HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FORDE!
On 29 August, 1875, Robert Forde, naval officer and Antarctic explorer, was born in Moviddy, near Bandon, Co. Cork. Forde was part of Captain Robert F. Scott’s Terra Nova expedition.
Robert was the youngest child of George Forde and Charity Forde (née Payne). In 1891, at the age of sixteen, Robert joined the Royal Navy and, in time, rose to the rank of Petty Officer First Class, displaying his ability and diligence.
On 16 April, 1910, at age thirty-five, Forde volunteered to take part in Robert F. Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition as Petty Officer First Class aboard the Terra Nova and officially joined on 30 May. In the early stages of the expedition, Forde took part in two depot-laying missions. As part of the shore party of the expedition, Forde also took part in the surveying teams, particularly around Ross Island. In late-January, 1911, Forde spent six weeks studying three glaciers to the west of Ross Island with geologists Frank Debenham and T. Griffith Taylor, Charles S. Wright the physicist and Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans.
In late-August, 1911, Forde, with Lieutenant Edward Evans and Lieutenant Tryggve Gran, voyaged to Corner Camp depot to ensure it was in good order and to clear it of snowdrifts. Though Scott though this unnecessary, he had no good reason to refuse the idea which came from Evan’s, Scott’s second-in-command. Scott’s response to the request was to say that ‘[i]f you people want to suffer, for Heaven’s sake, Go!’ On their return journey, Evans pushed the three men hard. They experienced extreme weather conditions including very low temperatures. Forde was badly frostbitten on this journey and he never fully recovered from it. His frostbite was a blow to Scott. As he wrote:
On this journey Forde got his hand badly frostbitten. I am annoyed at this, as it argues want of care; moreover there is a good chance that the tip of one of the fingers will be lost, and if this happens or if the hand is slow in recovery, Forde cannot take part in the Western Party. I have no one to replace him.
Though Forde seemed to be recovering, his condition continued to be critical and so Scott ordered Forde to return to the Terra Nova by March, 1912. He received treatment and returned the New Zealand in April, 1912. He was a valuable contributor to the work of the expedition. In her book, The Longest Winter: Scott’s Other Heroes (London, 2010), Meredith Hooper calls Forde the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition’s ‘all-purpose handyman’ and he was missed by Scott.
After his departure from the ice, Forde resumed his previous service aboard HMS Vivid I. He served on a number of vessels as Chief Petty Officer throughout the war years—Indus, Endymion, Vivid I, Hilary and Resolution. He was demobilised on 17 January, 1920, and returned to Cobh, Co. Cork, where he spent the rest of his life living on his naval pension. He wore a glove on his frostbitten hand, an unfortunate reminder of his days in the Antarctic.
Forde experienced continued violence in civilian life in Ireland. He was fired upon 25 March, 1920, in Limerick. Forde’s brother was a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary and the incident occurred during the Irish War of Independence. Though The Irish Times ran the story, they should have known that Robert Forde was, of course, not part of Shackleton’s expeditions but was in Antarctica aboard Terra Nova with Scott. Tim Foley, in his book, Crean: The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero, noted that the shooting occurred the day after Tom Crean’s naval retirement and that ‘the potential dangers ex-servicemen might face in their homeland in the midst of the Tan War was highlighted’ by the attack.
Robert Forde died on 13 March, 1959, and was buried in the Old Church Cemetery, Cobh. His gravestone refers to his time on the ice: ‘With Capt. Scott B.A.Ex 1910/13’.
A memorial to Forde, created by Michael Donovan, a sculptor from Cobh, was unveiled at the Promenade in Cobh on Saturday, 14 March, 2009. The memorial features a bronze relief showing Robert Forde in polar attire beside a sledge in the Antarctic and a text plaque with the words:
In memory of Robert Forde R.N. 1875-1959
Who served on Terra Nova with Captain Scott and took part in
the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition.
Interred in the Old Church Cemetery Cobh.
Erected by the Robert Forde Memorial Committee 2008.
Robert Forde is also honoured by the naming of Mount Forde, a mountain over 1,200m high, standing at the head of Hunt Glacier, 4 km northwest of Mount Marston, in Victoria Land, Antarctica.
Frank Nugent emphasises the contribution of the lesser officers and able seamen of Irish origin to Antarctic exploration and wrote that they contributed much to the achievements of the big names of McClintock, Scott and Shackleton. ‘Their outstanding accomplishments demonstrate how any ordinary but intelligent man could make a considerable contribution to the success of an expedition in the age of sail and ships.’
The Irish Times, 27 March, 1920.
Fiennes, R. Captain Scott. London, 2004.
Foley, T. Crean: The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero. 2018.
Hooper, M. The Longest Winter: Scott’s Other Heroes. London, 2010.
Nugent, F. Seek the Frozen Lands: Irish Polar Explorers 1740-1922. Cork, 2013.
Scott, R. F. Scott’s Last Expedition. 2 vols. London, 1914.
Smith, M. An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean—Antarctic Survivor. Cork, 2000.