Ernest Shackleton – Last Expedition
April 11, 2013 | Exploration
World War I
When Shackleton and his men returned to England, they found that the world had fundamentally changed. When they had left civilization, World War I had just begun, but it was thought that it would be quickly over. When they returned, the world was engulfed in one of the bloodiest wars in modern history. England no longer cared for tales of courage in the Antarctic, when their sons, brothers and friends were fighting the Germans every day. Shackleton volunteered for the army, but was refused from active service because of his age and heart problems. Restless with nothing to do while the world was at war, he was finally sent back to South America as a British diplomat. He was unsuccessful in recruiting allies for the British, so he was sent to Northern Russia. He helped the British government prepare an expedition into the Arctic for military purposes, but fell sick and was unable to join in the expedition himself. With the war over, he again turned to business, and, after more failed endeavors, he went on a speaking tour and published a memoir of the Endurance expedition.
In 1920, Shackleton began to consider going on another expedition. He was tired of endless lectures, had failed to gain fame and fortune, and was generally dissatisfied with life. He convinced an old friend, John Rowett, to fund the expedition and secured a small whaler which he named Quest. They set off in September, 1921. Many of his old crew signed on again to follow their old leader, even though some had not yet received their pay from the Endurance. The expedition had few precise goals. Plans from circumnavigating Antarctica to searching for undiscovered islands were mentioned, but the journey was really Shackleton searching for satisfaction in his life.
The Quest arrived at South Georgia on January 4, 1922. Shackleton’s health had been deteriorating. He was drinking heavily, his heart problems had increased, and he had probably had a heart attack on the journey from England. In the early hours of January 5th Alexander Macklin, the expedition’s doctor who had been with Shackleton on the Endurance, came in to check on him. Macklin told him he was overworking himself. Shackleton answered him, “You are always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?” “Chiefly alcohol, Boss,” Macklin replied. Just minutes later, Shackleton had a fatal heart attack. He was only 47.
His body was sent back to England, but on the way word was received from his wife that she wished for him to be buried at South Georgia. Macklin thought it was fitting for Shackleton, writing, “I think this is as “the Boss” would have had it himself, standing lonely in an island far from civilization, surrounded by stormy tempestuous seas, & in the vicinity of one of his greatest exploits.” An official funeral for him was held in England, attended by the king himself.
Shackleton provides a wonderful example of leadership, heroism, and courage, and his men remembered him fondly for that. There was a saying among Shackleton’s followers and other Antarctic explorers:
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.
Frank Worsley, Shackleton’s captain of the Endurance, wrote this of his leader on the expedition:
Shackleton’s spirits were wonderfully irrepressible considering the heartbreaking reverses he has had to put up with and the frustration of all his hopes for this year at least. One would think he had never a care on his mind & he is the life & soul of half the skylarking and fooling in the ship.
Returning to the grave of “the Boss,” Worsley wrote:
Six years later when looking at Shackleton’s grave and the cairn which we, his comrades, erected to his memory on a wind-swept hill of South Georgia, I meditated on his great deeds. It seemed to me that among all his achievements and triumphs, great as they were, his one failure was the most glorious. By self-sacrifice and throwing his own life into the balance he saved every one of his men – not a life was lost – although at times it had looked unlikely that one could be saved. His outstanding characteristics were his care of, and anxiety for, the lives and well-being of all his men.
Shackleton should be remembered for his bravery and leadership in the face of terrible odds. He should certainly be remembered for this and his virtues emulated, but there is another side to Shackleton’s life. No matter how famous he was, he still felt unfulfilled. He died dissatisfied with his life, searching for something he could never find. Shackleton was one of those men fitly described by Robert Service (one of Shackleton’s favorite poets), in The Men That Don’t Fit In:
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.
He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.
This post is part of a series on the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.