"Shackleton's Forgotten Men: The Untold Tale of an Antarctic Tragedy"
Reading history and reviews
Finished in 2008This was another book that I've had sitting on my shelf for longer than I care to remember, however this one was a gift from my friend Steve so I was feeling particularly guilty for not having read it before now. Anyway, it turned out to be a gripping read in the end - it tells the story of the men who travelled to the Ross ice shelf on the coast of Antartica, charged with the task of laying supply depots at various points for Shackleton's 1915 expedition that was hoping to cross the continent starting from the Weddell Sea on the opposite side. As it turned out, Shackleton's expedition never made it across Antartica, as a result of various catastrophes - and Shackleton is remembered now for his epic journey to fetch help for his men marooned on the shores.
As this book says, Shackleton's heroic tale has overshadowed the story of the support team, the "forgotten men" of the title, who suffered their own disasters but who somehow found a way to complete their mission and lay the depots for the expedition that was never to arrive. The tales of their privations out on the Antartica ice are truly unbelieveable, and in fact almost unimaginable to me - eating barely enough to keep them alive, walking across the snow for months on end in a completely inhospitable environment, and dependent for their survival on aging and failing equipment. It's incredible enough that they even managed to survive (although some of them didn't), nevermind that they also laid the provisions for Shackleton, and the story of their fight for survival is gripping.
I don't think that I would quite agree with the book's subtitle however - I didn't get the sense of it being a "tragedy", although it's true that tragic things did happen. It seems more uplifting in the end than that. Also the book doesn't attempt to address a broader question that lingered at the back of my mind through all this - what was it that motivated these men to go to Antartica in the first place? What was the drive that made Shackleton want to cross the continent on foot, something that you could argue served no practical purpose at all? Could it be that they saw in these endeavours an opportunity to do something grand and heroic? It's probably not reasonable to expect the book to answer that - and doesn't detract from their achievements, or from their amazing story. So all in all, a great read.