One hundred ago today: 27 October 1915

October 27, 2015

At 5pm, this day, 100 years ago, Sir Ernest Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship, at the position of lat 69. 5′ South, long 51.30 West

‘The floes, with the force of millions of tons of moving ice behind them, were simply annihilating the ship’, wrote Shackleton.

Having been beset in the pack ice since mid-January, the Endurance had zig-zagged across the Weddell Sea, a distance of over 1,100 miles.

It is questionable whether Shackleton and/ or the others knew in advance that the ship was destined for destruction. Shackleton wrote that the ‘destruction and abandonment of the ship was no sudden shock. the disaster had been looming ahead for many months…’ Worsley, the ship’s captain, had been dumbstruck when Shackleton first suggested the idea that his ship was doomed.

By late-July 1915 the long polar winter was over, but this only endangered Endurance because the space that the melting ice created meant the ship was entering ‘the heart of the icy battlefield’. An open floe greeted the ship, 14 October, but the ‘position caused gravest anxiety as the floes came gradually together’.

‘With silent irresistible force, they [the floes] nipped the ship in their terrific jaws. She creaked, shivered and protested in agony, but tighter and more relentless was the grip, until just when we expected to see her sides stave in, she slowly began to rise above the ice.’

The ship keeled over dramatically, letting Hurley capture his iconic images.

By 24 October all of the men were on the ice with ‘picks, shovels and chisels…[to]…cut trenches to try to relieve the strain’ on the ship.

Either to save their ship or to prolong the inevitable,the men worked tirelessly reinforcing the structures of the ship, (McNish) rebuilding parts, pumping water out of the stores and the engine room. Each night, however, replenished the ice and restarted the process. The pumping was a difficult task as the water continually froze, clogging the valves.

On 26 October, all hands ‘were actively engaged clearing the lowering gear of the boats and stacking the emergency stores in case of compulsory disembarkment which now seem[ed] inevitable’. Again, the men worked rapidly yet ‘without confusion as though it were ordinary routine duty’.

From Shackleton’s South!:

This morning, our last on the ship, the weather was clear, with a gentle south-south-easterly to south-south-westerly breeze. From the crow’s-nest there was no sign of land of any sort. The pressure was increasing steadily, and the passing hours brought no relief or respite for the ship. The attack of the ice reached its climax at 4 p.m. The ship was hove stern up by the pressure, and the driving floe, moving laterally across the stern, split the rudder and tore out the rudder-post and stern-post. Then, while we watched, the ice loosened and the Endurance sank a little. The decks were breaking upwards and the water was pouring in below. Again the pressure began, and at 5 p.m. I ordered all hands on to the ice. The twisting, grinding floes were working their will at last on the ship. It was a sickening sensation to feel the decks breaking up under one’s feet, the great beams bending and then snapping with a noise like heavy gunfire. The water was overmastering the pumps, and to avoid an explosion when it reached the boilers I had to give orders for the fires to be drawn and the steam let down. The plans for abandoning the ship in case of emergency had been made well in advance, and men and dogs descended to the floe and made their way to the comparative safety of an unbroken portion of the floe without a hitch. Just before leaving, I looked down the engine-room skylight as I stood on the quivering deck, and saw the engines dropping sideways as the stays and bed-plates gave way. I cannot describe the impression of relentless destruction that was forced upon me as I looked down and around. The floes, with the force of millions of tons of moving ice behind them, were simply annihilating the ship.

From Hurley’s Argonauts of the South:

October 27th.—Chips [McNish] expects to complete the coffer dam to-night and great hopes are still entertained that he will be able to. All, including Sir Ernest, continue turns with the pumps which are able to keep pace with the inflowing water. We have just finished lunch and the ice mill is in motion again. Closer and closer the pressure wave approaches. Immense slabs are rafted, balance a moment, then topple down and are over-ridden by a chaos of crunched fragments. Irresistibly this stupendous power marches onward, grinding through the five feet ice floe surrounding us. Now it is within a few yards of the vessel. We are the embodiment of helpless futility and can only look impotently on. I am quickly down on the moving ice with the cinema, expecting every minute to see the sides, which are springing and buckling, stave in. The line of pressure now assaults the ship and she is heaved to the crest of the ridge like a toy. Immense fragments are forced under the counter and wrench away the sternpost. Sir Ernest and Captain Worsley are surveying the ship’s position from the floe when the carpenter announces that the water is gaining rapidly on the pumps. All hands are ordered to stand by to discharge equipment and stores on to the ice. The pumps work faster and faster and someone is actually singing a chanty to their beat. The dogs are rapidly passed out down a canvas chute and secured on the floe, followed by cases of concentrated sledging rations, sledges and equipment. The ship is doomed.

By 7pm, the men had moved their supplies to about 100 yards from the ill-fated ship and had established their camp and tents. However, by 8pm they had to move from their unstable floe as it started to split and smash under their feet. Shackleton wrote of the conditions during the first night off the ship: ‘Tonight the temperature has dropped to -16 Fahr., and most of the men are cold and uncomfortable.’

‘Our ship,’ wrote Hurley, ‘has put up a valiant fight and done honour to her noble name, Endurance.’

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