aurora anchored to the sea ice and due to winter over, offloading of supplies had taken place slowly, but on 7th May 1915 the ice broke up and Aurora was carried out to sea, helplessly frozen in the ice. She was to drift stuck in the ice until 12 February 1916, when she finally became free and made her way slowly back to New Zealand for repairs by 3 April.

Sledging Trips

With no general provisions or sledging clothes, the men were left to winter at Cape Evans using supplies left by Scott at Cape Evans and Hut Point whilst also ensuring that they laid the depots for Shackleton’s expedition which they believed could be starting immediately. Using the winter to prepare for the upcoming sledging trips, the first left on 1 September 1915. With nearly all of the dogs dead, the men still managed to place all of the depots for Shackleton’s planned crossing but lost three men during the season.  Their bodies were never found, but tracks suggested that they had been carried out to sea on the broken ice.

New Zealand Rescue Party

At the beginning of December 1916 Shackleton reached New Zealand to join Aurora on her rescue mission to the Ross Sea. Arriving at Cape Royds on 7 January 1917 Shackleton found a note stating that the party were housed at Cape Evans, and after a final search for Mackintosh and Hayward, and with the surviving party of seven aboard, Aurora sailed northward on 17 January 1917, arriving in Wellington on 9 February.

Returning home
First World War

The return of the expedition members was overshadowed by the continuing First World War, and the members returned to society quietly, with many taking up immediate active military service. Shackleton himself, although too old to serve on the front lines, was sent on a diplomatic mission to Buenos Aires and then to Russia. However, in more recent years the expedition has been recognised as the heroic feat that it was. Not a single man from the Endurance was lost, and only three died from the Ross Sea Party.


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