by ehistoryadmin on May 23, 2015

Shackleton heads south as war breaks out

Liam Kenny

The month of August 1914 saw many Kildare men heading to the Western front while simultaneously another was heading to the Southern extremities. Both in their own ways would face hardship and danger and battles for survival. The Kildare men going to the western front were soldiers answering Britain’s call for help against the German onslaught. The Kildare man going south was Kilkea-born Ernest Shackleton who was also answering Britain’s call – this time to claim the most elusive conquest of all – mastery of Antartica.

But first the context must be set for our two stories which although divergent were both born from the competing needs of the great European powers.

Europe at the start of the 20th Century had all the appearances of stability and prosperity. Great empires and colonial powers – Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Britain and France – held sway over much of Europe and vast tracts of the globe.

But all was not as settled as it appeared. In fact, the empires had run their course and were destabilising, their feudal foundations assailed by an increasingly educated and liberated working class. Science, technology and industrialisation were advancing at a rate hitherto unseen, much of it feeding into increased militarisation and rivalry between the imperial powers. In Ireland the campaign for independence echoed the unrest that was stirring in other parts.

Very few places remained on the globe which had not been claimed by one or other of the colonising powers. But down at the very South of the planet, a new continent was opening up. In terms of human occupation, Antarctica was very new; the first confirmed landing on the frozen continent was in 1895. A flurry of activity occurred in the following 15 years in what was effectively a land-grab. Antarctica had large and economically valuable  populations of whale and seal. It was also believed to contain valuable mineral deposits, including coal.

Back in Europe on 28th of June, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, assassinated  Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, heirs to the Austria Hungarian empire. In many ways an obscure event, it set in train a catastrophic series of events which saw mobilisation of vast numbers of men and great quantities of weapons and explosives. The mobilisation took on a life of its own and in the end could not be stopped spilling over into outright war by August of 1914. The structures which had previously reinforced relations in Europe turned on themselves, and empire was pitched against empire.

Russia supported the Serbs against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By agreement, Germany rowed in behind Austro-Hungary, while France had a standing arrangement to support Russia. The British in turn had an agreement to support France.

On August 3rd, 1914 the “Irish Times” ran foreboding headlines about Germany invading Luxembourg and Belgium. On the opposite page, a short article entitled ‘The South Pole’ records the departure of Ernest Shackleton and his shop “the Endurance” for the Antarctic. The article ended with the prophetic words:

‘In picking on this  particular moment for departure, he has added a fresh element of excitement to his expedition. When he returns, he may find that the whole political aspect of Europe, perhaps of the world, is changed’.

Shackleton had navigated the “Endurance” out of London port on August 1st. On board was a mixed group of sailors, scientists and explorers, including Tom Crean from Kerry and Timothy McCarthy from Cork. The objective was the first crossing of the Antarctic Continent from coast to coast. On 4th August, Shackleton went ashore at Margate where he read of the general mobilization. He consulted with his crew, and all agreed abandon the expedition and to offer themselves and the ship to the war effort if that was considered useful by the Admiralty.. A terse response was received from the First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, – ‘Proceed’. As far as Churchill was concerned a war might be looming but it was equally important for a foothold to be gained on the Antarctic continent. Nobody could have forseen that Europe was on the brink of a conflagration that would last for for years and result in millions of deaths.

Both went their different ways – Endurance to Antarctica and a fate which would lead to one of the greatest leadership and survival stories ever told, the men and women of Europe to a bloody destructive war which plumbed new depths of inhumanity and industrialised killing.

In May 1916, when Shackleton, Crean and Worsley stumbled into the whaling station in Stromness, South Georgia, having been lost to the world for the previous 18 months, their first question was to enquire when the war had finished.

Mr Sorlle, the Norwegian manager replied

‘The war is not over, Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.’

 August the counterpoints of the “Endurance” expedition and World War one converge again, a century after they separated. And Athy can fairly lay claim to being the most appropriate place in Ireland to commemorate the events of August 1914.

The town of Athy suffered heavily in the chaos and destruction of WW1. Athy historian Frank Taaffe has calculated that the WW1 casualty rate in its environs were 50% above the UK average. Athy also lays claim to Ernest Shackleton who was born and spent his childhood in nearby Kilkea.

The contrast between both events puts them almost poles apart.. And yet both shared common factors in their origins in the expansion of Empires, and both are intertwined throughout their courses. Many of the “Endurance”  survivors went on to take their places in the war. Testimony to this is Shackleton’s dedication of his book entitled ‘South’, his description of the Endurance expedition, which he dedicated to ‘… my comrades who fell in the white warfare of the South and on the red fields of France and Flanders’.

Athy Heritage Museum is host to a detailed history of the town’s tragic involvement with World War 1. It is also home to an exhibition on Ernest Shackleton, and is the location of the annual International Shackleton Autumn School which takes place each October.

The Museum, with the support of Kildare County Arts Services, has commissioned a unique retelling of Shackleton’s Endurance through words and music which will be released in CD form to mark the centenary. A premiére performance will form part of the Shackleton Autumn school on the October bank holiday weekend. Thank you to Kevin Kenny of the Shackleton committee for his contribution to this article. Leinster Leader 29 July 2014, Looking Back, Series no: 394.

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