Excerpted from the PREFACE:
By March 20, 1916, the earliest days of the Great War were fading from memory. The hopes of swift victory on both sides had long since evaporated. On that day, The Times of London advertised “History of the War, Part 83,” revisiting the beginnings of the bewildering descent into “the war to end all wars” after a century of relative peace in Europe. As the battles dragged on into a new year, submarine attacks, aerial bombardment, and mass slaughter on the western front dominated the headlines. With the number of British men mobilized climbing into the millions, page upon page listed the losses in Europe, Mesopotamia, East Africa, the Mediterranean, and Egypt: killed, accidentally killed, missing believed killed, wounded, died of wounds. Dozens of charities entreated readers for help, among them “Friendless Belgian Prisoners of War,” “Polish Victims Relief Fund,” and the “Waifs and Strays Society,” along with personal pleas: “Wanted, home for boy of two years.”
That same day, on page 7 of the newspaper, a short item announced:
News of the expedition which Sir Ernest Shackleton led to the Antarctic with the object of crossing the South Polar continent is expected to reach England at any moment (says Reuter’s Agency). Sir Ernest Shackleton left for the Antarctic in 1914. Nothing has since been heard of the expedition. He estimated that it would take him four months to cross the Antarctic continent, and on the other side he expected to join hands with the party which, sailing in the Aurora from Tasmania in December 1914, were to make a base at the Ross Sea and go to meet him early this year.
The article was the first mention of Shackleton in the pages of the Times in well over a year. It had not always been so. In the early stages of his expedition, bulletins about the celebrated explorer appeared every day and were eagerly absorbed by a fascinated public. Then, on August 1, 1914, German forces invaded Belgium, and in a matter of days, the nations of Europe were at war. In December, Shackleton’s ships, the Endurance and the Aurora, sailed south into the Antarctic and vanished from the public eye, the adventure eclipsed by a war whose devastation surpassed all others in the history of humankind.
On March 20, the story excited little attention in London, and escaped the notice of the Southland Times, the newspaper of Bluff, New Zealand. Bluff was one of the farthest corners of the British Empire, in another hemisphere and the next day on the calendar. Sailing due south from the port across the Southern Ocean, the next landfall as the crow flew was Antarctica. The Southland Times was preoccupied with shipping news, patent remedies, racing results, and reports on the distant battles. There was little threat of the war reaching New Zealand soil, but its effects were apparent in the unusual hush that muted everyday life in Bluff. So many of the town’s eligible men had enlisted that the farms and sheep stations were short-handed. The coastal wireless station in nearby Awarua, too, was hard pressed to man the continuous listening service for distress calls. Shipping traffic had dwindled as well, but still Awarua listened, the station’s Amalgamated Wireless tower standing sentinel over the barren landscape, waiting for the swarming signals to return.
In the autumnal stillness of Thursday, March 23, telegraphist Alfred Goodwin strode to the Awarua receiving hut for the night shift. Goodwin swung the dial of the Telefunken receiver to either side of the five hundred-kilocycle band dedicated to distress calls. The state-of-the-art listening post could detect an electromagnetic rustle in the atmosphere from as far away as China. But on this particular night, the only sound was atmospherics.
It was almost midnight before a trace of barely detectable chatter cut through the static. The incoherent taps resolved into snatches of Morse code: CT VLB VLB VLB. Seeking Awarua Station, over and over again. Then, the transmission changed: CT VIH VIH VIH. The sender was also calling VIH, casting his net wide and trying to reach Hobart, the southernmost station in Australia. It was likely a ship, plying the waters of the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. Then, a snippet of another call came on the air for the Chatham Islands station, indicating that the vessel could be somewhere in the high latitudes of the Southern Ocean.
Goodwin switched to transmit and rapped out a reply: CQ, seeking you, which was the routine call to an unidentified vessel. The ship failed to respond. The feeble stream continued, the ship’s operator apparently deaf to the responses from Awarua, Hobart, and Chatham. Then, after two hours, the baffling signals faded and stopped. The operator may have given up, or the ship may have drifted beyond the range of its low-powered wireless set—or she might have been in distress. The only course of action was to keep monitoring the band, but the signal failed to materialize. Goodwin settled in for a long, slow night on his own.
Then, just before two in the morning, the signal came on the air again, instantly recognizable by the handwriting, as veterans called a telegraphist’s signature style. Goodwin acknowledged, and the ship finally responded: CT VLB VLB VLB de WVSQ WVSQ WVSQ Awarua Station, this is British ship call sign WVSQ calling. After a routine exchange of acknowledgements, the staccato Morse continued. To Goodwin’s astonishment, it was a message for King George V:
Aurora driven from Winter Quarters Cape Evans Blizzard May 6th and set north frozen in pack ice. Rudder smashed ship disabled present position lat 65º 00 S long 155º E. Prospects of relative safety of Southern party is doubtful. Little provisions and clothing at Ross Sea Base. I pray Your Majesty will permit ship proceed with all haste to Cape Evans McMurdo Sound with provisions and clothing.
Your Majesty's Humble & Devoted Subject
The cryptic transmission was the first indication that something had gone terribly wrong with Shackleton’s bold endeavor, but the full implications of the message were beyond Goodwin’s comprehension. The party at the Ross Sea base, responsible for building a chain of supply depots along his intended route, had been stranded with scant supplies when their ship was swept away with the pack ice in May 1915. It was questionable whether they could save themselves, much less lay the depots to sustain Shackleton’s transcontinental crossing. Goodwin responded immediately to offer assistance to the disabled Aurora, six hundred miles south of Bluff. But there was little he, or even the king, could do for the castaways at the Ross Sea base. Beyond wireless contact, they were marooned with no hope of imminent rescue, as remote from humanity as if they had been on the moon.
Goodwin could not be faulted for being unaware of Stenhouse and the Aurora. Neither was a household name. It was Shackleton, the national hero, who captured the headlines and the public imagination as he and the company of the Endurance headed south to blaze a glorious path through undiscovered lands in the name of the British Empire. The men of the Ross Sea party were the foot soldiers of a historic expedition, charged with manual labor rather than discovery.
Little changed in the intervening decades. In popular accounts of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, they are overshadowed by Shackleton’s heroic exploits or excluded entirely, though it was not his intention to consign them to obscurity. Shackleton devoted a quarter of his 1919 chronicle of the expedition, South, to their story, which is how I first became aware of the Ross Sea party in 1994. The astonishing efforts of Shackleton and his men to save their own lives after the loss of the Endurance in the Weddell Sea seemed the stuff of myth, but I found something even more compelling about the men of the Aurora. For in the face of calamity, they persevered contrary to the very instinct of survival. When the Aurora disappeared with most of their clothing, food, and equipment aboard, the stranded men chose to risk their own lives for the sake of Shackleton, a man most of them had met only briefly, or not at all.