Thomas Orde-Lees

In touch with the Shackleton expedition – literally.

Thomas Orde-Lees
photo by Frank Hurley – Public Domain

Although I am woefully far behind in processing and sharing images from our trip to the Falklands and South Georgia – over two months ago! – I still dream of those landscapes and the intense history behind them. Today (May 20) is celebrated in South Georgia as Shackleton Day, recognizing this day 107 years ago when Ernest Shackleton and two of his crew (Frank Worsely and Thomas Crean) stumbled into the tiny whaling station of Stromness, on the east side of South Georgia. That was their first contact with civilization since they had left South Georgia 18 months earlier, having failed in their expedition but accomplished one of the most incredible feats of survival and navigation ever recorded. (I’ve written about that story before.) I had the good fortune to walk in Shackleton’s steps during our visit in March, descending into Stromness just as he and Worsely and Crean had done a century earlier. (More on that hike to come later!) But since returning home I’ve had another amazing opportunity to connect with that incredible expedition: to read and to hold the diary of Thomas Orde-Lees, the expedition’s ski expert and storemaster. Read on!

Diary of Thomas Orde-Lees, written during the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica in 1914-16. (Collection of Rauner Library, Dartmouth College)

I’ve long known that Rauner Library at Dartmouth College has an impressive collection of historic books and archival materials, including the Stefansson Collection on Polar Exploration. But it wasn’t until after my return from South Georgia I learned that Rauner has the Orde-Lees diary. So I roused a colleague who is also a Shackleton fan and walked over to Rauner to spend a delightful hour turning the pages of this 400-page large-format diary. I snapped photos of a few interesting pages, saved in this gallery.

This hardcover book, about 12″ tall and 8″ wide, is written in fountain pen and occasionally annotated in pencil. It’s an interesting insight into daily life, often including the menu (see also full-res photo):

Breakfast: salt fish + anchovy sauce, porridge.
Luncheon: Lentil soup, Cole’s cheddar cheese.
Dinner: Roast penguin, baked potatoes, pickled walnuts, gooseberries & cream.

When the ship was trapped in the ice, he commented with concern about its status and potential fate:

The ship now has a 25º list. At midnight there was 6 ft of water in the lower hold when we went down to our cabins in the mainhold for the last time to secure a waterproof sheet to sleep on + one or two other oddments and the lateral pressure was so great that the deck had literally burst under the strain and the planks were all starting up like so many matches pushed out of a box. The tents were first erected on the port side of the ship, but just as we were turning in the floe began to split up and we hurriedly struck camp and moved everything over a pressure ridge to the other side of the ship + finally turned in dead heat at 1 A.M.

(transcribed with respect for edits and additions as in the above photo)

The menu shifted once they were camped on the ice floes. At times running low on food, and other times “providentially” supplied by seals that approached the camp, they made do with what they had, like seal steak, dog pemmican, penguin hearts, lentil soup, and even curried seal (see full page):

Menus commencing 27 February and then commencing 10 March, 1916.

Once the floes had split and they were forced into their three lifeboats, they made a harrowing week-long open-boat journey to Elephant Island across some of the worst seas in the world. He describes the approach to the island (see full page):

15 April 1916

The “Docker” was nowhere in sight but we guessed that she was to windward of us as she had been the last time that we had seen her [ed: curious edits in that sentence!]. The wind had moderated a lot but the sea was still rough + very “choppy” under the land. There was nothing to do but run along the coast before the wind + seek for a landing place. We “downed” sail and pulled with a will. A following sea promptly “pooped” us, wetted Greenstreet through and made eight inches of water in the bottom of the boat. I began to bail. Before I had lowered the water an inch another sea came over and another until there was over a foot of water in the boat. I too was now wet through. The boat became dangerously low in the water. “Bail for your life, Colonel” said Greenstreet and I bailed as I had never.

15 April 1916

Once on Elephant Island, he sketched a map (see full photo, and the next):

Note the pencil marks – which may have been written after return to England. Curiously, they change the tone of this entry and seem to shift from first-person to third-person reporting, and even to shift blame to himself (“Lee’s fault”). Throughout the diary, marginal notes often contained instructions for a person typing up the diary for publication.

Because he was the storekeeper, many pages were dedicated to careful inventories of the ship’s stores (and later, the stores with them in camp, or in the boats); below is an excerpt at “Patience camp” (see also, the full page):

Partial inventory at “Patience camp”

About Shackleton he wrote fondly (for more, see the full page):

What sacrifices would not one make for a leader such as this who gives up his own comfortable bed to cure a sick subordinate; but this is quite typical of him.

24 February 1915

One thing I find most astonishing: this diary survived the expedition. Despite the incredibly challenging terrain, harrowing weather, soaking wet boat journeys, horrendous living conditions, and the need to discard everything that might burden their sledges or their boats – Thomas (and his shipmates) hung onto their diaries, kept writing in them, and made them available for posterity. I photographed more pages for you to see in this gallery (in full-resolution and thus easier to read). Enjoy!

PBS has also posted (and transcribed) excerpts from his diary that describe “the brutally cold and increasingly dangerous days and nights of April 9th to 15th, 1916.” Worth a read! They also post a helpful timeline of the expedition.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: