Service of thanksgiving Sir Ernest Shackleton and his Men

A Centenary Service of Thanksgiving for the courage and endurance of Sir Ernest Shackleton CVO, and his men, was held at Westminster Abbey, London. The service was attended by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, Patron of the United Kingdom Antarctic HOn this very day, May 20th one hundred years ago, in the middle of the afternoon, three men, Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean  staggered into Stromness, a whaling station in South Georgia. Their faces were black from blubber smoke; their hair was thick and matted and they were dressed in rags. Gallantly Worsley was concerned about the impression they might make on any women in the station and he tidied up his tattered trousers with safety pins. They arrived at the manager’s villa. Although Thoralf Sorlle, the manager, had met Shackleton he did not recognise him. “Who the hell are you” he asked. “My name is Shackleton and we have lost our ship and come over the island.”

Modern expeditions are properly equipped with communications devices and keep in touch via satellite. The Endurance party experienced an unimaginable depth of isolation in which it was impossible to summon help if anything went wrong.

Everything depended on one’s comrades and the quality of leadership. Shackleton had already proved himself in this respect on the Nimrod expedition on which he had discovered and named the Beardmore Glacier. He reached a point further South than anyone before him but consideration for the lives of his comrades persuaded him to turn back less than a hundred miles from the South Pole. He returned to London to an ecstatic welcome. It was the high noon of Empire and the Edwardian Age. He published a book describing the expedition, “The Heart of the Antarctic” in November 1909. He became an Edwardian celebrity and was knighted.

He was a celebrity but not of the shallow modern kind, well known just for his well-known-ness. He was also a genuine hero with extraordinary leadership gifts which continue to inspire emulation at a time when in so many fields there is a need for inspiring leadership. Henry Worsley’s book “In the Footsteps of Shackleton” is a moving testimony to this as is the study of his methods sponsored by Professor Nancy Koehn of the Harvard Business School.

The white wilderness is a great searcher of souls. As Scott wrote about the Antarctic “Under ordinary conditions it is so easy to carry a point with a little bounce; self-assertion is a mask which covers many a weakness. Here the outward show is nothing; it is the inward purpose that counts. So the “gods” dwindle and the humble supplant them.” Shackleton had more than his share of charm and “bounce” which enabled him to raise the considerable sums needed for polar exploration without much official support. His business ventures were not always successful but as he said himself, “All polar explorers are optimists with vivid imaginations” and this carried him through every disappointment. But this was no mere “outward show”. On the ice Shackleton revealed a humbling greatness of soul. As he said himself “We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had seen God in his splendours, we had heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”  He was a poet with a particular love of Browning but he was no armchair dreamer.

He was also very fortunate in his wife Emily Doman, whom he married just down the road in Christchurch, Westminster in 1904. She said of Shackleton that “one must not chain down an eagle in a barnyard”.

We especially remember today the Endurance story – possibly the greatest example of survival in Antarctic history. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set sail in the beautiful August of 1914, authorised to get underway by Churchill himself despite the ominous international situation with a single word signal – “proceed”. Amundsen had reached the South Pole with a skilful use of dogs and skis in December 1911 but no one had yet achieved a crossing of the Antarctic Continent.

There is an apocryphal story that the members of the expedition had been recruited in response to a newspaper advertisement – “men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” In the event, apocryphal or not, it was not far from the reality.

This service as Shackleton would have wanted is not only dedicated to Shackleton’s own courage and endurance but also to his men.

Frank Worsley was one of three who arrived at the whaling station a hundred years ago. He had been appointed Captain of the Endurance and had a close-up view of Shackleton’s leadership style. “Shackleton had a genius – for keeping those about him in high spirits. We loved him. To me he was a brother. The men felt the cold it is true but he had inspired the kind of loyalty which prevented them from allowing themselves to get depressed over anything.” Shackleton could be irritable when things were going well “but never when things were going badly and we were up against it.” Napoleon said that “a leader is dealer in hope”. The Boss as the men called him was a great and convincing optimist, supremely resilient in disappointment. As he said himself, “a man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground”.

Endurance was caught in the ice of the Weddell Sea and abandoned in October 1915. Camp was made on the floating ice for six months and in April 1916 they took to the life boats.

After a dangerous voyage including the unwelcome attentions of a pack of killer whales, the Endurance party made landfall on Elephant Island. After nearly six months of living on the ice, Elephant Island was the first solid land in 497 days.

Shackleton realised however that rescue was unlikely so far south and so on Easter Monday 1916 he and five others set off in the 22 feet long James Caird. There is one of Hurley’s superb photographs in our service paper showing the launch of this frail vessel.

Navigated by Worsley, the James Caird crossed 800 miles of some of the most turbulent seas on the planet. On May10th they arrived at King Haakon Bay which is on the other side of South Georgia from the whaling stations on the north. shore. Shackleton set out with Worsley and Tom Crean on May 19th to cross the rugged terrain of the unmapped island and thirty six hours later staggered into Stromness.

Shackleton held together a disparate group in appalling conditions, avoiding cliques and treating everyone equally. All ranks were expected to scrub the decks and do routine tasks. He never took unnecessary risks, improvised in a crisis and never asked others to do what he would not do himself. He instilled hope and belief that they would all survive. When after further disappointments and vicissitudes he returned to Elephant Island, it was to find that all 22 men had survived to be rescued.  The Ross Sea depot laying party was not so fortunate, however, and it is right to remember on this occasion the loss of Mackintosh, Hayward and Spencer-Smith in the last great man-hauling expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration.

Our first reading from the Book of Joshua ends with a promise – “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid neither be thou dismayed for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” After reaching as far inwards as humanly possible Shackleton records, “I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four and not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.”

Shackleton returned once more to S Georgia died there on the 5th of January 1922. His last words in his journal are “A wonderful evening. In the darkening twilight I saw a lone star hover like a gem above the bay”. He was buried in Grytviken head facing south.

Sir Raymond Priestley, himself a polar explorer, a distinguished geologist and one of the founders of the Scott Polar Institute has the last word, “For scientific leadership give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton”.