Football played a vital role in maintaining morale on Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expeditions
The men were like grey dots in the desolate whiteness. Aside from their huffs and puffs, their shouts, there was an endless silence. They were alone. There was not another living thing in sight. Only snow and in the distance the ship: wedged deep in thick ice.
The ground was hard and unforgiving. One slip, one bad landing, could prove fatal. The harsh wind cut at the men’s unprotected faces and their clothes were sodden. It was January — summer in Antarctica — and the temperature was around -18°C.
But the men were undeterred. The cold was piercing but they were used to it now: the constant chill in their bones, the air frozen when they exhaled, their eyelashes hard and encrusted when they blinked, their beards speckled with ice, worn now for warmth more than anything else.
The men, who made up the crew of the Endurance, were playing football in an effort to prevent boredom. They had been stuck for days now. The ship, led by Ernest Shackleton, had set off from South Georgia in December 1914 with the aim of achieving what no one else had: crossing the South Pole from one side of the continent to the other.
But the ship became marooned in a heavy ice pack in the Weddell Sea just a month later, barely a hundred miles from the expedition’s starting point. And there they stayed, making no progress, attempting to free themselves from this frozen prison. They were, as one of the men put it, “like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar”.
Catharsis was found in football. The game in January of 1915, played with the stricken ship in the background and captured so brilliantly by the photographer Frank Hurley, was not a one off. Football was a regular recreation. And the men played not just because it was fun, but because it was necessary. It allowed them to escape, to forget, just for a moment.
It also allowed them to remember home: a glimpse, amid the endless ice, of green football pitches, of excited spectators and impressive stadiums. Here, though, the only spectators—when they decided to turn up—were Adélie penguins and Weddell seals.
Effort was made to ensure the games were as close to the real thing as possible: the goalposts were made up of oars and makeshift corner flags were put in place. The ice was flattened so that the ball would run smoothly across the surface.
In Hurley’s photographs, the ball is hidden as men lunge into a challenge and snow erupts from the ground. The games were hard-fought and “vigorous”, as Shackleton wrote in South, his account of the expedition. To play with flair and guile proved a challenge: the ball was not easy to see and visibility often proved a hindrance.
So too did the threat of wildlife. The penguins and seals were inquisitive but docile. The killer whales were inquisitive too, but far more aggressive. They had already caused a scare on more than one occasion: Hurley had been forced to flee when one had smashed through the ice dangerously close by in search of food. They did not distinguish between man and seal. “The whales broke through the thin ice as though it were tissue paper, and, I fancy, were so staggered by the strange sight that met their eyes, that for a moment they hesitated,” Hurley recounted. “Had they gone ahead and attacked us in front, our chances of escape would have been slim indeed. Never in my life have I looked upon more loathsome creatures."
Shackleton, too, remembered the ominous power of the whales. “We examined a spot where the floe ice had been smashed up by a blow from beneath,” he wrote, “delivered presumably by a large whale in search of a breathing place. The force that had been exercised was astonishing. Slabs of ice 3 ft thick, and weighing tons, had been tented upwards over a circular area with a diameter of about 25 ft, and cracks radiated outwards for more than 20 ft.”
Fortunately, the killer whales did not disturb the football. There were other perils, though. The ice, in places, was fragile. One misstep or clumsy challenge could mean a catastrophe. And one was only narrowly avoided when captain Frank Worsley, having strayed onto a patch of rotten ice during a particularly combative match, fell through into the frigid water. “The weather was clear, and some enthusiastic soccer players had a game on the floe until, at about midnight, Worsley dropped through a hole in rotten ice while retrieving the ball,” wrote Shackleton. “He had to be retrieved himself.”
Neither dangerous animals nor the unreliable surface was enough to intimidate the men. They were often eager, at the end of a long, arduous day, to occupy their minds with other matters, away from the relentless work on the Endurance: the chores and the upkeep of the ship.
The lack of any progress and the feeling of imminent failure was not conducive to high spirits. Shackleton and his crew had intended to reach the other side of the continent, to mark their names indelibly in the Antarctic’s history. But they had been met with a seemingly impassable object almost immediately: the unpredictable ice floes of the Weddell Sea.
The outlook for the mission was bleak. Winter was coming. The men were separated from their families, miles from home, in a foreign land surrounded by nothing but ice; ice as far as the eye could see and even further beyond that. The radio transmission could not be picked up, such was their remoteness. They knew that, at home, war had broken out, but had no knowledge of its progress, of which battles had been won and which had been lost. It was vital, then, that the crew had football to turn to. Idleness would likely not have served them well.
“Entertainment was important for a group of sailors, scientists, officers and explorers preparing to spend several seasons together on a ship in the Antarctic waters and ice,” Liam Maloney, who works at the Shackleton Exhibition in Dublin and has researched the expedition extensively, told me. “The pastimes were many and varied: board games, lectures, fancy dress, theatrical events, singing contests, debates, reading, musical evenings and card games to name a few.
“These pastimes were fine when the rest of the day was filled with duties and chores aboard a moving ship, but it was a different thing when the men were waiting for the end of the polar winter at base station or when their ship was trapped in ice and had, in effect, become their winter station. Boredom or depression could creep quickly into the inactive, uncertain and dispirited crews. It was recognised that physical activity was required to keep men active and amused and to maintain a sense of camaraderie and positivity.”
Shackleton placed great importance on morale. His ability to galvanise a group of men in a seemingly hopeless situation, to maintain his leadership skills in such bleak and challenging times, has since been the subject of much admiration. His methods have been studied. Those who wished to lead as he did were envious. How, they wondered, did he prevent all-out mutiny?
“The organisers of polar expeditions of the early 20th century knew of the long, necessary periods of waiting that they and their crews would encounter in the icy regions,” said Maloney. “Apart from the known toils of the ordinary life at sea, the polar night, when the sun disappears for months at a time, needed to be considered. The dangers of the polar ice were also known, documented by previous expeditions that had become trapped in the ice and forced to overwinter in the high latitudes.”
For Shackleton, the football games were never just football games. They fostered more unity, more togetherness. They encouraged teamwork and competitiveness: both essential traits. The other activities that took place during the expedition were of a similar nature. Shackleton, though he made undeniable tactical mistakes in his attempt to cross the South Pole, could not be questioned as a leader, a motivator.
“Physical activities varied and included looking after and training the ponies and dogs, and practising skiing and sledging,” said Maloney. “When appropriate terrain and light were available, the men played hockey and football. It seems that it was a much-enjoyed activity — it provided exercise, healthy competition and the chance for group fun.
“It’s strange and stark to see a group of men playing football in the whiteness and vastness of the Antarctic — it’s a familiar scene in such an unfamiliar setting. The teams were often port versus starboard. Edward Leicester Atkinson impressed Scott as a good player during the Terra Nova expedition and Tom Crean seems to have been a good player too both then and on Shackleton’s Endurance expedition a few years later.
“But football, as well as the other activities and amusements enjoyed by the expedition crews, was necessary to keep the men reasonably contented.”
When the cold reality of the mission struck, the men needed it.
“Standing on the stirring ice one can imagine it is disturbed by the breathing and tossing of a mighty giant below.”
Ernest Shackleton, 1915
It began in October of 1914. It began with optimism, a sense of hope and idealism. The men were prepared; they were ready to battle their way across the South Pole and make history, to surpass the achievements of those who had come before them.
Shackleton, in particular, was determined to prove a point. For him, true recognition did not come until later. His efforts were overshadowed by those of Robert E Peary, who in 1909 claimed to have been the first person to reach the North Pole, and Robert Falcon Scott, under whom Shackleton, as a young man, had learned the ways of the intrepid explorer.
Shackleton was left disappointed again when, in 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first to set foot on the South Pole. All that was left, then, was to cross Antarctica. “From the sentimental point of view, it is the last great Polar journey that can be made,” Shackleton proposed.
First, a group of capable men needed to be assembled. They must, Shackleton insisted, meet set criteria. Without the five traits he deemed integral, success would be impossible. These were: “First, optimism; second, patience; third, physical endurance; fourth, idealism; fifth and last, courage.” All would be severely tested over the course of the expedition, perhaps more so than even Shackleton had expected.
Shackleton, by then approaching 40, placed particular importance on the third of his required attributes: physical endurance. He was, in every sense, a traditionalist, rugged and hardy, not willing to suffer weakness. The name of the ship, the Endurance, came from the Shackleton family motto. Here was a man who accepted the difficulty, the often bleak reality, of his missions, without complaint, without succumbing to defeat as many others would.
His crew, then, needed to be similarly resilient. His first and most important appointment was that of Frank Worsley, a broad-shouldered captain from New Zealand, two years Shackleton’s senior. 27 others joined him. And they set off, southwards, into the unknown.
The Endurance departed from Argentina and arrived 10 days later at South Georgia, a remote island unoccupied but for the odd whaling station. Beyond this point, the men would have no contact with anyone but each other. It was, as Shackleton put it, “the Gateway to the Antarctic”.
The men made their final preparations and were ready to set sail on December 5. They left ignorant to the events of the civilised world, their minds soon to be occupied by nothing but ice. “We had hoped that some steamer from the north would bring news of the war and perhaps letters from home before our departure,” Shackleton wrote. “A ship did arrive on the evening of the 4th but she carried no letters, and nothing useful in the way of information could be gleaned from her. A year and a half later we were to learn that the Harpoon, the steamer which tends the Grytviken station, had arrived with mail for us not more than two hours after the Endurance had proceeded down the coast.”
And so they left unsatisfied. But they had crossed the Rubicon. There was no going back. The Endurance headed towards the Weddell Sea and all was well in the first few weeks; the optimism and idealism still present and not yet chipped away by frost and drudgery. The plan was to navigate the perilous waters, surrounded by pack ice and bergs, and make camp on the shore. When the dark, numbingly cold winter had passed, they would trek south towards the Ross Sea where the journey would be completed.
But it would not prove so simple. The Weddell Sea was an asteroid field of impassable ice. Shackleton attempted to steer the ship away from the worst of it, to avoid suffocation from all sides, but it began to look increasingly like his efforts were in vain. By mid-January of 1915, the Endurance was stuck fast between thick, unbreakable ice.
For a long time, they drifted. Through the darkness, eerily, like a crew silently awaiting their fate. Shackleton hoped progress would be resumed when the ice melted but that meant waiting until November. The chances of the ship’s survival until that time seemed slim. So too, just over a month in, did the chances of a successful expedition.
Shackleton knew that he could not allow morale to deteriorate. So he made sure the men were occupied, whether with chores or activities. His methods, by the standards of the day, were considered unorthodox. He did not, as many other commanders did, consider himself a superior figure. He was capable of stern rebukes and aggressive demonstrations of authority, certainly. But the crew often remarked at his willingness to do menial jobs, to interact as if friends with the most lowly members of the Endurance, to laugh and joke and entertain. He kept spirits high, where others might not have. “He is the very reverse of Captain Scott,” one of the men remarked.
During the long months spent marooned in the Weddell Sea, the Endurance, and her surrounding areas, became a hub of activity. The men often gathered in the dining room — a room they named the Ritz — to listen to music and play poker and watch Hurley, the photographer, show off his impressive collection of work. On Saturday nights, the men made toasts to their wives back home. Those who didn’t drink alcohol were instead indulged with chocolate. Occasionally, there was cause for special celebration. A dinner was prepared on June 22 to mark the shortest day of the year. Worsley noted that Shackleton “almost insisted upon cheeriness and optimism”.
The atmosphere inside the Ritz was cosy and welcoming, the warm light of a lantern glinting in the never-ending whiteness. “The Endurance’s company refused to abandon their customary cheerfulness, and concerts in the evening made the Ritz a scene of noisy merriment, in strange contrast with the cold, silent world that lay outside,” wrote Shackleton.
When there was light, the men turned to sport. Football was an indispensable pastime and hockey was played with great enthusiasm too. The crew’s competitiveness was also channelled into betting. In June, a great race — “the Antarctic Derby” — was held on the ice, between teams of dogs and their drivers. “It was a notable event,” Shackleton remembered. “The betting had been heavy, and every man aboard the ship stood to win or lose on the results of the contest. Some money had been staked but the wagers that thrilled were those involving stores of chocolate and cigarettes.”
Shackleton, from January to October 1915, did all he could. He maintained the sanity of his men and avoided areas where the ice would bring an end to the ship. But on October 27, the Endurance succumbed to the pressure of the ice, encroaching from all sides. The wooden ship began to creak and groan. Water seeped in. Cracks began to appear and the men hurried around trying to prevent the ship’s descent into the icy depths. But they could not.
“It looked as if some giant vice were being applied to the ship and slowly tightened until she could no longer hold out against its pressure,” wrote Alfred Lansing in Endurance, his account of the expedition. “The noise inside was indescribable.” Hurley, recalling the panic, painted a similarly bleak picture: “The ship groans and quivers, windows splinter, whilst the deck timbers gape and twist. Amid these profound and overwhelming forces, we are the absolute embodiment of helpless futility.”
Shackleton was saddened: the feeling, for him, was close to that of losing a loved one. When the ship had been abandoned and the crew had reached a secure ice floe, he looked back at the Endurance with a sense of pity. She had been the figurehead of the expedition, the 29th member. Now she was crippled and broken, soon to be swallowed by the unforgiving Weddell Sea.
Shackleton, acknowledging the predicament of he and his men, turned to the Book of Job. The verse he was drawn to proved poignant:
“Out of whose womb came the ice?
And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone,
And the face of the deep is frozen.”
The men were stranded without a ship and without hope. They had no way of calling for help. Thoughts of the expedition had now been replaced by thoughts of safety, of escaping this frozen prison. “I pray to God,” Shackleton wrote in his diary, “I can manage to get the whole party safe to civilisation.”
The lifeboats carried by the Endurance were useless because of the omnipresent ice that covered the surface of the water. But they still needed to be carried as they were to be used when the ice eventually melted away. The men walked across the floes, the boats and their provisions trailing behind them. It was relentless, tiring work and Shackleton ordered his crew to discard all but the most essential possessions.
There was no time for football now. The luxury of the Endurance felt like a lifetime ago: though she had creaked and hosted many a day of tedium, she had been a home that distanced them from the harsh reality of the Antarctic. The men had felt connected, in some way, to civilisation: the home comforts, the conversation, the music, the sport.
Now it was simply survival. They slept in tents and were stranded for two months on an ice floe which earned the name Patience Camp. Some, though, began to lose their patience. The carpenter led a mini revolt with a small group of men, claiming that Shackleton no longer had command without the Endurance. Shackleton managed to persuade the group to continue to trust him and the carpenter desisted.
But the challenge of keeping depression and madness at bay grew ever more difficult. Even the most hard-nosed, experienced members were beginning to lose faith. “I remember asking myself why people had always pictured Hell as a place that was hot,” wrote Worsley. “I felt certain that if there were any such place it would be cold — cold as the Weddell Sea, cold as the ice which seemed likely to become our grave.”
Finally, in April 1916, after months of waiting that had seemed like years, the ice started to crack. On the 9th, the men boarded the lifeboats and headed towards Elephant Island. It was a rocky, desolate place, around 50 miles off Antarctica. The feeling of earth under the feet, not the crunch of ice, was a relief. But they were not yet safe.
Many of the men were in such poor health that they stayed on Elephant Island, while Shackleton, Worsley and one other set off for South Georgia. It was 800 miles to the expedition’s starting point: 800 miles across open sea on a modest lifeboat, which struggled to handle the ferocious wind and waves. Some of the men had frostbite, they were weak and tired, food was in short supply. But on May 10, they reached South Georgia, 15 months after they had left the very same island.
From there, Shackleton and his small group walked for 36 hours north to a whaling station, where help, finally, could be summoned. Amid his own exhaustion, Shackleton had not forgotten those left behind on Elephant Island. But they could not be rescued until late August 1916, when the Chilean government granted him permission to use a steamship. It cut through the ice with ease and Shackleton returned to rescue his crew.
As the ship approached Elephant Island, Shackleton could not help but feel pessimistic. From a distance he could see no sign of life. He expected casualties and the responsibility, as commander, would be his. When the island came into view, Shackleton peered through his binoculars, more in hope than expectation. “There are only two,” he said to Worsley, who stood by his side. “No, four.” As the ship edged closer more men came into view. Shackleton counted eight. Then, relieved and joyful, he shouted: “They’re all there! Every one of them!” Astonishingly, all who had been left behind had survived.
The men had failed to achieve what they set out to achieve, but the name of the ship and the expedition, by the end, seemed apt: they had endured and survived. They had been patient, optimistic, idealistic. And they had been courageous. “Though the expedition was a failure in one respect,” Shackleton wrote, “I think it was successful in many others.”
Shackleton died of a heart attack in 1922, revered by his men but not considered amongst the great explorers of his age. That would come later, with the passing of time and the telling of his story: one of leadership and endurance.
The most resonant images of Shackleton’s expedition are those captured by Hurley. During the long months of inactivity in the Weddell Sea, while the Endurance still stood, he had spent his days scouting out positions from which to take photographs. His inherent adventurousness made for a stunning collection of images, many of which were discovered long after the expedition.
Hurley climbed the mast of the ship to capture the scale of the icy Weddell Sea; he trekked out to treacherous ice floes so that he could take photographs of the Endurance from a distance; he captured the men at work and play, holding penguins and dogs, and smiling at the camera.
When he had taken his photographs, Hurley would retire to his darkroom near the ship’s engine. There he developed the glass plate images, using chemicals that had almost frozen. His fingers were cut and cracked but he persisted. And the results have helped immortalise the Endurance expedition.
Hurley’s camera was discarded shortly after the loss of the Endurance. It was not deemed essential. His last piece of camerawork, according to Worsley, “was to film the masts of the Endurance as they were slowly twisted from her by the overpowering ice floes. It took extreme care and patience and wonderful judgement to enable him to film the masts as they came crashing down. So fine did he cut his distance that they swept within a few feet of where he was standing. His professional interests were so strong, however, that he was too interested in having secured a unique picture to give thought to the fact that he had come within an ace of a disaster. But Hurley was always a brave man.”
One of the most striking images is Hurley’s capture of the football match. The starkness, the emptiness of the landscape and the ship watching almost forlornly in the distance, is in such contrast to the simple game of football taking place on the ice. It is an image, shot in black and white, in which colour is not necessary.
“Many of Hurley’s renowned skills as a creator of images are on display here,” Meredith Hooper, an Antarctic historian and author, told me. “There’s so much captured: the loneliness of the trapped ship, the endless expanse of ice, the long shadows as autumn speeds. The men are the only humans in the vast emptiness of the ice surrounding the largely unknown continent of Antarctica. They’re doing something familiar: exercising, getting their minds off their troubles.” Hurley, Hooper says, did not take part in the football. The Australian was “well-built, fit and daring” but opted instead to take pictures from the sidelines.
For most of the men, football had been a part of their lives back home. As RH Mill documented in his 1923 work, The Life of Ernest Shackleton, “the sailors played the Association game, and Shackleton had played Rugby at Dulwich.” Shackleton did, however, find it difficult to keep up with many of the other men. He found his fitness lacking and struggled to catch his breath in the cold air. And he had a tendency to lose his footing. “Must practise more,” he admitted.
The Endurance expedition was not Shackleton’s first experience of football on ice. He had played while under the wing of Robert Falcon Scott, whose command was far stricter and more regimented. He too, though, saw the benefits of football. It provided not just recreation but physical conditioning. Scott often bemoaned the poor fitness of his men, many of whom were required to carry provisions and dig through the ice. “If we can get these people to run about at football all will be well,” Scott wrote.
What is clear from the writings of both Scott and Shackleton is that there was an eagerness to play football: they hoped that the light would hold out for just a little longer so that another game could be played. The winter, when darkness was constant, meant that football was impossible.
Scott took to describing details of his games: “a harassing southerly wind sprang up, which helped my own side to the extent of three goals. The exercise is delightful and we get very warm. Atkinson is by far the best player, but Hooper, PO Evans, and Crean are also quite good.”
Crean, who was second officer on the Endurance, impressed Shackleton’s crew members too. Thomas Orde-Lees, the motor expert, wrote in his diary that Crean was pragmatic in his approach: “Tom Crean, our Irish giant, had a fine way of falling on one and then sitting on one’s chest until the ball was well out of the way.”
The men of the Endurance were unaware that, as they played on the ice, the sport in Britain had been heavily disrupted by the First World War. Between 1915 and 1919, competitive football was suspended. Regional leagues were set up instead, although no official records of these matches were kept.
In a sense, football at home was as makeshift as the football Shackleton and his men played on the ice. And it was played with similar intentions: to act as a form of escapism in troubled times. Shackleton and his men needed a distraction from their hardship aboard the Endurance; those in the civilised world needed to take their minds off the war.
It was a testament to the power of football. It should not, all things considered, have been played in either situation. Yet it was. The urge to kick a ball proved inescapable even when stood atop flimsy ice in freezing blizzards; when facing the threat of invasion.
The men of the Endurance, Shackleton recounted, thought often of the war, though they had no way of knowing what had happened. “May 24, Empire Day, was celebrated with the singing of patriotic songs in the Ritz,” he wrote, “where all hands joined in wishing a speedy victory for the British arms. We could not know how the war was progressing, but we hoped that the Germans had already been driven from France and that the Russian armies had put the seal on the Allies’ success. The war was a constant subject of discussion aboard the Endurance, and many campaigns were fought on the map during the long months of drifting.”
When Shackleton reached South Georgia in May of 1916 and trekked twenty-six miles to the Norwegian whaling station, he assumed that the war had long since reached its conclusion. He and his men had had no contact with civilisation for close to a year and a half. It was as if they had been on a different planet.
Shackleton was greeted at the whaling station by an old man. The welcome, he later remembered, was not a friendly one. Eventually, after a protracted interrogation, the man led Shackleton and his diminished crew to the station’s manager, Thoralf Sørlle.
When Sørlle opened the door a look of disbelief came over his face. Shackleton and his men had been in the same clothes for close to a year. They were unkempt; their hair straggly and their beards matted. “Three more unpleasant-looking ruffians could hardly have been imagined,” was Shackleton’s description of their appearance.
Sørlle did not speak for a moment. There was an awkward silence. Finally, his voice quivering, he asked: “Well? Who the hell are you?”
“Don’t you know me?” came the reply. “My name is Shackleton.” According to some of the men, Sørlle turned away and cried.
“Tell me, when was the war over?" Shackleton asked Sørlle.
"The war is not over," he answered. "Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad."
Shackleton, at the news, might have thought longingly back to the days of isolation in the Weddell Sea; to the innocent games of football and long nights in the Ritz; to the Endurance, standing tall. He might have wondered what it was all for. Then he might have righted himself. “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all,” he might have said.