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The great polar survival

20 May 2016

One hundred years ago today, Lionel Greenstreet, a member of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, was stranded on an island in the Antarctic, unaware that a rescue mission had just begun. Jemima Thackray reports

Crushed: the ship, Endurance, was held fast by ice and sank on 21 November 1915

Crushed: the ship, Endurance, was held fast by ice and sank on 21 November 1915

TODAY, descendants of Ernest Shackleton will gather at Westminster Abbey for a centenary service of thanksgiving for the bravery of the great polar explorer and his team. The service marks 100 years since the conclusion of the failed 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. A century ago, on 20 May 1916, Shackleton — on foot and alone — reached the whaling station on South Georgia island, and set in motion the rescue plan that would bring back his men from the Antarctic, where they had been stranded for 18 months.

Among the congregation will be the Revd Jackie Taylor, whose great-uncle, Lionel Greenstreet, was First Officer of Shackleton’s boat, Endurance, and was among the men rescued. “It’s a story that has been part of my life since I was young,” she said. “It’s been called the greatest survival story ever. The service will be a very special occasion for us all.”

Mrs Taylor embarked on her own commemorative trip to the Antarctic this year, following her great-uncle’s route across the Drake Passage — named after Sir Francis Drake — between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. “Passengers dread it, because its seas are notoriously some of the roughest in the world. It takes about two days to cross the 700 miles or so. On the way out to Antarctica, it was a beautiful crossing — in fact, we arrived half a day early. But, on the way back home, we had the full experience, and it felt like we were in a washing machine.”


ENDURANCE sailed to Antarctica from Plymouth on 8 August 1914, but the following January the vessel became trapped in pack ice. Held fast, it drifted steadily northward. After several months of life on board, the crush of the moving ice-blocks became too threatening, and the crew finally abandoned the boat on 27 October. They set up camp on the ice floe, enduring the cold, and living on seal and penguin meat.

In an interview with The Guardian in 1964, Greenstreet recalled how the party’s meteorologist, Leonard Hussey, kept the men’s spirits up by playing his banjo, even with frostbitten fingers; and how the men would pass round a single dog-eared cookery book, and dream of their first meal on dry land.

After six months on the ice, the floe began to break up underneath them. “It looked as if we should all be scattered on different fragments of ice, and that really looked like the end,” Greenstreet said in the same interview. The men were forced to take to the lifeboats and row for days without sleep or food, in temperatures of -30°, before finally landing on Elephant Island — the first proper land they had set foot on in 497 days.

Greenstreet later recorded the moment in his diary: “Sea elephants had been killed, and a big fire lighted, and after getting a little circulation back by violent flapping of my arms, I plunged my hands into the warm insides of the dead sea elephants, and eventually got the blood flowing once more, but the agony was so intense for a while that I shouted and raved and cried like one demented, but I saved my hands.

“We always felt like something would turn up,” Greenstreet continued, with a serenity that his family recall as being typical of the man. “Even though we knew we only had an even chance of survival, there was always some immediate goal to be achieved, and some progress to be made. But even at the worst times we did not speak our minds, and if anyone ever despaired, he certainly did not tell us. Those who seemed depressed were jollied along by the rest.”

Indeed, Greenstreet’s great-grandson later wrote that he had “a stillness of spirit at his core, perhaps influenced by a deep faith in God. It was as if the experiences which he had endured those many years before in Antarctica had opened for him a deeper understanding than is common.”


ON ELEPHANT ISLAND, the men made a shelter beneath two upturned boats, while Shackleton and five others made a heroic 800-mile journey to South Georgia island in the third lifeboat, encountering waves that the great explorer later described as the largest he had seen in 26 years at sea.

Landing on the wrong side of the island, the men had to climb glaciers with nothing more than the screws in the leather soles of their boots, a carpenter’s axe, and a coil of rope. Three days later, Shackleton reached a whaling station, and a rescue party was finally sent to bring the rest of the crew home.

Greenstreet recalled their rescue with surprising ruefulness: “We had waited so long for a rescue that we were sure that Shackleton’s party must have drowned, and that no one would have any idea where they were. So we planned that the six least frostbitten amongst us would stock one of the remaining boats with hard-boiled penguin eggs, and try to reach the deserted whale station on Deception Island.

“We knew that there was a wooden church there, which we planned to pull down in order to build a boat which would sail to South America. I had been looking forward to this trip. It would have been an epic journey.”

In the same interview, Greenstreet admitted being tempted to do “flash things” under the strain. But, apparently, “the one thing Shackleton couldn’t stand was the taking of unnecessary risks, because they might impair the ultimate success of the expedition. No other leader had quite his adaptability.

Unlike Scott, who was a great disciplinarian, Shackleton was always ready to ask his men’s advice, and many of those who had been on his earlier expeditions volunteered for this one.”


“ONCE home, many of the men had to go off to war, and were killed in the trenches,” Mrs Taylor said, “which seems so utterly tragic after all they had survived. My great-uncle was a commander in both world wars. In fact, he was the last survivor of Endurance, dying at the age of 89 in 1979. It snowed on his funeral, which we all found quite fitting.

“No other member of the family had been to Antarctica since him. It really is an extraordinarily wild and beautiful place. I could never have imagined how the mountains would soar out of the ocean, how high and blue the giant glaciers would be; the ice, the mountains, and the sea at times looked like liquid silver. We got a tiny insight into what my great-uncle experienced, and I felt a sense of connection to him.

“But I marvel at their courage. It’s not like today, and our modern ways of communication: no one knew where they were, or whether they were alive or dead.

“I feel privileged to have visited part of God’s creation that few people ever see. The crossing back did disturb us physically, because it was so rough, but, without that, our expedition would have been incomplete. It brings to mind a prayer written by Sir Francis Drake: ‘Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly to venture on wilder seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.’”

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