Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

Endurance under full sail

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917 is considered to be the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Conceived by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the expedition was an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. After Amundsen's South Pole expedition in 1911, this crossing remained, in Shackleton's words, the “one great main object of Antarctic journeyings”. [1] The expedition failed to accomplish this objective, but became recognized instead as an epic feat of endurance.

Shackleton had served in the Antarctic on the Discovery Expedition of 1901–1904, and had led the Nimrod Expedition of 1907–1909. In this new venture he proposed to sail to the Weddell Sea and to land a shore party near Vahsel Bay, in preparation for a transcontinental march via the South Pole to the Ross Sea. A supporting group, the Ross Sea party, would meanwhile establish camp in McMurdo Sound, and from there lay a series of supply depots across the Ross Ice Shelf to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. These depots would be essential for the transcontinental party's survival, as the group would not be able to carry enough provisions for the entire crossing. The expedition required two ships: Endurance under Shackleton for the Weddell Sea party, and Aurora, under Aeneas Mackintosh, for the Ross Sea party.

Endurance became beset in the ice of the Weddell Sea before reaching Vahsel Bay, and drifted northward, held in the pack ice, throughout the Antarctic winter of 1915. Eventually the ship was crushed and sunk, stranding its 28-man complement on the ice. After months spent in makeshift camps as the ice continued its northwards drift, the party took to the lifeboats to reach the inhospitable, uninhabited Elephant Island. Shackleton and five others then made an 800-mile (1,300 km) open-boat journey in the James Caird to reach South Georgia. From there, Shackleton was eventually able to mount a rescue of the men waiting on Elephant Island and bring them home without loss of life. On the other side of the continent, the Ross Sea party overcame great hardships to fulfil its mission. Aurora was blown from her moorings during a gale and was unable to return, leaving the shore party marooned without proper supplies or equipment. Nevertheless, the depots were laid, but three lives were lost before the party's eventual rescue.


Outline of Antarctica coast, with different lines indicating the various journeys made by ships and land parties during the expedition
1914–1917: Sea routes of Endurance, Aurora, and James Caird; planned overland route of the transcontinental party; and supply depot route of the Ross Sea party:
  Voyage of Endurance
  Drift of Endurance in pack ice
  Sea ice drift after Endurance sinks
  Voyage of the James Caird
  Planned trans-Antarctic route
  Voyage of Aurora to Antarctica
  Retreat of Aurora
  Supply depot route


Despite the public acclaim that had greeted Shackleton's achievements after the Nimrod Expedition in 1907–1909, the explorer was unsettled, becoming—in the words of British skiing pioneer Sir Harry Brittain—"a bit of a floating gent".[2] By 1912, his future Antarctic plans depended on the results of Scott's Terra Nova Expedition, which had left Cardiff in July 1910, and on the concurrent Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen. The news of Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole reached Shackleton on 11 March 1912, to which he responded: "The discovery of the South Pole will not be the end of Antarctic exploration".[3] The next work, he said, would be "a transcontinental journey from sea to sea, crossing the pole".[4] He was aware that others were in the field pursuing this objective.

On 11 December 1911, a German expedition under Wilhelm Filchner had sailed from South Georgia, intending to penetrate deep into the Weddell Sea and establishing a base from which he would cross the continent to the Ross Sea.[5] In late 1912 Filchner returned to South Georgia, having failed to land and set up his base.[5] However, his reports of possible landing sites in Vahsel Bay, at around 78° latitude, were noted by Shackleton, and incorporated into his developing expedition plans.[6]

News of the deaths of Captain Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole reached London in February 1913. Against this gloomy background Shackleton initiated preparations for his proposed journey.[7] He solicited financial and practical support from, among others, Tryggve Gran of Scott's expedition, and the former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, but received no help from either. Gran was evasive, and Rosebery blunt: "I have never been able to care one farthing about the Poles".[8]

Shackleton got support, however, from William Speirs Bruce, leader of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902–1904, who had harboured plans for an Antarctic crossing since 1908, but had abandoned the project for lack of funds. Bruce generously allowed Shackleton to adopt his plans,[9] although the eventual scheme announced by Shackleton owed little to Bruce. On 29 December 1913, having acquired his first promises of financial backing—a £10,000 grant from the British Government—Shackleton made his plans public, in a letter to The Times.[10]

Shackleton's plan

Shackleton called his new expedition the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, because he felt that "not only the people of these islands, but our kinsmen in all the lands under the Union Jack will be willing to assist towards the carrying out of the ... programme of exploration."[11] To arouse the interest of the general public, Shackleton issued a detailed programme early in 1914. The expedition was to consist of two parties and two ships. The Weddell Sea party would travel in the Endurance and continue to the Vahsel Bay area, where fourteen men would land of whom six, under Shackleton, would form the Transcontinental Party. This group, with 69 dogs, two motor sledges, and equipment "embodying everything that the experience of the leader and his expert advisers can suggest",[12] would undertake the 1,800-mile (2,900 km) journey to the Ross Sea. The remaining eight shore party members would carry out scientific work, three going to Graham Land, three to Enderby Land and two remaining at base camp.[12]

The Ross Sea party would set up its base in McMurdo Sound, on the opposite side of the continent. After landing they would lay depots on the route of the transcontinental party as far as the Beardmore Glacier, hopefully meeting that party there and assisting it home. They would also make geological and other observations.[12]


Corporate sponsorship for the expedition; Aurora is loaded with paraffin provided by Shell

Shackleton estimated that he would need £50,000 (current value £4,713,000) to carry out the simplest version of his plan.[13] He did not believe in appeals to the public: "(they) cause endless book-keeping worries".[8] His chosen method of fund-raising was to solicit contributions from wealthy backers, and he had begun this process early in 1913, with little initial success.[8] The first significant encouragement came in December 1913, when the Government offered him £10,000, provided he could raise an equivalent amount from private sources.[13] The Royal Geographical Society, from which he had expected nothing, gave him £1,000—according to Huntford, Shackleton, in a grand gesture, advised them that he would only need to take up half of this sum.[14] Lord Rosebery, who had previously expressed his lack of interest in polar expeditions, gave £50.[13]

In February 1914, The New York Times reported that playwright J. M. Barrie – a close friend of Captain Scott – had confidentially donated $50,000 (about £10,000).[15] With time running out, contributions were eventually secured during the first half of 1914. Dudley Docker of the Birmingham Small Arms Company gave £10,000, wealthy tobacco heiress Janet Stancomb-Wills gave a "generous" sum (the amount was not revealed),[16] and, in June, Scottish industrialist Sir James Key Caird donated £24,000 (current value £2,260,000). Shackleton informed the Morning Post that "this magnificent gift relieves me of all anxiety".[16]

Shackleton now had the money to proceed. He acquired, for £14,000 (current value £1,320,000),[17] a 300-ton barquentine called Polaris, which had been built for the Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache for an expedition to Spitsbergen. This scheme had collapsed and the ship became available.[18] Shackleton changed her name to Endurance, reflecting his family motto "By endurance we conquer".[13] For a further £3,200 (current value £302,000), he acquired Douglas Mawson's expedition ship Aurora, which was lying in Hobart, Tasmania. This would act as the Ross Sea party's vessel.[12]

How much money Shackleton raised to meet the total costs of the expedition (later estimated by the Daily Mail to be around £80,000)[19] is uncertain, since the size of the Stancomb-Wills donation is not known. Money was a constant problem for Shackleton, who as an economy measure halved the funding allocated to the Ross Sea party, a fact which the party's commander Aeneas Mackintosh only discovered when he arrived in Australia to take up his duties.[20] Mackintosh was forced to haggle and plead for money and supplies to make his part of the expedition viable.[21] Shackleton had, however, realised the revenue-earning potential of the expedition. He sold the exclusive newspaper rights to the Daily Chronicle, and formed the Imperial Trans Antarctic Film Syndicate to take advantage of the film rights.[22]

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