Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–17
Members of the Ross Sea Party, photographed in Australia before departure. Joyce is extreme left, back row.
Membership of Ross Sea party
In February 1914 Joyce, still in Australia, was contacted by Shackleton. who outlined plans for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton wanted Joyce in the expedition's supporting Ross Sea party; should the plans change to a one-ship format, Shackleton promised to find a different role for Joyce within the expedition. Joyce would later claim without justification that Shackleton had offered him a place on the main transcontinental party. In his subsequent book, The South Polar Trail published in 1929, Joyce also misrepresented the nature of his appointment to the Ross Sea party, omitting Shackleton's order that placed him under an officer and claiming that he had been given sole authority over dogs and sledging.
The task of the Ross Sea party, under the command of another Nimrod veteran, Aeneas Mackintosh, was to establish a base in McMurdo Sound and then lay a series of supply depots across the Ross Ice Shelf to assist the transcontinental party. Shackleton saw this task as routine; he wrote: "I had not anticipated that the work would present any great difficulties". However, the party had been assembled rather hurriedly, and was inexperienced. Only Joyce and Mackintosh had been to the Antarctic before, and Mackintosh's participation in polar work had been brief; he had been invalided from the Nimrod Expedition before the initial landing, after an accident led to the loss of his right eye and had returned only for the final stages of the expedition
, in New Zealand
after the expedition, its temporary rudder visible
Aurora's departure from Australia was delayed by a series of organisational and financial setbacks, and the party did not arrive in McMurdo Sound until 16 January 1915—very late in the season for depot-laying work. Mackintosh, who believed that Shackleton might attempt to cross the continent in that first season, insisted that sledging work should begin without delay, with a view to laying down supply depots at 79° and 80°S. Joyce opposed this; more time, he maintained, should be set aside to acclimatise and train men and dogs. However he was over-ruled by Mackintosh, who was unaware that Shackleton had ruled out a crossing that season.
Mackintosh further vexed Joyce by deciding to lead this depot-laying party himself, unmoved by Joyce's claim to have independent authority over this area. The party was divided into two teams, and the journey began on 24 January, in an atmosphere of muddle. Initial attempts at travelling on the Barrier were thwarted by the condition of the surface, and Mackintosh's team got lost on the sea ice between Cape Evans and Hut Point. Joyce privately gloated over this evidence of the captain's inexperience. The teams eventually reached the 79° mark, and laid the "Bluff depot" there (Minna Bluff was a prominent visible landmark at this latitude) on 9 February. It seemed that Joyce's party had enjoyed the easier journey. Mackintosh's plan to take the dogs on to the 80° mark led to more words between him and Joyce, who argued that several dogs had already died and that the remainder needed to be kept for future journeys, but again he was over-ruled. On 20 February the party reached the 80° latitude and laid their depot there. The outcome of this journey was 105 lb (48 kg) of provisions and fuel at 80°S and 158 lb (72 kg) at 79°S. But a further 450 lb (200 kg), intended for the depots, had been dumped on the journey, to save weight.
By this time men and dogs were worn out. On the return journey, in appalling Barrier weather,[n 1] all the dogs perished, as Joyce had predicted, and the party returned to Hut Point on 24 March exhausted and severely frostbitten. After being delayed for ten weeks at Hut Point by the condition of the sea ice, the party finally got back to their base at Cape Evans on 2 June. They then learned that Aurora, with most of the shore party's stores and equipment still aboard, had been torn from its moorings in a gale, and blown far out to sea with no prospect of swift return. Fortunately, the rations for the next season's depot-laying had been landed before the ship's involuntary departure. However, the shore party's own food, fuel, clothing and equipment had been largely carried away; replacements would have to be improvised from supplies left at Cape Evans after Scott's 1910–13 Terra Nova expedition, augmented by seal meat and blubber. In these circumstances Joyce proved his worth as a "master scavenger" and improviser, unearthing from Scott's abandoned stores, among other treasures, a large canvas tent from which he fashioned roughly tailored clothing. He also set about stitching 500 calico bags, to hold the depot rations.
The party set out on 1 September 1915. The men were under-trained and half-fit, in primitive clothing and with home-made equipment. With only five dogs remaining from the previous season's debacle, the task would mostly be one of manhauling. Before beginning the march south—a return distance of 800 nautical miles (1,500 km; 920 mi)—approximately 3,800 pounds (1,700 kg) of stores had to be taken to the base depot at Minna Bluff. This phase of the task lasted until 28 December. Mackintosh had divided his forces into two parties, himself in charge of one and Joyce of the other. The two men continued to disagree over methods; finally, Joyce confronted Mackintosh with incontrovertible evidence that his party's methods were much the more effective, and Mackintosh capitulated. "I never came across such an idiot in charge of men", Joyce wrote in his diary.
A depiction of Mackintosh and Spencer-Smith being drawn on the sledge
The weaker members of the party—Arnold Spencer-Smith and Mackintosh himself—were by this time showing signs of physical breakdown, as the long march south began from Bluff Depot towards Mount Hope at 83°30′S, where the final depot was to be laid. The party was reduced to six when three men were forced to turn back because of a Primus stove failure. With Mackintosh and Joyce in the final party were Spencer-Smith, Ernest Wild (younger brother of Frank), Dick Richards and Victor Hayward. With four dogs they trekked southward, increasingly afflicted by frostbite, snow blindness and, eventually, scurvy. Spencer-Smith collapsed, and thereafter had to be carried on the sledge. Mackintosh, barely able to walk, fought on until the final depot was laid at Mount Hope. On the homeward journey the effective leadership of the party fell increasingly to Joyce, as Mackintosh's condition deteriorated until, like Spencer-Smith, he had to be carried on the sledge. The journey became a protracted struggle which eventually cost the life of Spencer-Smith and took the others to the limits of their endurance. Mackintosh suffered further physical and mental collapse, and had to be left in the tent while Joyce, himself suffering from severe snow blindness, led the rest to the safety of Hut Point. He and Ernest Wild then returned for Mackintosh, and the five survivors were all back at Hut Point on 18 March 1916.
All five men were showing symptoms of scurvy with varying severity. However, a diet of fresh seal meat, rich in Vitamin C, enabled them to recover slowly. By mid-April they were ready to consider travelling the final 13 miles (21 km) across the frozen sea to the base at Cape Evans.
Joyce tested the sea-ice on 18 April and found it firm, but the following day a blizzard from the south swept all the ice away. The ambience at Hut Point was gloomy, and the unrelieved diet of seal was depressing. This seemed particularly to affect Mackintosh, and on 8 May, despite the urgent pleadings of Joyce, Richards and Ernest Wild, he decided to risk the re-formed ice and walk to Cape Evans. Victor Hayward volunteered to accompany him. Joyce recorded in his diary: "I fail to understand how these people are so anxious to risk their lives again". Shortly after their departure a blizzard descended, and the two were never seen again.
Joyce and the others learned the fate of Mackintosh and Hayward only when they were finally able to reach Cape Evans in July. Joyce immediately set about organising searches for traces of the missing men; in the subsequent months parties were sent to search the coasts and the islands in McMurdo Sound, but to no avail. Joyce also organised journeys to recover geological samples left on the Barrier and to visit the grave of Spencer-Smith, where a large cross was erected. In the absence of the ship, the seven remaining survivors lived quietly, until on 10 January 1917, the refitted Aurora arrived with Shackleton aboard to take them home. They learned then that their depot-laying efforts had been futile, Shackleton's ship Endurance having been crushed by the Weddell Sea ice nearly two years previously.