This blog provides information, stories, links and events relating to and promoting the history of the Wimmera district.
Any additional information, via Comments, is welcomed.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Looking back 100 years

I am aware that this is not 'local', but it is 100 years since these events of national significance occurred.
Re-posting this article from the 'Such was life' series of blogs, by the State Library's Andrew McConville, relating to the Ross Sea Party, who were planting depots for Shackleton's party (when the 'Endurance' was crushed by the ice). The whole story is told in "Shackleton's forgotten Argonauts" by Lennard Bickel - well worth reading.

Before they had even begun their trek, the Ross Sea Party's ship Aurora was carried away in a storm in May 1915 and it was then trapped in ice for ten months before struggling back to New Zealand. It was refitted and returned to Ross Island under John King Davis, with Ernest Shackleton on board, to rescue the survivors of the Ross Sea Party in January 1917.

Meanwhile: Towards the end of January in 1916, six men from the Ross Sea Party, with their four sled dogs, reached the Beardmore Glacier, Antarctica. They had been on the ice since September 1915, laying stores for Ernest Shackleton’s attempted crossing of the Antarctic continent. Unbeknown to the party, Shackleton’s ship was crushed in the Weddell Sea and his crossing didn’t ever commence.
The men were exhausted, ill and running out of food. Arnold Spencer-Smith was dying, his body ravaged by scurvy. Aeneas Mackintosh and Victor Hayward also had black gums and blue, swollen limbs as scurvy took hold.
Halfway to the South Pole and 650 kilometres from their base on Ross Island, their companions Ernest Joyce, Ernest Wild, and Dick Richards knew the party had little chance of surviving.
Ross Sea Party sledging journey, from Ernest Joyce's log "South Polar Trail"
Spencer-Smith had to be carried on a sled, Mackintosh could barely walk and Hayward’s health was failing.  Joyce summed up the situation. “The next enterprise is the long trail back. The dogs are our only hope. Our lives depend on them.”
Con, the lead dog, had been mighty. Resented by the other three dogs for his leader status, he had none the less got the party to their destination. Towser and Gunner had also performed grandly with scarce rations, heavy loads and brutal conditions, but now they were weak and hungry.
The fourth dog Oscar, though, couldn’t be relied on. He was lazy and fractious… “an unlovely specimen, a bit shambly, with a … low criminal-type forehead,” “extremely unpopular with the other dogs because of his surly ways and dirty habits”.
Camp on Great Ross Ice Barrier, (1914-1917). SLV H82.45/29
Each day was a desperate battle for survival. In mid-February they were hit by a ferocious blizzard. Trapped in their tents, their rations all but gone, they had to somehow get to their next depot. In Joyce’s words “Our food lies ahead and death stalks behind.”
Joyce, Richards, Hayward and the dogs went out into the raging storm, leaving Wild in the tent to tend to Spencer-Smith and Mackintosh. “The wind was blizzard force…snow whirled everywhere and we staggered in our traces with its force.” Hayward was near collapse, visibility was practically zero and three of the dogs were losing heart. Without the food depot they would all certainly die.
It was at this worst of times that wayward Oscar decided to step up:
In the crisis the massive Oscar just lowered his great head and pulled as he never did when things were going well, he even … tried [to] the bite the heels of the dog ahead of him to make him work….When things were going well he was inclined to be lazy, but…he alone gave that extra little strength that enabled us to finally make the depot.
Perhaps like Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Oscar thought “I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill; Redeeming time when men think least I will.”
They struggled back through the blizzard with food for their companions.
Depot and abandoned sledge, (1914-17). SLV H82.45/32
On March 9,  just short of Hut Point, Arnold Spencer-Smith died.
Once at Hut Point, in the derelict, icebound shelter built by Scott in 1901, Hayward and Mackintosh recovered.  But after two months, against all advice, they attempted to cross the treacherous sea ice to get to the main hut at Cape Evans and were never seen again.
A few weeks later Towser and Gunner turned on Oscar and savaged him. The men managed to separate the dogs, but Oscar, badly injured, crawled off in the night to find a place to die. The men searched for him but could find no trace. It was a sad end for the dog that had so recently saved the party.  
Ernest Joyce with Oscar, from Joyce's log "South Polar Trail"
But Oscar was hard to kill. A week later he was scratching at the door, sore and sorry but itching for a fight.
Finally in July 1916, Wild, Richards and Joyce and the dogs, made the ice crossing to reunite with their four remaining colleagues at Cape Evans.
It was a grim winter. Their ship, Aurora, had been carried away in a storm in May 1915, leaving them marooned. Dick Richards, who had performed so magnificently, collapsed and was an invalid for the remainder of their stay.
Then Con, the fine, intelligent lead dog, was injured in a fight with the other dogs and died, despite tender care from the men.
Ernest Joyce wrote simply: “In spite of all my care the poor fellow died …. Another pal gone. We buried him on the hill.”
Irvine Gaze with Gunner, Ernest Joyce with Towser, Dick Richards (right) with Oscar, Keith Jack (standing centre). SLV H82.45/62
The seven bedraggled survivors of the Ross Sea Party were finally rescued in January 1917.
Ernest Joyce adopted Gunner, while Oscar and Towser went to Wellington Zoo. Oscar didn’t get to enjoy his retirement for long. 18 months later, in June 1918, he collapsed and died. A post mortem showed a diseased liver and enlarged heart, legacy of his hard life in the Antarctic.
Many years later Dick Richards wrote: “None of us who made the southern journey will ever forget those faithful friends of the dog world – Con, Gunner, Oscar and Towser. Without them the party would not have got back.”
Oscar with the survivors - Keith Jack, Stevens, Dick Richards, Ernest Wild, Irvine Gaze, Ernest Joyce, and Cope with Ernest Shackleton and Aurora's Captain John King Davis SLV H82.45/59
And here we are, a century later, remembering the dogs who saved the expedition, particularly Oscar. Lazy? Possibly. Unpopular? Maybe. With surly ways and dirty habits? Probably. But when the men were slowly dying, facing starvation and the insidious creep of scurvy, with three dogs exhausted, in ferocious weather, deep in the Antarctic and 100s of kilometres from safety, when all seemed hopeless, it was Oscar who “lowered his great head and pulled as he never did when things were going well”.
So as winter turns to spring and the days lengthen, let’s look south, raise a glass, and say “Well done Oscar!”

A local-ish link was that: Dick Richards, just 21 when he joined the expedition, had been a student at the Ballarat School of Mines (the forerunner of today's Federation University). Dick recovered from his Antarctic ordeal, and went on to become principal of Ballarat’s School of Mines, later retiring to Point Lonsdale, where he died in 1985, at age 91.

No comments:

Post a Comment