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Sir Ernest Shackleton made two crucial mistakes

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One person who played a key role in building Shackleton’s image was Australian photographer Frank Hurley. He was driven out by Shackleton to join Endurance due to the success of Hurley’s photographs of Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14.

Hurley was one of Endurance’s most resourceful and experienced expeditionaries. His photographs bear witness to the heroic age of Antarctic exploration and he was a pioneer of motion picture film. Even in the midst of a disaster as Endurance lay dying, Hurley calmly captured dramatic footage of the very moment her mast toppled through the broken rigging.

But Shackleton was suspicious of Hurley and they regularly butted each other. Before Shackleton left Elephant Island on his famous rescue trip, Hurley pestered him to agree that in the event of Shackleton’s death, the copyrights to the films and negatives of the expedition would be attributed to Hurley. The agreement was recorded in Hurley’s diary and signed by Shackleton.

Hurley was not invited to Shackleton’s next expedition to Antarctica in 1921. Even more telling, in the final chapter of South, Shackleton records the contribution of his Endurance colleagues to the First World War. It completely omits Frank Hurley.

Despite this personal rivalry, Frank Hurley’s film and photographs were key to the enduring Shackleton legend. This is the advent of adventure photography. Hurley’s photographs were widely published in newspapers around the world, and Shackleton traveled across Europe and America to bring Hurley’s film to delighted audiences. There have been many famous shipwrecks, but the Endurance was one of the first to be filmed so convincingly. Without Hurley’s images, the story would never have resonated to the same extent.

second ship

The Endurance wreck was discovered 3,000 meters below the ice earlier this year. PA

Only polar enthusiasts know that Shackleton’s transantarctic expedition included a second ship: the Aurora. Shackleton had bought Aurora from Sir Douglas Mawson after his traumatic experiences in Antarctica. Aurora’s mission was to land a team on the other side of the continent, via the Ross Sea. They were to meet and bring home Shackleton’s ground party. The Ross Sea Expeditionaries had to set up a series of food depots along the Beardmore Glacier so that the Shackleton party would have supplies to complete their crossing of Antarctica.

Unfortunately, Shackleton paid little attention to the Ross Sea Festival. He asked the Admiralty to provide a naval crew but unsurprisingly, with war brewing in Europe, Churchill refused this request. The Aurora required a complete refitting, but no funds were received to pay for this as well as essential supplies. The unfortunate prospect of having no one to meet Shackleton if he reached the Ross Sea loomed.

At the last minute, the Australian government had to step in and refit the Aurora at Sydney’s Cockatoo Island shipyard at its own expense. She finally left on Christmas Eve 1914. Only three on board had Antarctica experience.

Aurora had been directed by Shackleton to land in a very exposed location in McMurdo Sound. Six men immediately dragged south to establish food depots for Shackleton. Four other expeditionaries camped near the shore. One morning, after a violent blizzard, they came out of their tents to find that the Aurora had disappeared. He had become stuck in the ice, his anchor lines broke, his rudder was broken, and he drifted helplessly in Antarctic waters for most of the next year.

The group ashore was stranded with basic sledding rations and only the clothes they were wearing. Most of their winter supplies were on board the Aurora, and they did not know if the ship had sunk or if they would ever be rescued. Despite this, they persevered and succeeded in setting up the food depots for Shackleton. But he did not show up in 1915, nor in 1916 because, unbeknownst to the Ross Sea team, Shackleton never managed to set foot on the Antarctic coast.

It is true and to the credit and good fortune of Shackleton that the entire crew of Endurance survived. However, the Ross Sea party also endured terrible hardship. Only seven of the 10 were alive, when after more than two years, Aurora suddenly reappeared to save them in January 1917.

The year 1916 and the loss of the Endurance marked the end of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. It is the beginning of the worst horrors of modernity with the battles of the Somme on the western front.

For two long years, the Endurance and Aurora expeditionaries struggled to stay alive. They were stunned to learn that during this time the world had been at war with millions dead and no end in sight. Most of them volunteered for war service and in too little time a number of them were killed or maimed. Frank Hurley has been appointed official Australian Imperial Force photographer. Shackleton served in Russia.

In 1922 Shackleton returned to Antarctica where he died of a heart attack in March of that year. It would have been unimaginable for him that 100 years later the Endurance would be found again. But in March, the 107-year-old wreck was located and filmed 3,000 meters deep under the pack ice, its wooden structure remarkably intact.

Tim Griffiths is the author of the historical novel, Endurance (Allen & Unwin).