Relatives of James Wordie, one of Shackleton's key men, retrace his perilous steps
A century ago, writing as Sir Ernest Shackleton’s bid to cross Antarctica was dashed on the ice, his Chief Scientific Officer, the geologist James Wordie, added a tangibly fearful final entry to his diary. “I am afraid this will be the last entry,” he conceded. “I am making this entry seated in a tent on the floe.”
© St John's College, University of Cambridge
The pressure of 24 hours on closed ice had left their ship badly damaged. “The programme of the future is simple,” wrote Wordie. “To discard all unnecessary gear – my gold watch may have to go – to sledge and boat westwards to the land; and once there try and make Snow Hill.”
With three boats each weighing “about 15,001 lbs”, Wordie had greater cause for concern than the members of his family who are bravely following the doomed Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917.
© Frank Hurley, jamescairdsociety.com/pix/Wordie%20280.jpg
Next week, a dozen of his relatives – led by the explorer David Hempelman-Adams, the first adventurer to reach the Geographic and Magnetic North and South Poles – will attempt to walk and ski the final leg of Shackleton’s intended path to the South Pole. Should they succeed, the group will arrive on December 15 – 100 years after Sir Ernest would have made it.
“Walking the last 100 miles to the South Pole completes some unfinished family business,” says Tim Holmes, the husband of Wordie’s granddaughter, Alice. Holmes has secured support from the novelist and former SAS Sargeant Andy McNab, who has helped train the team and will be joining their quest.
“But it is also a way to understand the hardships and to remember the heroism of those who set out 100 years ago.
© Endurance 100
“As a team, we feel that one of the best legacies of our trip would be the creation of an archive covering Wordie and the other members of the Endurance expedition, so that their narrative can be available to anyone interested in polar science, its history, and climate change.”
Holmes is an alumna of St John’s College in Cambridge, where Wordie’s diaries, along with papers which once belonged to him and his comrades on the expedition, will be digitised and made available for public research as part of the project, Endurance 100, aiming to raise the funds to carry out the archiving.
Another graduate of the college, Medical Officer Dr Patrick Gillespie, will conduct a psychological evaluation of stress and mood in extreme environments during the daunting trek.
© Endurance 100
Enough money has already been raised to initiate a pilot stage of the digitization, focused on Wordie’s Weddell Sea diary from the Endurance ship, which he updated aboard the vessel before the crew abandoned ship and drifted on floes for several months, eventually reaching the uninhabited Elephant Island.
Originally from Glasgow, Wordie was just 25 when Shackleton recruited him for the trans-Antarctic expedition, which he described as the final, “one great main object of Antarctic journeying.”
Fit, young and an experienced Alpine climber, Wordie was a worthy enlistee on the trip, although he might never have anticipated the famous tale of adventure and survival he would be part of.
© Endurance 100
He is said to have played a vital role in maintaining the morale which helped the 28 crew members complete their 800-mile sea crossing to be rescued in South Georgia, and his account concludes upon their arrival home in November 1916.
But Wordie went on to take part in eight more polar expeditions, serve in World War One, accept an intelligence role in the Second World War and have an Antarctic sheet, the Wordie Ice Shelf, named as one of several polar landmarks in his honour. The Shelf broke away from the continent he partly conquered when global warming detached it in 2009.
The Scott Polar Research Institute, where the digitised records will be held, has also supported the project, with the team setting their fundraising target at £50,000. In the meantime, Holmes and his colleagues hope to channel the “spirit, courage and determination” of Wordie’s astonishing achievement.
Read James Wordie’s diary entry from Wednesday, October 27, 1915 (after Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship)
© BAin - Library of Congress
“I am afraid this will be the last entry in this diary: we left the ship this evening; it still floats, but has been so badly damaged by the pressure of the last 24 hours that it will never float again once the ice opens.
I am making this entry seated in a tent on the floe, having for companions Wild, McIlroy and the Carpenter: I look to the former of these to pull us through. The programme of the future is simple: to discard all unnecessary gear - my gold watch may have to go - to sledge and boat westwards to the land; and once there try and make Snow Hill.
Here is what has happened since yesterday afternoon. After dinner a trench was dug around the stern: before completed strong shearing pressure came upon us.
The leak got worse, and all hands came on deck: ordered to stand by the falls. This would be about 7.45 P.M: a few minutes later we were lowering the boats, and preparing to put provisions, clothing and sledges ashore.
Practically all hands were employed on the latter job from 9 till 11: with three others I spent this interval at the bilge pump. At intervals the pressure was repeated; a bulwark was stove in.
Result: leak not so bad and we are able to hold it with the engine and bilge pumps. There was no note of despondency when we threw ourselves in our bunks, clothes, boots and all: wakened every 4-5 hours to do a half hour spell on the bilge pump; suction frequently got.
This morning several hands were told off to help Chippy caulk aft. The “old hands” stowed the gear on the floe properly on sledges and got most of it weighed. With several others I was on the pumps all morning: at the time certainly none of us thought the end was near.
There is no open water in sight, but the pool aft of the winter position where we might have stopped remains a sheet of young ice. All round there are lines of working pressure.
At 2.0 P.M. the pressure started which has given the ship its death blow. It drove us along the crack athwart the bows, raising the stern clear out of the water: the rudder and propeller were buried in a maze of pressure blocks – a sorry sight they were in.
Then came the news – the water was gaining on us, though all three pumps were working. Order given to put the dogs out on floe: we then knew that matters were serious. And so till 4.45 when we had a spell o’ for tea.
At 6.0 P.M. still heavier pressure began: the ship was again tossed up aft. Order came to leave the ship. All sorts of gear goes over on to the floe. The water is now up to the level of the boilers.
We do hard work on the floe for some hours, shifting everything to a stout floe on the starboard bow. Cook goes back and prepares a dinner which we eat between 9 & 10 P.M. Assemble on floe: Boss explains situation and we turn in.
Everything has come too quickly to make us pause to regret: that will come in the future. From now on the work will be frightfully hard: we have three boats each weighing about 15001bs. Chippy tells me from his bag that the keel went during the pressure.”
- Visit endurance100.org for more.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Three places to discover amazing expeditions in
Royal Geographical Society with The Institute of British Geographers, London
Everest expeditions, Antarctic adventures and the David Livingstone collection are just a few of the inspiring sights here. Look out for Shackleton’s helmet.
The Polar Museum, Cambridge
The Scott Polar Research Institute was established in 1920 by Frank Debenham as a memorial to Scott and his companions. Debenham was a geologist on Captain Scott’s British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition 1910-13. He had the idea of establishing a research centre as a fitting tribute to the national hero and to ensure that Scott’s pioneering scientific work would continue.
Discovery Point and RRS Discovery, Dundee
This is the story of Discovery from her beginnings in Dundee and Captain Scott's remarkable Antarctic expedition, through her long ocean-going career until her final journey home. Find out about life on board and the essential design features that allowed her to survive the extreme polar conditions.