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The Death of Ernest Shackleton and the End of the Heroic Age
Shackleton departed on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, just as Britain was on the brink of war. He had offered his ship and men to the Admiralty but was told he should go on his expedition as planned. He did go, but the expedition did not turn out as Shackleton had envisaged, his ship the Endurance was crushed in the ice.
Shackleton and his men underwent some of the most perilous events of the heroic age as they tried to get back to safety without their ship. The men spent many months camping on an unstable ice flow before the ice broke up enough so they could get in their three open whaleboats, the James Caird, Dudley Docker, and Stancomb Willis. They sailed to Elephant Island which provided a safe place to camp and a food supply, however, the island was very desolate and the chance of the men being rescued was slim to none.
Shackleton and five others left the men on Elephant Island and sailed 800 miles in the James Caird a converted whaleboat to South Georgia, this island was populated and so they were they able to raise the alarm and facilitate a rescue.
By now it was 1916, and one of Shackleton’s first questions was, “Tell me when was the war over?”. The answer was that it was still going and millions were dead, once Shackleton had arranged the rescue of the rest of his men from the Antarctic, he and many others saw service in the war. Some of the men who had survived their heroic expedition were to perish in the First World War.
The First World War changed Britain and the rest of the world beyond recognition. Whilst this was not in fact the ‘war to end all wars’ it spelled the end of the heroic age. Britain entered into the First World War with optimism and idealism, echoing the idealism of the men undertaking Antarctic expeditions. However, this idealism was soon to be broken - surrounded by death, suffering and tragedy it no longer seemed gallant, noble or heroic to sacrifice one’s self for one’s country. The era had sacrificed enough.
After the First World War, Shackleton was to undertake one further expedition on board Quest. This expedition lacked defined aims and in many ways it appears Shackleton just wanted to be on another expedition. After reaching South Georgia - the site of his heroic return from Elephant Island Shackleton was to suffer a major heart attack and died in his cabin on board Quest. He was buried on South Georgia, the island where he had raised the alarm for his stranded men some years previously. In 1922, the heroic age was finally over.
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