On 1st June 1916, Ernest Shackleton received a telegram from King George V.   It read:  “Rejoice to hear of your safe arrival in the Falkland Islands and trust your comrades on Elephant Island may soon be rescued.”

Normally, Shackleton would have been delighted to receive such a warm greeting from the King, but his mind was unbearably troubled.  He and five companions had just completed one of the most arduous journeys in the history of exploration, but the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island, to whom the King referred, still depended entirely on Shackleton’s efforts for their survival. 


Sir Ernest Shackleton (Frank Hurley)

Having watched their ship, Endurance, crumple and sink beneath the ice that had gripped her for the best part of a year, Shackleton and his crew had taken two lifeboats and made a desperate journey across a sea choked with floes.  On reaching Elephant Island, about 150 miles off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, six of them - Shackleton, Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish, John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy - had set sail in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, in a bid to reach the island of South Georgia, some 800 miles away, intending to summon help from a whaling station.

Battling against a ferocious sea, they reached King Haakon Bay, whereupon Shackleton, Crean and Worsley slogged across South Georgia’s mountainous interior to alert the whalers at Stromness.  Having collected McNish, McCarthy and Vincent and brought them to safety, Shackleton then tried to sail straight back to Elephant Island in one of the whalers’ ships, but was driven back by ice.  He was taken to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, which had a telegraph connection with the outside world, and immediately sent telegrams to the King and the British Admiralty, informing them of the loss of the Endurance.  Then he set about finding another ship to take him south.

A Uruguayan trawler, the Instituto de Pesca No.1, was stopped by the pack ice with the peaks of Elephant Island frustratingly in sight.  With coal reserves dwindling, they were forced to turn back.  Shackleton’s next hope was a schooner called Emma, sailing out of Punta Arenas in Chile, but a combination of appalling weather and engine failure foiled his hopes yet again. 

Via telegram, Shackleton learned that the Admiralty was placing an ice-strengthened ship - ironically, the Discovery, on which he had first sailed to the Antarctic in 1901 - at his disposal, but she would not arrive in the Falklands until the middle of September.  Meanwhile, he was advised to relax and wait.  He paced up and down Port Stanley’s main street in frustration.  ‘I could not content myself to wait for six or seven weeks,’ he wrote, ‘knowing that six hundred miles away my comrades were in dire need.’

On 14th August he went back to Punta Arenas and persuaded the Chilean government to lend him the Yelcho, a 150-ton naval vessel that had seen far better days.  Even Shackleton, the eternal optimist, admitted that she was ‘quite unsuitable for work in the pack,’ but he promised that he would not let her touch the ice.  He started south on 25th August, knowing that this was probably his last hope to reach his men while they were alive. 


The men on Elephant Island (Frank Hurley)

For the last four months, perpetual hunger was just one of the trials that the men on Elephant Island had had to endure.  Encamped in a low hut that they had built from boulders with two upturned lifeboats for the roof, they were wearing the same clothes they had worn for half a year.  They were greasy from skinning seals to get meat and blubber to fuel their makeshift stove and lamps, and filthy from the resulting smoke that filled their cramped space.  Frostbite was an ever-present menace.  Perce Blackborow, initially a stowaway who was promoted to steward, had five toes amputated, an operation conducted by one of the surgeons, Alexander Macklin, using instruments that he sterilised in a cooking pot set on a primus stove. 

Rarely did the weather relent in its battering of gales and blizzards.  On the few occasions when temperatures allowed a mild thaw, the hut’s floor was awash with meltwater from the surrounding hills.  When the seals, penguins and other seabirds migrated north for the winter, their food supplies dropped so low that the men foraged for limpets and seaweed, and dug up old carcasses from previous meals to stew them with sea water.  Despite these appalling conditions, Frank Wild, the expedition’s second-in-command and now their appointed leader, would roll up his sleeping bag each morning with the words, ‘Get your things ready, boys, the Boss may come today!’

On 30th August, George Marston and the photographer Frank Hurley were shelling limpets on the beach when a ship rounded the headland.  They could scarcely believe their eyes.  They ran to the hut and shouted the news, upon which everyone inside made a rush for the door.  Blackborow, who couldn’t yet walk, was carried out so that he could see it too.  A fire was quickly lit, for fear that the vessel would sail past in ignorance, but it came closer and presently discharged a small boat, in which the figure of Shackleton could clearly be seen.  ’I felt jolly near blubbing for a bit,’ admitted Wild, ‘and could not speak for several minutes.’


Rescue ship Yelcho sighted (Frank Hurley)

Yelcho offshore, with small boat arriving on Elephant Island (Frank Hurley)


In joyful haste, they grabbed their belongings, including the log of the Endurance and Hurley’s photographic plates.  There was no time to lose.  Shackleton, who had found his route to Elephant Island unexpectedly ice-free, knew that the wind could change at any moment.  Within an hour they were all aboard.  As the Yelcho carried them north towards Punta Arenas, Hurley wrote:  ‘Oh! the bliss of once more feeling the motion of the sea, the music of fresh though foreign voices and to sense at last that our anxieties & privations are ended.’

They took home an astonishing story of courage and survival.  Behind them, they left the Endurance, now at rest in three thousand metres of icy water.  As Shackleton prepared to write an official account of his expedition, he must have cast his mind back to that fateful day when he ordered his ship to be abandoned.  According to Thomas Orde-Lees, the storekeeper, when they climbed over the side together, Shackleton said to him:  ‘Well, Old Lady,’ (using one of Orde-Lees’ nicknames), ‘we’ve got it in the neck all right this time, haven’t we?’ 

 ‘Well, no, I don’t think so,’ replied Orde-Lees.  You wouldn’t have had anything to write a book about, if it hadn’t been for this.’

 ‘By Jove, I’m not so sure you aren’t right,’ said Shackleton, and they both had a good laugh.

 Endurance (Frank Hurley)


Shackleton knew that he owed a tremendous debt to the whalers and mariners who put their vessels at his disposal and went south with him to try and rescue his men.  He wrote:  ‘There is a brotherhood of the sea.  The men who go down to the sea in ships, serving and suffering, fighting their endless battle against the caprice of the wind and ocean, bring into their own horizons the perils and troubles of their brother sailormen.’


Last year, another chapter was added to Shackleton’s story when his iconic ship was rediscovered.  On 28th March, at a special event hosted by RSGS in Perth Concert Hall, three members of the Endurance22 Expedition - Dr John Shears, Subsea Manager Nico Vincent, and Documentary Director Natalie Hewit - will speak about their experiences as they scoured the Weddell Sea in search of the Endurance.

Quotes and further reading:

Sir Ernest Shackleton, ‘South’ (1919)

Roland Huntford, ‘Shackleton’ (1975)