Chapter 4

I had decided to specialize as gunnery lieutenant. The candidates selected had to pass a stiff entrance examination, consisting of mathematics, science, etc.; the course was at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, which had only just started for the general education of all naval officers (junior and senior). I used to work up the subjects of the examination both in night watches and in the daytime, and our excellent Naval Instructor, my sterling friend Clarke, was most kind in helping me. Owing to this I came out top of the qualifying gunnery officers. The Hercules paid off in 1874, and I was then waiting to go to the College. In the meantime, I was offered two ships, one the Royal Yacht, Osborne, and the other a gunboat of which I would have been first lieutenant; I refused them both, as I wanted to specialize in gunnery.

I joined the Royal Naval College in September and found everything very well run. Sir Astley Cooper-Key was the Admiral in charge, and he was afterwards a staunch friend to me on every occasion. The Captain was Hugh Campbell, also a charming man who had been Commander, of the Yacht, when I was there.

The studies were admirably carried out and were very interesting. I found my previous work very helpful, and I generally kept my place in the front rank. We had also time for games, and beat practically all the football clubs against whom we played. I always played forward and was asked to play for England, but I declined for various reasons. At that time the Rugby game was a very rough one. I had practically; been selected to go to the Arctic, so did not wish to lose my chance of going, by being injured. In the last match I played, against St. Thomas’s Hospital, one of the medical students was killed. When the gunnery course was more than half over, the Government decided to send an expedition to the Arctic, its main object being to discover the North Pole. My friend Markham had previously asked me if I would join such an expedition were I selected. As at that time there was practically nothing going on in the Navy, I had accepted. Volunteers were asked for; the result was that two hundred lieutenants applied for eight vacancies. The Admiral in charge of the College advised me not to go, as he thought I should do much better if I continued my examinations and qualified as a gunnery lieutenant. I was very sorry to give up the gunnery, as I had worked hard and up to that date was well in the running for the £100 prize given to the first officer in the final examination. However, I felt that the Expedition to the Arctic was an experience not to be missed.

The Government expedition consisted of two ships, the Alert and the Discovery. We commissioned in May, 1875. Sir George Nares was selected as Captain and Markham as the Commander of the Alert. Captain Stevenson commanded the Discovery and he took Beaumont as first lieutenant. The Discovery was to go as link and reserve ship while the Alert pressed on to the North Pole.

Sir George Nares asked me to do navigating officer of the Alert, and also to take up the astronomical observations in addition to my other work. For the astronomy we had different instruments, such as altazimuths, transits, etc. Each officer had to take up one of the sciences. Captain Feilden was selected as the naturalist of the expedition. The only other special men we had were three ice quartermasters who had had experience in the whalers, they came from the north of Scotland. We had a great send off from Portsmouth, thousands of people assembling to see these two ships start for the Arctic, provisioned with the probability of having to stay there three years. We had a very boisterous passage across the Atlantic, but reached Disco, the Danish Settlement in Greenland, on July 6th, 1875. There we met the Valorous, which had been sent out to fill us up with fresh provisions and coal before going farther north. We took on board two Eskimos, and sixty Eskimo dogs to draw the dog-sleighs. No sooner were the dogs on board than they began to fight, a fight which lasted about two days. These dogs were collected from different places, and it is their nature to fight until one is acknowledged by the pack to be King. Once proclaimed King, no other dog will fight him; in fact, when the King approaches another dog, it rolls over on its back and howls, and the King puts his paw over him as much as to say, “Move, if you dare!” The same thing happens when the dogs are selected for dog teams. There are generally eight in each team, and they fight for a King and then keep quiet. When driving the dogs, if you hit the King he will jump over each dog in turn and bite him. As they were driven abreast, the traces became much entangled, and on a cold day it was difficult to clear them.

Originally, it was not intended to take any chaplains, but Parliament made a fuss about it, so one was appointed to each ship, and, for reasons which I don’t know, instead of sending naval chaplains they selected two civilian clergymen. In the Alert, we had a man called Pullen, who had been Minor Canon of Salisbury Cathedral, and had written a pamphlet called “Dame Europa’s School,” a skit on Germany; it went through thousands of editions and was very popular. He was the last person that ought to have been sent with us; he had never been at sea in his life; the first things he missed were the Times and his fresh egg, and he always thought that the ship was going to turn over.

The route we took was by Smith Sound, as the last American explorer, Kane, had reported land up to 84° north latitude. He thought the land was trending northwards and at that time, until ships were strengthened tremendously to stand the ice, it was impossible to go away from land for fear of getting crushed. On our way north we had various struggles to get through the ice, and once or twice we only just escaped being crushed.

We left the Discovery at Discovery Bay, latitude 81° 43′ N. and proceeded north, with half a gale of wind blowing behind us, in very thick weather. When we reached 82° 27′ 30″ north latitude, and thought we were going on to higher latitudes, the weather cleared up, the wind dropped. The Captain reported from the crow’s nest that the land was extending to the north-west, and that we were up against heavy, old floe-ice which had been blown off the shore by the gale of wind. As the wind fell, the ice-field closed up, and, for fear of being crushed, we had to run for protection. This we found behind some floe bergs, which had been forced up on the shore, after being broken off from the heavy ice-floes, some of which were 200 ft. thick. We got behind the bergs only just in time, as a tremendous pack of ice, extending north as far as you could see, came in and scrunched up against our protecting bergs. Luckily for us, the bergs withstood the pressure.

Captain Nares tried several times to get the ship out of the position we were in, and go farther south to a safer one, as he thought our situation very dangerous, but we failed in every attempt, as there was no wind to blow the pack-ice to the north and it kept sweeping round with the tides, grinding up against the bergs which protected us. Having realized that we could not get out, we set to work to secure the ship in her present position, which was 82 Degrees 27′ 20″ north latitude, at that time the highest latitude that any one had ever reached. We took down all the top hamper, masts, sails, etc., spread double awnings and took all necessary precautions to prevent the cold air entering the ship. The ice quartermasters were very depressed at our position, and they used to say, “Mark my words, ye’ll ne’er get out of this place again!”

After surveying the coast for two or three days, it was evident that, even in the summer, we could not take the ship any farther north or north-west; as the coast-line trended away to the north-west and due north, there was nothing but this huge sea of ice. It therefore followed that our only chance of reaching the North Pole was to take to sledging; consequently, the first thing to do was to send out sledging parties and place depots of provisions on the highest point of land to the north-west. Three sledges started out in the autumn for this purpose, commanded by Markham, Lieutenant Parr, and myself. We had to sledge over the snow on the land and cross any of the deep bays on ice which had been newly formed, with snow on top of them. The sledging was very hard work; the weights, consisting of the tents and provisions, had to be kept down as low as possible; even then, the officer and each of the seven men in every sledge crew, was dragging about 200 lb. per man on starting, and this weight increased owing to the tents becoming saturated with slush. Life, when sledging, was a bit rough; the tent was put up at night on the snow, and the eight men slept inside it in sleeping-bags, head and tail, like sardines in a box. The officer always slept at the head, and the cook of the day at the door end. The outside billets were the cold ones, and those occupying them had frequently to turn round during the night in order to warm themselves. The officer, who always slept on the outside, had the worst of it. First thing in the morning the cook lighted the cooker, which was heated by stearine, and then he had to brush down the condensation, consisting of icicles and frozen snow, from the inside of the tent. To do this he had to stand on the other occupants, as there was no room to put a foot between us. He then woke us up and we proceeded to put on our foot flannel-wrappers and canvas boots. This was not altogether an agreeable process, as our wrappers and boots were always wet through the evening before, and we had to put them into our sleeping-bags to keep them from freezing during the night. We then sat up in our bags and had for breakfast, a pint of cocoa and some biscuits, a smoke, then turned out, packed the sledge, and off we went. We did about four hours before halting for lunch, which consisted of four ounces of frozen bacon and a pint of tea. We had to thaw the bacon in the tea before we could get our teeth into it, and drink our tea pretty smartly, otherwise our lips stuck to the tin cup. The halt for lunch generally lasted about two hours, because it took so long to bring melted snow to the boil, and all the time we were waiting we had to keep on the move, as the temperature was frequently minus 10° Fahrenheit. After luncheon we did another four hours and then halted, selected a place for camping, and put up our tents. When they were up we got into our sleeping-bags, took off our boots and wrappers and had our evening meal, consisting of pemmican and a tot of rum. After that we had a smoke, a sing-song, and told yarns.

Our sufferings from thirst, while sledging, were almost beyond belief. Before starting in the morning, the waterbottles were filled with water, and the men, as a rule, had finished theirs before the end of an hour; then they would take up the snow and let it thaw in their mouths; this was very bad indeed, as it gave them cramp in the stomach. It was very difficult to prevent them eating snow, in fact I was never able to do so. Having read about the thirst, I determined to resist it, and found that after two days I didn’t feel at all thirsty, and used to give out my bottle of water amongst the crew.

H.M.S Alert
H.M.S Alert

Sledging in the autumn was most trying. The light was going, and on this occasion we had continuous snow which detained us so much that we had to go on half rations. The snow was so deep we could hardly drag our legs through it. The temperature also fell very low, at one time to -22 Degrees Fahrenheit! and a good many of us were badly frost-bitten, nearly all in the toes. We were three weeks away, and when we returned from sledging the first thing we did was to have a good meal and then a sleep, even before washing. The doctor reported in the morning after our return that several men had been badly frost-bitten. I knew that I had been touched, but I was not going to show it to the doctor. However, he insisted, and the result was he told me that I was to remain in my bunk in my cabin, as both my big toes were frost-bitten – one of them badly. After a few days the left toe had to be amputated below the first joint. I don’t know why, the doctors would not give me an anaesthetic; so I suffered a great deal, as it is a most painful operation. The doctors had to have two nips at it and I cursed them pretty freely. There were three other men who lost their toes. Want of fresh food and vegetables caused the wounds to be very slow in healing, and I was laid up for nearly five months, and lived in candle and lamp light all that time. The senior doctor we had was a regular old woman; he used to come to my cabin every night with some tinned milk mixed with egg-powder, and then proceed to relate to me the different diseases I might get, amongst them being tetanus; not very cheerful for me, but luckily I was young and did not take him at all seriously. I had plenty to do during these five months, what with the navigation work, Polar charts to be made, and working out the astronomical observations; the transits and moon culminating stars are very long calculations. Lieutenant Parr used to take the observations and I worked them out. Although there were 142 days during which time the sun never rose above the horizon, we passed the winter quite cheerily and most of us had plenty to do taking observations in different scientific subjects, and recording them. At Christmas, on birthdays and other festivals, we used to have a dinner-party; the menus were made out by the mess caterer. This is a sample:


A la Julienne soup is the potage we favour,
And soles fried au naturel serve us for fish.
We have cutlets and green peas of elegant flavour –
Beef garnished with mushrooms – a true English dish.

Then a mountain of beef from our cold Greenland valleys,
Overshadowing proudly boiled mutton hard by;
Till our appetite, waning, just playfully dallies
With a small slice of ham – then gives in with a sigh.

For lo! a real British plum-pudding doth greet us,
And a crest of bright holly adorns its bold brow;
While the choicest mince-pies are yet waiting to meet us;
Alas! are we equal to meeting them now?

So we drink to our Queen; and we drink to the Maiden.
The Wife, or the Mother, that holds us most dear;
And may we and our Consort sail home richly laden
With the spoils of success, ’ere December next year.

I am afraid they read a good deal better than they were. We also had lectures and musical entertainments. Pullen was very helpful with our amusements. He wrote a play which we acted. As well as writing, he preached very good sermons, but was much disappointed that there was little prospect of our reaching the North Pole, and his depressed condition at times caused a good deal of anxiety. In fact, he ought never to have been sent on such an expedition, he was too sensitive and childlike. For example, he once said he never knew he was bald until a girl told him; as he was completely so, we could not quite believe him, and naturally he was much chaffed.

Our senior doctor, too, was quite unsuitable for his post. He said, several times, “I see one or two of you will go off your heads.” Unfortunately, the effects of the scurvy and the inquiry when we arrived home were too much for him: he took to drink and did not live long after our return.

Our second doctor, Moss, was a very clever man and a good sportsman. He was very good with the microscope and also at drawing and painting. He published a book called Shores of the Polar Seas; it contained many coloured views of interest, with a very short account of the expedition. He was in constant terror of being drowned, and when there was any chance of the ship being crushed, he was always the first to be ready to get out on the floe. After our return, he was appointed to the Atalanta, a training ship for boys, which went to the North American Station and was never heard of again. It was curious that she and the Euridyce were the last two sailing ships of the British Navy to go to sea, and that they were both lost.

Nearly all former Arctic expeditions had found seals and Polar bears which provided them with fresh food. The former especially, though not pleasant to eat, were very valuable in sustaining the strength of men and assisting to keep off scurvy. Unfortunately, we did not find either seals or bears, the reason being that the ice round about us was so thick that seals could not get through it to come up for fresh air and rest; the Polar bears who feed on the seals naturally did not come where they musk ox and hares; we also saw some geese, ducks, and owls that came up to the north to breed. We killed a certain number of them and were exceedingly glad to have the fresh food. I brought home specimens of the musk ox and snowy owl.

It was astonishing what the musk ox and the hares found to live on, as the ground seemed quite bare, though in the late spring and summer, on looking very closely, one could detect a certain amount of dwarf willow and saxifrage.

In the autumn we tried to communicate with the Discovery, but the snow was so thick it was impossible to make any headway with a sledge, so they did not know where we were until late in the spring. In the early spring, a dog-sledge was sent with Lieutenants Rawson, Egerton, and the Eskimo to try and communicate with the Discovery; they hadn’t gone very far when they ran into a gale of wind. The Eskimo gave in from the cold, which was minus 20 Degrees or 52 Degrees of frost, and they had to build a snow-house and were detained there for thirty-six hours. The Eskimo was so badly frost-bitten that they determined to return to the ship. They made the Eskimo walk a certain distance, but eventually he had to be carried on the sledge, and they had to do what they could to keep him warm by wrapping him in flannel wrappers which were first warmed by putting them on their own bodies. We always carried these flannel wrappers and often found them very useful. When they reached the ship he was frost-bitten on every part of the body, and eventually had to have both feet amputated and died shortly afterwards.

Sir George Nares determined that we must make an attempt in the spring to reach the North Pole by sledging directly north across the ice, although he knew that it was not possible to get very far. Commander Markham and Lieutenant Parr were selected to command the two sledge parties, and they started off with the sledges loaded with two boats which were needed to get across the gaps in the lanes of water round the floe; they had a very hard time, and eventually, after working ten hours a day and being absent two months, the highest latitude reached was 83 Degrees 20′ 26″, 399 miles from the North Pole. Soon after leaving the Alert, the men began to complain of having pains in the ankles and legs, and it was not realized by Markham that this was really scurvy. They had a book of medical instructions from the doctor, but not a word about scurvy. At last, Markham decided to return, and they had a very strenuous time. When within twenty miles of the ship, Lieutenant Parr came in to say that they could not get any farther as all the men, with two exceptions, were down with scurvy and could not pull. By that time I had recovered from my frost-bite, and Doctor Moss and I were immediately despatched to their assistance with a dog-sledge, carrying medical comforts and lime-juice. By working hard for sixteen hours, we arrived and found Markham and four men pulling at one sledge, all the others simply tottering along as best they could. The evening before they had buried one of the crew on the floe; who died from scurvy. This man, named Porter, a marine artilleryman, was one of the finest men we had in the crew. After a good deal of trouble Markham and his party .arrived back. The men were all laid up with scurvy and frostbites for many weeks. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Aldrich, who had been sent with a sledge to survey the land as far as he could get to the north-west, had not arrived back to his date, and I was sent again with a dog-sledge to try and find him. After a day and a half, I picked him up, and never was any one more delighted to see me, as his expedition was running out of provisions, most of his men were down with scurvy, and the snow being terribly heavy, they were making little or no progress. I brought some of them back on the dog-sledge; it was very hard work, because the snow was so very deep and had thawed away close to the ice, so that we sank into the snow, and had great difficulty in getting our legs out again. In the end we had to crawl on our hands and knees, so we did not get along very fast.

It was evident that we could not ever reach the North Pole under the existing conditions, and Sir George Nares decided to return home. After several attempts, and by means of blowing up some of the ice, we got out of winter quarters, when there was a strong wind blowing from the south, and away we went. When halfway down Smith Sound, we were pushed on shore by one of these floe bergs, which also got aground, so we had to set to work and dig away from the floe berg until it floated again and we were able to get the ship off. While the ship was there, some of us made an excursion inland and found a lake where there were any numbers of geese, but we could not approach them because they went swimming round the lake and through the passages in the ice. The next day we took our Eskimo with his kayak and lay in ambush, while he chased the geese to us. After firing the first volley into them they did not fly away, and we found they were moulting. We killed three hundred geese, which were very welcome, as we had not had any fresh food for a long time.

Eventually we made our way down to Littleton Island, at the entrance to Smith Sound, where we received our mail and then went on south, putting into Upernivik in Greenland; there we found that a relief ship, the Pandora, commanded by Captain Young, had been sent to find out what we were doing. He touched at Littleton Island, waited there a long time until he thought that there was no chance of our coming south that season, and then went to Upernivik, told the Danes there that there was no chance of our getting out, and went home. We made our way through the ice, and were more than halfway across the Atlantic when we sighted a sail, and curiously enough, it turned out to be the Pandora. We put in at Valencia, where the people were very kind and there was a good deal of chaff. Markham, who had a very small hand, said he would marry any of the girls who could get on a wedding-ring which had been made from a sovereign by our armourer, they all tried, but none of them succeeded. Several of these rings were made out of sovereigns in latitude 82 Degrees 27′ 30″ N.

On arriving at Plymouth we were so short of coal that we were cutting up our spare rudder and passing it down to the stokehold in order to keep up steam. After taking in coal we went on to Portsmouth and the ships were paid off. Captain Nares was made a K.C.B., Captain Stephenson, of the Discovery, was given a C.B. Commander Markham was promoted to Captain. The first lieutenants Aldrich and Beaumont were promoted to Commanders, and so was Lieutenant Parr as a special case.

The nation generally gave us a great welcome on our return home. The Lord Mayor invited us to a banquet, as did Trinity House and others, and we were feted for about three weeks. An inquiry was held into the cause of the scurvy. In my opinion, it was want of fresh food. Vegetables alone will not keep off scurvy, and, of course, we had not even vegetables. Personally, I always took my daily allowance of lime-juice, but even so had incipient scurvy, of which the symptoms – swelling and discoloration round the ankles – did not disappear until I had fresh food in the shape of musk ox. Although the expedition failed in its main objective, that of reaching the North Pole, we succeeded in getting to 83 Degrees 20′ 25″ N, which was then the highest northern latitude ever reached. We also made many interesting and valuable surveys, meteorological and astronomical observations.

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