Sir Ernest Shackleton (Picture: British Film Institute National Archive).
History

Sir Ernest Shackleton: His military career and Antarctic expeditions

Sir Ernest Shackleton is best known for his endeavours in the Antarctic, but he was also a Royal Navy reservist and a former Army major.

Sir Ernest Shackleton (Picture: British Film Institute National Archive).

Sir Ernest Shackleton – who was a Royal Navy reservist and also served with the British Army – is best known for his remarkable Endurance expedition when he and his crew survived for more than a year trapped on the Antarctica ice in 1915. 

Their ship, Endurance, sank and remained lost until its discovery in early 2022.

Endurance was found at a depth of 3,008m and about four miles south of the original recorded position by the ship's captain Frank Worsley, according to the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust.

In 2021, Forces News sat down with his granddaughter, the Honourable Alexandra Shackleton, to speak about his life.

Although she never met her grandfather, Alexandra said he "wasn't perfect, but he was a very great man".

Sir Ernest was born in Ireland in 1874 and 27 years later joined the Royal Navy Reserve as a sub-lieutenant.

On his 1907 Nimrod expedition, he led his men to within 100 miles of the South Pole.

Eight years later he returned, aboard his ship Endurance in an effort to make the first coast-to-coast crossing of Antarctica with his crew.

After sailing into the Weddell Sea, the vessel became trapped in pack ice.

Watch: In 2021, Forces News spoke to Sir Ernest's granddaughter, the Honourable Alexandra Shackleton, about his life.

Squeezed by thousands of tonnes of ice, Endurance was crushed and the crew abandoned ship, and for the next five months camped on the ice as the vessel was slowly destroyed and sank.

Sir Ernest had hand-picked his crew for the expedition, prioritising team spirit and including one unorthodox choice of a crewmate with a banjo – but his team proved to be remarkable.

"I think it was innate, he just knew what he ought to do," said Alexandra.

"Leadership in those days was not a learned, self-conscious skill. It grew directly out of the sort of person you were, for better or worse."

With no chance of rescue, the entire group set off, dragging three small lifeboats across the ice, then sailing to Elephant Island 350 miles away. 

Then, leaving most of his crew behind, the explorer and a handful of companions set off again, navigating their 22ft boat, the James Caird, 800 miles to South Georgia in the South Atlantic.

Sir Ernest Shackleton's Endurance ship got stuck in ice and later sank in the Weddell Sea (Picture: British Film Institute National Archive).

The voyage lasted 16 days.

"That was an enormous achievement. It would have been very easy for this little boat to have missed South Georgia, gone straight out into the Atlantic and never been heard of again," said Alexandra.

Suffering from dehydration, they landed on South Georgia, and the group had to scale a glacier with basic equipment in order to reach a whaling station on the inhabited side of the island.

Once this final task had been completed, the men were finally safe.

After more than four months on Elephant Island, the remaining crew were eventually rescued by Sir Ernest.

"Not a man was lost," said his granddaughter, proudly.

The men's remarkable tale of survival made them celebrities and a film by Frank Hurley captured the huge welcome that awaited them in Chile as they made their way home.

Sir Ernest returned to Britain in 1917 in the midst of the First World War and volunteered for the Army and was made a major.

Despite not seeing active service on the frontline, he carried out a number of missions in South America and Russia where he trained British troops how to operate in Arctic conditions. 

After leaving the Army, Sir Ernest headed for Antarctica again in 1921 but, aged only 47, he suffered a heart attack and died in South Georgia in January 1922.