Too weak for hunting, physicist Richard Walters Richards became the lookout of the stranded party from the Ross Sea end of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-continental Antarctic Expedition. On 10 January, 1917, through his binoculars, he spotted the ‘Aurora’ approaching. The men—Ernest Edward Joyce, Harry Ernest Wild, John Lachlan Cope, Alexander Stevens, Richard Walter Richards, Andrew Keith Jack and Irvine Owen Gaze—would be relieved and saved.
Aboard the ‘Aurora’ as a supernumerary officer, Sir Ernest Shackleton stood anxiously. It had been eight years since ‘Nimrod’ had pulled away from this part of Antarctica in the expedition that made Shackleton’s name and fame. Captain John King Davis sent up a flare and Shackleton went ashore at Cape Royds to look for signs of life. He found a note that told him that the men had overwintered at Scott’s old hut at Cape Evans.
When Richards ran to tell the others that he had seen a ship, they were dumbfounded. Jack wrote that ‘it is not a time for words’. He cried ‘tears of joys’ at the news that was ‘too good to be true’. Wild simply wrote his diary’s last entry: ‘Ship O’. The surviving men wasted no time, hitched dogs to the sledges and went towards the approaching vessel.
The men coming from Cape Evans were shortly within Shackleton’s sight. They were ragged and filthy—visible evidence of their ordeal. Captain Davis wrote that they were the ‘wildest looking gang of men that I have ever seen in my life’. Shackleton, on the other hand, was more familiar with that physical state from his experience of the ‘Nimrod’ expedition and, much more recently, his condition on reaching Stromness whaling station in May, 1916.
Despite the joy of Shackleton and Davis at seeing the men, they also met with despair when given the news of the deaths of three men of the stranded party—Rev Arnold Spencer-Smith, Aeneas Lionel Acton Mackintosh and Victor George Hayward. As Robert Hugh Mill wrote, on hearing the men’s stories, Shackleton’s ‘heart was heavy within him to find that disaster had befallen this section of his expedition, though he was filled with pride, too, by the way in which the work they were sent to do had been done.’
Despite their rescue, the men of the Ross Sea party were angry and the atmosphere was tense at times. Joyce, in particular, lashed out at Shackleton for the ill-equipped nature of their end of the expedition and for his choice of personnel for the Aurora. The Australians (Gaze, Jack and Richards) were reportedly ‘rather hostile’ towards Shackleton with his appointment of Mackintosh to leadership as their chief complaint. Since the Endurance had been consumed by the Weddell Sea ice and the crew never even started the transcontinental trek, the depot-laying was, in fact, of no use. It must have been hard not to see their hard work, infighting, suffering and, ultimately, the death of three of their party as all in vain. However, as Shackleton told them his endeavours in the Weddell Sea, he had them in fits of laughter and they warmed to him.
Mill, R. H. The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton. London, 1923.
Smith, M. Shackleton. Cork, 2014.
Tyler-Lewis, K. The Lost Men. London, 2006.