On 19 August, 1939, Frank Wild, veteran of five Antarctic expeditions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, died in South Africa.
Frank Wild was born in Skelton-in-Cleveland in north Yorkshire, England, 10 April, 1873. He was the eldest of the eleven children of Benjamin and Mary (née Cook) Wild. Mary was descended from Captain James Cook through her father. Wild joined the Merchant Navy at age sixteen and rose to the rank of second officer. He joined the Royal Navy in 1900 as a rating and before joining with Captain Robert F. Scott, Wild was serving as able seaman aboard HMS Edinburgh.
Frank Wild was aboard Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition with the Discovery in 1901. Ernest Shackleton was also present as Third Lieutenant and was picked for the trek south with Scott and Dr Edward Wilson. Tom Crean was there too in the same capacity as Frank Wild—Able Seaman. The expedition can be said to have launched the polar careers of these three men, and many other, who would return again and again to the ice. Wild gained much valuable experience on the ice and with dogs, proving himself capable and strong during Scott’s first expedition. He was part of the team of men that explored the foothills of Mount Erebus. (This was to be climbed fully during the Nimrod Expedition on 10 March, 1908, though Wild was not part of that accomplishment.) During the celebrations of Midwinter Day, 22 June, 1902, Wild took the lead male role in Charles Royd’s first play, ‘Ticket of Leave’.
Wild returned to Antarctica aboard the Nimrod expedition of Shackleton of 1907-1909, having been at the Sheerness Gunnery School when the Admiralty consented to his appointment to the British Antarctic expedition. Before leaving home, Wild took a quick printing course as it was planned to print a book in Antarctica. In the Antarctic winter of 1908, Wild and Ernest Joyce printed about thirty copies of Aurora Australis. It was the first book to the printed in Antarctica and is one of the most celebrated travel books ever written. Of the hundred possible copies printed, seventy are known to still be intact. It contained a mix of poems, stories and illustrations by George Marston. Shackleton’s contributions (poems ‘Midwinter Night’ and ‘Erebus’) were accredited to ‘Nemo’. The books were bound in venesta boards (an early plywood) taken from the expedition packing crates and the spines were fashioned from leather horse harnesses.
The march to reach the South Pole began on 29 October, 1908. The four-man team comprised Ernest Shackleton, Eric Marshall, Jameson Boyd Adams and Frank Wild. On 7 December, 1908, Wild fell through a snow bridge while leading Socks, their sledging pony. Although Socks fell into the abyss, the sledge and Wild were miraculously caught across the yawning gap. Sock’s weight had snapped him free. Shackleton wrote:
We lay down on our stomachs and looked over into the gulf but no sound or sight came to us; a black bottomless pit it seemed to be.
The near escape for Wild was exciting enough for Shackleton to later to include the story in his recording ‘My South Polar Expedition’ following the expedition.
Although Wild praised Shackleton’s spirit and efforts during the journey south, he often criticised Marshall and Adams for not doing enough. He wrote that they were ‘two grub scoffing beggars’ and remained unhappy with them along the way. Nevertheless, they trudged onwards until 4 January, 1909, when Shackleton decided to turn back. The four men had reached 88° 23’ South, 97.5 miles from the South Pole. Wild knew that Shackleton had the lives of the others as his priority. He wrote:
I am perfectly certain that had Shackleton only himself to consider, he would have gone on and planted the flag at the Pole itself.
By late-January, 1909, Wild was ill with dysentery and could eat nothing but biscuits. On 31 January, Shackleton forced his own breakfast ration biscuit on Wild. ‘I do not suppose anyone else in the world can thoroughly realise how much generosity and sympathy was shown by this,’ Wild wrote. It sealed an already strong bond between the two men.
In 1911, Wild joined Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition aboard the Aurora. Mawson was more interested in the pursuit of scientific knowledge than in finding and conquering new territories. On this expedition, Frank Wild was given command of the western base party on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. Rudmose Brown, of the Royal Navy wrote:
This was one of the most daring winterings in Antarctic history, since the base camp was seventeen miles from land on floating ice.
The party successfully adventured in the region and discovered many geographic features—glaciers, mountains and coastal features of Antarctica. They were collected on 23 February, 1913, by the Aurora.
If anyone was a dead certainty when Shackleton was arranging the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, it was Frank Wild. Michael Smith wrote that Wild was ‘[c]alm, capable and authoritative’. As well as these qualities, Wild was the closest to the Boss throughout the Endurance expedition and he had an intuitive knowledge of Shackleton’s needs. He was second-in-command of the expedition and was a loyal companion for Sir Ernest.
Wild was one of the five men given the responsibility of a team of dogs. As photographer Frank Hurley wrote, Sir Ernest adopted the wise plan of dividing them [the dogs] into five teams and apportioning them, by lot, to the five members of the party who were to accompany him on his proposed trans-continental journey. This was a particularly good idea—it gave the men a sense of responsibility and competition as Hurley put so well: ‘The feelings of proprietorship and the competition thus set up, were speedily reflected in the improved condition of the dogs.’ Those given charge of a team of dogs were Frank Wild, Tom Crean, Dr Alexander Macklin, Dr James McIlroy and Frank Hurley.
On 15 June, 1915, the Antarctic canine derby was held. A course was set to race the dogs and the men were given the day off to watch it. They all saw the fun of the event and even dressed up as bookmakers and took bets of chocolate and cigarettes. Wild’s team had a shade the best of the odds, as Hurley said. Shackleton was appointed started and wrote
Five teams went out in the dim noon twilight, with a zero temperature and an aurora flickering faintly to the southward.
Wild’s team came first in two minutes and sixteen seconds, or ten and a half miles per hour as Shackleton calculated. Hurley was very proud of his team and his team leader Shakespeare. He challenged Wild’s team to another race the next day, but with another passenger on the sledges that time. Wild’s team came first again, but Hurley won on a technicality, for as Hurley wrote, they
won on a protest, Sir Ernest, who was Wild’s passenger, having been ignominiously pitched off the sledge en route.
During the boat journey to Elephant Island, Wild was in the James Caird with Shackleton, Frank Hurley, Henry McNish, John Vincent, Tim McCarthy, Robert Clark, James Wordie, Leonard Hussey and Reginald James. Even at the end of those gruelling week (during which many of the men, particularly in the two smaller boats, had reached their limits physically and mentally), Wild was among those Shackleton had called ‘old-timers’ but had seemed to have come through the best. The others were Hurley, Crean and, of course, Shackleton himself. During the time of the journey to Elephant Island and the spent on the island, Shackleton wrote that Wild was ‘unmoved by fatigue and unshaken by privation’.
When the three boats finally landed on Elephant Island, there was no safe camping site at Cape Valentine, their first landing spot. Wild went scouting for something safer and, heartbreakingly, the men had to get back into the boats and move to Cape Wild—Wild by name, wild by nature.
While a six-man team (Sir Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, Tim McCarthy, John Vincent, Frank Worsley and Henry McNish) prepared for their journey from Elephant Island in the James Caird, the obvious leader for those to remain behind was Frank Wild. Just before leaving to be ferried out to James Caird, Shackleton had a last cigarette with his friend, Wild, in whose hands he trusted the lives of twenty-one others. Shackleton wrote a final note that included the line: ‘I have every confidence in you [Wild] and always have had.’
Wild’s leadership on the wretched island was firm, exemplary and faithful. Despite most of the other men becoming hopeless and listless, Frank Wild remained cheerful and certain (at least outwardly) of Shackleton’s inevitable return. Every morning when it was reasonable to suspect that the rescue could come, he had the men prepare themselves in readiness. Wild ensured that they lived as humanely as possible with their limited resources on an island had no shelter from strong winds and a backbone of ice.
The men lived in an improvised hut that was created by resting the two remaining boats, the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb-Wills, upside-down on rocks. The most challenging thing about the hut for Wild was the ‘perpetual darkness’. Although it wasn’t much better outside the hut, ‘and most of the time we could not tell whether the sun was up or not,’ Wild was determined to create enough light so that the men could at least see each other. They made lamps out of sardine tins, with bits of surgical bandage for wicks and used oil from seal blubber. Although these innovations gave only very poor light, it was an improvement on the total darkness and must have been enough to raise spirits and allow conversation and delay polar winter madness. Despite the fact that the hut was a makeshift hovel, it was nonetheless, inspiration enough for, and worthy of, musical praise:
My name is Frankie Wild-o,
Me hut’s on Elephant Isle.
The Wall’s without a single brick
And the roof’s without a tile.
Nevertheless I must confess,
By many and many a mile,
It’s the most palatial dwelling place
You’ll find on Elephant Isle.
On 30 August, 1916, the Yelcho was spotted off Elephant Island. The return of Shackleton meant the survival of the stranded twenty-two men. Wild had been contemplating using the Dudley Dock to sail to Deception Island, an even more risky voyage than taking the James Caird to South Georgia seemed. Despite Wild’s hopefulness with the men, he admitted that ‘things certainly did look rather bleak’ during July and August, 1916, on Elephant Island.
As the small boat from the Yelcho come closer to shore, Shackleton yelled out to Wild, ‘Are you all well?’ An emotional Wild simply replied, ‘We are all well, Boss.’ All twenty-two men were alive at Shackleton’s return. Frank Worsley said that as Shackleton counted the men on the island and realised all were there, Shackleton, Crean and himself were all speechless, overcome with relief and emotion. Although several of the men were quite ill and some of the others in a state of depression, all of the men under Wild’s charge were alive. Thomas Orde-Lees said that all of the stranded party owed their lives to his measured and thoughtful command. In Wild’s report on their time spent on Elephant Island, he said:
I wish to place on record the good moral of the entire party, and especially the energy and ability of How, Hussey, Hurley, Macklin, McIlroy, Kerr and Rickinson.
In response to the telegram sent by Shackleton, King George V wrote:
I greatly admire the conduct of their leader Frank Wild, which was so instrumental in maintaining their courage and hope.
Not only had Frank the respect of all crew of the ill-fated Endurance, but he also had the admiration of his king.
After the rescue of the island party, Wild went home to England. Like most of the others of the Endurance crew, he served in the war effort. Wild was made a Temporary Lieutenant, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and later became a Royal Navy transport officer at Archangel in Russia. After the war, Wild went to live in South Africa and then tried tobacco planting in British Nyasaland (now Malawi) with two comrades from the Antarctic expeditions, James McIlroy and Frank Bickerton, until 1921.
Wild took the opportunity to return south again on the Quest with Shackleton’s 1921 ill-equipped, directionless expedition. Before the expedition could really get going on its ever-changing goals, Sir Ernest Shackleton died on 5 January, 1922. Of Shackleton, Wild wrote:
I had served with him in all his expeditions, twice as his second-in-command. I accompanied him on his great journey which so nearly attained the Pole, shared with him every one of his trials and vicissitudes in the South, and rejoiced with him in his triumphs. No one knew the explorer side of his nature better than I, and many are the tales I could tell of his thoughtfulness and his sacrifices on behalf of others, of which he himself never spoke.
Though shocked at the death of the Boss, Wild took command of the expedition and decided to continue as Shackleton had planned.
However, their unsuitable Quest did not fare well in the swells of the seas or in the pack ice. Having left South Georgia on 18 January, 1922, the Quest returned on 6 April, not having broken through the pack ice or surveyed the intended coastline to the east. Once the Quest returned to South Georgia, the men were hosted by Thoralf Sorlle, the man who had welcomed Shackleton, Crean and Worsley back to Grytviken after their trek across South Georgia. Wild wished to leave something on the island in memory of the Boss:
Before leaving South Georgia we had rather a sad duty to perform. For a long time I had desired to erect some mark which would serve to perpetuate the memory of Sir Ernest Shackleton … I decided that the mark should take the form of a cairn surmounted by a cross … I determined that it should be the work of his comrades, something which we ourselves could create without help from outside sources.
A brass plate was added with the simple words:
SIR ERNEST SHACKLETON
died here, January 5th, 1922
erected by his comrades.
The Quest returned to Plymouth on 16 September, 1922. On 24 October, 1922, Frank married Vera Altman, the widow of a tea planter of Borneo. They went to South Africa when Frank resumed his farming endeavours as he tried growing cotton. This venture, as well as many others—railway construction, bartending, diamond-mining—ended badly for Wild and he was often in financial difficulty. He and Vera were divorced in December, 1928.
Frank re-married in March, 1931, to Beatrice Lydia Rhys Rowbottom and settled in Johannesburg. Frank took work as he could find it, working in a gold mine, giving occasional lectures on his Antarctic expeditions, travelling to the Transvaal for work and finally was employed at the Belasco Mine in Klerksdorp as a storekeeper.
Frank Wild died of pneumonia and diabetes in Klerksdorp, South Africa, on 19 August, 1939, aged sixty-six. He was cremated on 23 August, 1939, at the Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg. Frank finished the book Shackleton’s Last Voyage: the Story of the ‘Quest’ with the following touching sentences:
I have taken part in five expeditions to the Antarctic, and though I think that my work there is done, I shall never cease to feel glad that it has fallen to my lot to pioneer and guide the groping fingers of Knowledge on the white edges of the world.
A memorial plaque commemorating Frank Wild was unveiled on Sunday, 16 December, 1973, by the Bishop of St Albans, the Right Rev. Robert Runcie in Eversholt parish church, St. John the Baptist. Eversholt is the home village in Bedfordshire, England, of the Wild family since the early years of the twentieth century. The plaque reads:
In loving memory of Commander Frank Wild RNVR, CBE, FRGS of this parish, freeman of the City of London, Antarctic Explorer who accompanied Scott, Shackleton and Mawson on five South Pole Expeditions between 1901 and 1922.
[RNVR: Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve; CBE: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (awarded in the New Year Honours List, 1920); FRGS: Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society; Wild was made a freeman of the City of London in May 1923.]
In his book, Argonauts of the South, Frank Hurley wrote that one couldn’t write of Frank Wild without admiration. Hurley’s assessment of Wild is sincere and simple:
With more actual Antarctic experience to his credit than any other living man, he was a tower of strength to his commander and a capable substitute when the responsibility of leadership fell on him. Wild is not a big man, but for sheer grit, tenacity of purpose and comradeship he would be difficult to match.
After a seven-year hunt, Angie Butler, while researching for a book, finally rediscovered the forgotten burial place of Wild in Johannesburg. On 27 November, 2011, Frank Wild’s great niece, Julie George, buried Wild’s ashes in Grytviken, South Georgia, beside the resting place of the Boss, Sir Ernest Shackleton. Wild’s granite ledger reads: ‘Frank Wild, 19 April 1873 – 19 August 1939, Shackleton’s right-hand man.’
Many of Wild’s relatives and Shackleton’s granddaughter, the Hon Alexandra Shackleton, attended a service conducted by the Rev Dr Richard Hines, rector of the Falkland Islands. Just as Wild thought South Georgia an ‘ideal resting place’, Wild’s family and Angie Butler felt that Wild was finally where he was meant to be.
(Photographs in this post are taken from online editions of the following: Davis, With the ‘Aurora’ in the Antarctic 1911-1914; Hurley, Argonauts of the South; Shackleton, South!)
Davis, J. K. With the ‘Aurora’ in the Antarctic 1911-1914. London, 1919.
Fiennes, R. Captain Scott. London, 2004.
Hurley, F. Argonauts of the South. London, New York: 1925.
Shackleton, Sir E. South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917. London, 1919.
Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.
Wild, W. Shackleton’s Last Voyage: the Story of the ‘Quest’. London, 1923.
Worsley, F. A. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure. London, 1931.
Wikipedia entries for: Shackleton-Rowett Expedition; Frank Wild; Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition; Australasian Antarctic Expedition’s Western Base party.
Cool Antarctica’s page on Frank Wild. Lots of photographs, references to Wild in various publications and details about the places named after him.
‘Forgotten hero Frank Wild of Antarctic exploration finally laid to rest, beside his ‘boss’ Sir Ernest Shackleton,’ The Telegraph, 27 November, 2011.
Endurance Obituaries biography of Frank Wild by John F. Mann.
‘Frank Wild in final journey out of Shackleton’s shadow,’ BBC News Magazine, 29 December, 2011.
Photograph of the Western Base Party of Mawson’s expedition 1911-1914 on the Aurora‘s deck (including Frank Wild) at the State Library New South Wales.
Glenn M. Stein FRGS, ‘The Unique and Historic Polar Medal to Commander Frank Wild, Veteran of Five Heroic Age Antarctic Expeditions,’ 9 July, 2009.
Website for Angie Butler’s book, The Quest for Frank Wild: Including his Original Memoirs.
Central Bedfordshire Libraries, ‘Frank Wild,’ Bedford Borough Council, 2011.
‘My South Polar Expedition’ voice recording of Shackleton.