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From Ice Floes to Battlefields
Scott's Antarctic's in the First World War
By Anne Strathie
The History PressCopyright © 2015 Anne Strathie
All rights reserved.
* * *
In London, on Friday, 20 May 1910, Captain Robert Scott, Lieutenant Edward Evans, Lieutenant Henry Bowers and other naval officers who would soon be travelling to Antarctica on SY Terra Nova took part in the funeral parade of King Edward VII.
The late monarch's son, now King George V, was joined in his mourning by members of his extended family, including the rulers of Germany, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Bulgaria and members of the ruling families of Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Yugoslavia, Montenegro, Romania, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan and Egypt.
Their duty done, Scott and his men returned to West India Docks or the expedition's office in Victoria Street. Men had travelled from all over the world to join the expedition and were still arriving. Bowers had been released from his duties with the Royal Indian Marine in Bombay and the ship's navigator, Lieutenant Harry Pennell, was still on his way back from Australia.
When Pennell had applied to join what had initially been known as the 'Scott–Evans Antarctic expedition' in summer 1909 he had been serving with the navy's Mediterranean Fleet. Now 27, Pennell had gone to sea at the age of 16 and won a medal for his services on Britain's China Station during the Boxer Rebellion. He had then passed out from HMS Britannia (where Scott and the new monarch had also trained) with five first-class certificates, full marks in piloting and navigation, and a £10 prize. When Pennell learned that his application to join what was now officially called 'The British Antarctic Expedition' had been successful, he had been completing a round of duty with the Australasian station.
Edward 'Teddy' Evans, Scott's naval second in command, was two years older than Pennell. He had, following a somewhat eventful school career, failed to secure a Britannia cadetship, but, after training on HMS Worcester (where Bowers had also trained), had won a scholarship to Greenwich Naval College. Evans and Scott had first met on HMS Majestic; in 1902 and 1903 Evans had served on the Morning, the relief ship which had helped release Scott's main expedition ship from the grip of the pack ice during his Discovery expedition. Whilst in New Zealand between voyages, Evans had met and married Hilda Russell, the beautiful daughter of a prominent Christchurch lawyer. On his return to Britain he had initially concentrated on his naval career; he resisted the temptation to join Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod expedition, but soon started organising an Antarctic expedition of his own.
When Scott learned that Shackleton had established a new 'Furthest South' record but failed to reach the Pole, he began planning a second expedition. Sir Clements Markham, past president of the Royal Geographical Society and staunch supporter of Scott, persuaded Evans to combine forces and resources with Scott for another attempt on the Pole and a major scientific programme. Although Evans was less well-known than Scott he brought to the expedition feast substantial support from members of the Cardiff business community, who were keen to support an expedition involving a naval officer of Welsh extraction.
Evans agreed to Markham's proposal, in return for which he was appointed captain of the Terra Nova and Scott's naval deputy. When Evans and First Mate Lieutenant Victor Campbell joined the expedition's landing party, it would fall to Harry Pennell to captain the Terra Nova back through the pack ice and Southern Ocean to New Zealand. Pennell would then return to Antarctica in early 1912 and again in early 1913, on which last voyage he would pick up any members of the South Pole or scientific parties still on the ice. Although fuel costs would be heavy, this would be a small price to pay to reduce the risk of the Terra Nova becoming frozen in, as this time there was no permanent relief ship.
* * *
On 15 June 1910 the Terra Nova was cheered away from Cardiff, her final British port of call. Scott, who was not on board, was staying on in London to complete final financial arrangements for the expedition, before travelling by steamer to Cape Town and trying to raise further funds before the Terra Nova arrived. Scott's wife, sculptress Kathleen Scott, Hilda Evans and Oriana Wilson, wife of Chief of Scientific Staff Edward Wilson, would travel with him.
As the ship headed south, Teddy Evans proved to be a convivial captain who joined in and often instigated officers' wardroom 'entertainments'. Pennell spent most of the time on the bridge or in the crow's nest, but found time to work on the zoological log and perform the occasional hornpipe. At Cape Town, Scott, who had barely met some of the men who might accompany him to the South Pole, decided to join the ship for the next leg of the voyage. Edward Wilson, much to the disappointment of Pennell, Bowers and others, left the ship to accompany 'the wives' (as they were sometimes referred to outside their hearing) on the steamer to Melbourne.
The voyage south had given Pennell (now known as 'Penelope') the chance to get to know his fellow travellers, particularly the scientists (mainly Cambridge graduates) he now regularly encountered in the wardroom.
Edward Wilson was, Pennell felt, 'a real expert' in seabirds and marine wildlife and an 'extraordinarily well read and pleasant man'. Of the expedition's two marine biologists, Edward Nelson (who had worked on a North Sea 'Fishery Investigation') would land on Antarctica, while Dennis Lillie (a specialist in whales) would remain on the ship and trawl the Southern Ocean and waters round Antarctica for samples.
George Simpson (known as 'Sunny Jim'), who had been seconded from the India Meteorological Department, appeared to be 'a really clever man, well up in the job' of recording Antarctic weather conditions. The other scientists had their own specialisms: Murray Levick and Edward Atkinson were both naval doctors (although Atkinson was also a parasitologist); Griffith Taylor, Frank Debenham and Raymond Priestley were geologists; Charles Wright was a physicist and Apsley Cherry-Garrard a zoologist.
Although Pennell sometimes felt 'rather a worm and appallingly ignorant' in comparison to the scientists he soon gained the impression that every man aboard seemed keen to do 'his best for his messmates & for the expedition'.
* * *
On 28 October the Terra Nova sailed into Lyttelton, the port for Christchurch, New Zealand. She would remain there for a month while cargo was reloaded, repairs were carried out and more expedition members, and sledge-dogs and ponies (from Manchuria and Siberia) joined the ship.
Scott and his men were well looked after by Joseph Kinsey, the English-born shipping agent who had handled local arrangements for Scott's Discovery and Shackleton's Nimrod expeditions. Scott, like Teddy Evans, had family connections in New Zealand and Edward and Oriana Wilson had forged firm friendships there during their belated honeymoon which followed the Discovery expedition. One of Pennell's fellow lieutenants, Henry Rennick, also had friends from his time serving in New Zealand waters with HMS Penguin of Britain's Australasia station. Lyttelton was also an established recruiting ground for crew with previous Southern Ocean experience.
Pennell was pleased to see Edward Wilson again, but was less sure about how he felt about 'the wives', in particular Kathleen Scott. In Cape Town Pennell had found Scott and Evans to be rather susceptible to the 'petticoat influence' and he suspected that Kathleen Scott ('an ambitious lady') was trying to persuade Scott to appoint her brother, Lieutenant Wilfred Bruce (whose experience was on large passenger ships), as captain of the Terra Nova in place of Pennell on the return voyage to New Zealand. Kathleen Scott and Hilda Evans also took sides whenever Scott and Evans disagreed about expedition matters (a not infrequent occurrence). At one point matters reached such a pitch that it looked as if Teddy Evans might resign before the ship left New Zealand but Wilson and Campbell had, thankfully, managed to smooth things over.
Although Wilson was a clear favourite amongst expedition members he was closely followed, in Pennell's opinion, by Edward Atkinson. Pennell considered Atkinson (known as 'Atch' or, for less obvious reasons, 'Jane') to be 'an out and out gentleman with the quiet self-assurance that makes a man without making him offensive'. Although Atkinson, like Wilson, 'lent a sympathetic ear to everyone's trouble', he could, Pennell noticed, also take a dislike to someone 'on very short acquaintance' or (in Pennell's view) on 'very insufficient grounds'. But Pennell respected Atkinson's judgement and views, particularly in relation to 'the mess-deck feeling' on specific issues. And, Pennell felt, he could be trusted to honour confidences.
While the ship was docked, Pennell dined regularly with Atkinson, Bowers and Oates at their boarding house in Sumner, across the hills from Lyttelton. Pennell enjoyed himself on these occasions but noticed that Atkinson, if he over-indulged, had the tendency to become obstinate or, as he had done at a farewell dinner for London expedition agent George Wyatt and his attractive wife, somewhat comically over-amorous.
On 29 November 1910, with everyone and everything aboard, the Terra Nova embarked on her 2,500-mile voyage across the Southern Ocean. While Kathleen Scott, Oriana Wilson and Hilda Evans waved their husbands away from a tug, a spray-soaked young lady in the bow of their vessel waved and called out her farewells to Henry Rennick.
When the Terra Nova entered the 'Roaring Forties' and 'Furious Fifties' Pennell and his fellow mariners were in their element. The ship, weighed down with coal and the wherewithal to support men and animals in Antarctica for up to three years, sat low in the water. As she ploughed through the Southern Ocean, waves crashed over her gunwales, washed across her decks and found the slightest gaps between her groaning deck-planks.
Pennell now had the opportunity see how the men he would soon be commanding performed in such conditions. In the bowels of the ship, Chief Artificer William Williams ('a really good man') and his stokers and firemen managed to keep fires alight and engines turning. On deck and aloft, boatswain Alfred Cheetham and his men wrestled valiantly with winches, rigging and sails, using favourable winds to help conserve precious coal stocks. 'Alf', a wiry, cheery merchant seaman from Hull who was of an age with Scott, had served on the Morning under Evans and Nimrod under Shackleton. Cheetham, who had been spotted helping himself to a length of Nelson's brand-new trawling rope and splicing it into the rigging, seemed to be 'an absolute magpie', albeit for the general good.
As the Terra Nova rocked, rolled and yawled through the Southern Ocean Pennell tried to hold a steady course while Rennick and Bruce organised 'bucket crews' of scientists and other nonmariners who were not confined to their bunks by seasickness. Below decks, Bowers and Teddy Evans were trying to help Williams and his men clear the soot-clogged pumps. On deck, Cecil Meares, the expedition's much-travelled dog expert, cavalry officer Lawrence Oates (in charge of ponies) and their Russian assistants tried to ensure the expedition's land-based animal transport reached their destination in fit states. Bowers and Bernard Day (in charge of motorsledges) lashed additional ropes round items of heavy equipment that seemed at risk of being washed overboard.
In early December, just outside the Antarctic Circle, the ship entered the pack ice. For almost three weeks Evans, Pennell, Bowers and others coaxed their ship through the tightly packed ice floes, weaving through leads of open water, punching their way through intransigent pancake ice. Pennell and his shipmates celebrated Christmas Day 1910 in some style on a motionless ship, but by New Year's Day 1911 they had made it through to the open waters of McMurdo Sound.
Scott had hoped to establish his base around his Discovery expedition quarters at Hut Point but they were inaccessible due to the ice. He gave orders to return north to a sheltered, sloping shelf which he immediately named 'Cape Evans' in honour of his naval second in command. Pennell's job now was to hold the Terra Nova steady adjacent to the sometimes unstable sea-ice so that animals, provisions, building materials, sledges and other equipment could be unloaded and, with the assistance of dogs and ponies, moved quickly to solid ground.
On the higher ground, ship's carpenter Francis Davies and a team of helpers had begun building the main expedition hut, stables and outbuildings. Scott had thoughtfully arranged for a library of books, a gramophone and a Broadwood pianola (donated by the makers) to be installed in the hut to help while away the long, dark Antarctic winter evenings. Rennick, who had regularly played the pianola on the voyage south, now disassembled and reconstructed it, a job he did cheerfully, despite having no prospect of playing it again in the foreseeable future.
During the voyage south Scott had approached Rennick and asked him to step down from the landing party (for which he had been recruited) so that Bowers could be transferred from the ship's party to the landing party (within which Bowers would now serve as quartermaster). Rennick was unable to hide his disappointment, but showed no resentment towards Bowers and completed his task on the pianola with a lively rendition of Home, Sweet Home. Pennell had initially been disappointed about the change of plans. He had looked forward to working with Bowers, a natural seaman and shipboard favourite, but decided that Rennick was 'an A1 chap' whose surveying expertise would also be of great value.
On 17 January 1911 the Cape Evans hut was declared ready for occupation – a landmark event which meant that the ship (on which most of the men were still living) could be made ready for departure and the expedition proper could begin.
On 24 January Scott set out south with Wilson, Teddy Evans, Atkinson, Bowers, Oates, Meares, Demitri Gerof (Meares' assistant), Gran, Apsley Cherry-Garrard (a young scientist recruited by Wilson, nicknamed 'Cherry') and three petty officers, Tom Crean (a Discovery veteran), Pat Keohane and Robert Forde. Over the next few weeks they would deposit caches of provisions and animal fodder on the ice shelf (to around 80°S), which would be used during the following season's attempt to reach the Pole.
Scott knew he was not the only one with Antarctic aspirations over this and the coming season. Lieutenant Wilhelm Filchner of Germany and Lieutenant Nobu Shirase of Japan had both announced their intentions to claim the Pole for their nations. Australian scientist Douglas Mawson, a member of Shackleton's Nimrod expedition, had discussed joining forces with Scott but decided to mount his own expedition to Cape Adare, some 400 miles north of Cape Evans. Scott, who felt he had the advantage over all three in terms of both reaching the South Pole and his scientific programme, had been surprised to receive a cable in Melbourne, announcing that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was now also heading to Antarctica.
Amundsen had been a member of the 1897–99 Belgian Antarctic expedition, but owed his fame to having discovered the elusive North-West Passage. He had announced his intention of flying his country's flag on the North Pole but, possibly due to recent claims by Americans Frederick Cook and Robert Peary to have reached the earth's northernmost point, had decided to race Scott to the South Pole instead.
Scott, who saw reaching the Pole as a means of publicising his expedition's scientific work as well as a goal in itself, decided not to change his plans in response to Amundsen's implied challenge. He would, as intended, return from the South Pole not just with proof that he had been there, but with a full set of navigational and other observations and geological specimens collected on the way there and back.
Once the depot-laying party had departed, the Terra Nova (now under First Mate Victor Campbell) deposited a 'Western Party' at Butter Point, where they would explore glaciers in the area. This international group consisted of two Australian scientists, Griffith ('Griff') Taylor and Frank ('Deb') Debenham, a Canadian geologist, Charles ('Silas') Wright and a Welsh petty officer, Edgar Evans (a Discovery veteran). Wright and Taylor knew each other from Cambridge, where Wright had heard Douglas Mawson's tales of the Nimrod expedition and been persuaded to walk to London to apply for Scott's expedition.
The Terra Nova's next port of call was to be King Edward VII Land, where Campbell and his 'Eastern Party' would disembark and explore land discovered and named by Scott during the Discovery expedition. Campbell's party consisted of Raymond Priestley (a Nimrod expedition scientist), George Levick, Petty Officers George Abbot and Frank Browning and Able Seaman Harry Dickason.
Excerpted from From Ice Floes to Battlefields by Anne Strathie. Copyright © 2015 Anne Strathie. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Southward Ho!,
2. Battling Through the Pack,
3. Breaking News – and a Mysterious Death,
4. Final Journeys,
5. From Oamaru to Awliscombe,
6. Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New,
7. From Arctic to Antwerp,
8. 'Antarctics' on the Seven Seas,
9. Cavalry Officers, Chateaux and Censors,
10. Your Country Needs You!,
11. From Blandford Camp Towards Byzantium,
12. Crossing Paths and Keeping in Touch,
13. The 'Big Show' – and a Great Loss,
14. Deaths on the Western Front,
15. Of Scientists, Sailors and Shackleton,
16. A Norwegian 'Warbird' Keeps His Promise,
17. Northward Ho!,
18. Moving On,
A: Expedition Personnel,
B: Summary Timeline, 1910–19,
C: Other Information,