Writer’s expedition to rediscover the life and times of a polar adventurer

The Endurance trapped in ice. Frank Wild was Shackletons second in command.  Picture: PA
The Endurance trapped in ice. Frank Wild was Shackletons second in command. Picture: PA
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Frank Wild was Sir Ernest Shackleton’s right-hand man, but his name has faded from view. Writer Angie Butler spent seven years working to put that right. Sheena Hastings reports.

IT was the great age of heroic polar adventures, with hardy, indomitable Edwardian men in stout boots and woolies marching through blizzards and across pack ice to discover and chart unknown territories at the coldest and most unforgiving points of the globe. The pioneers of Arctic and Antarctic exploration were often out of contact for months at a time and suffered abominably.

Some didn’t live to tell the tale of their dangerous quests across the frozen wastes; others survived, but not all received the enduring admiration they deserve for their part in expeditions led by such glamorous characters as Robert Falcon Scott, Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton.

Frank Wild is one such explorer, the man whom Anglo-Irish polar adventurer Shackleton referred to as his “right-hand man” during the four expeditions they shared in Antarctica between 1907 and 1922. He was born in Skelton in North Yorkshire in 1873, the second eldest of 13 children of school teacher Benjamin Wild and his wife Mary. His father hoped the bright boy would also teach, but young Frank threatened to run away from home unless he was allowed to go to sea.

During 11 years in the Merchant Navy he circled the globe nine times then joined the Royal Navy, which meant he was eligible to apply when Captain Scott was looking for experienced seamen to staff his 1901-04 British National Antarctic Expedition Discovery. Shorty but sturdy Seaman Wild was chosen from 3,000 competitors and met second-in command Shackleton on that voyage.

They became close friends and respectful colleagues, and Wild was with Shackleton when he led the Nimrod Expedition in 1908-09, which crossed the Ross Barrier and Beardmore Glacier at a record latitude of 80 degrees and 23 minutes South. In 1911 Wild was invited to join the Australian Douglas Mawson’s Aurora voyage, and was in charge of the western base on the Shackleton Ice Shelf.

He became Shackleton’s second-in-command on the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914, and was left in charge of 21 men on desolate Elephant Island as Shackleton and five others made their epic rescue mission to South Georgia aboard a lifeboat after their ship Endurance was crushed by ice and sank. For four months they waited on Elephant Island, surviving beneath the precarious shelter of upturned boats on a diet of seal, penguin and seaweed. They were finally rescued by Shackleton aboard the Chilean ship Yelcho. Returning to the UK in 1916, he served in World War I as a naval transport officer and later went to British Nyasaland to start a new life as a farmer. But Shackleton called on Wild to be his number two again for the 1921-22 Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, a poorly-equipped adventure aboard the small ship Quest. Wild could not resist the lure of the snow, uncharted territory and the camaraderie of working with “the boss” again.

Sadly, Shackleton died from a heart attack during the journey and Wild took over command. Shackleton’s widow requested that he be buried on South Georgia, close to the scene of his greatest exploits, and Wild and company presided over the ceremony. His physical and mental toughness, expertise in the business of seafaring and survival, his ability to avert many a disaster and his never-say-die attitude earned him the admiration of both commanders and colleagues and the rare honour of a Polar Medal with Four Bars. That medal sold at auction for £132,000 a couple of years ago and was reunited with Wild’s other honours and decorations.

Wild needed fortitude in spades when he returned to Southern Africa with his first wife Vera to farm cotton. The enterprise was a disaster due to drought followed by flood, and the Wilds gave up farming. He got involved in railway construction, but after initial success ended up in financial difficulty and with marital problems that led to divorce. Before his death in 1939 from pneumonia at the age of 66, he worked variously as a barman (not helping his tendency to drink heavily), as a manager of a diamond mine, prospecting in Rhodesia and supervising stone crushing in a gold mine. He did have friends who remembered his courage and exploits – among them the South African politician Jan Smuts. He supplemented a meagre income with the odd lecture about his polar experiences, but by the time of his death he and his second wife Beatrice (Trix) Rowbotham were thinking of returning to the UK.

Author and journalist Angie Butler, who was born and bred in Johannesburg, became interested in polar exploration many years ago, after reading The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

Before long, Warwickshire-based Butler had read many other works on or by the heroic men who risked all in pursuit of the Poles. She went on travel to the Poles and became co-founder of Ice Track Expeditions, a polar adventure travel company.

She felt that, while much had been written about Scott, Mawson and Shackleton, Frank Wild tended to be given “only slight mentions”. One biography of Wild had been written, covering his early years and the expeditions, but not detailing his life in South Africa, nor publishing the memoirs he wrote towards the end of his life, based on diaries kept during the first four expeditions, coming to an abrupt halt after the sinking of Endurance.

Butler set out to retrace the Yorkshireman’s footsteps through South Africa and, if possible, find his ashes which, she learned, both he and his wife had wanted buried in South Georgia close to Shackleton.

“I felt Wild’s reputation had been done a bad turn over the years and his importance in his own right and as a close friend of Shackleton’s had been lost. It was well known at the time that Shackleton would not make a major decision without Wild’s advice. I wanted to understand him more and among the many things I found out one was that no-one knew where he was buried.” Trix had died in 1970, leaving no note of what had become of her husband’s remains. Angie Butler’s painstaking enquiries eventually led her to trace the box of Wild’s ashes to a room beneath a chapel in Johannesburg. With the permission of the explorer’s family, she will be taking them to South Georgia in November this year with a group including six of Wild’s family and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grand-daughter, the Hon Alexandra Shackleton.

“Even now I feel very emotional about it all. People like Scott and Shackleton couldn’t have succeeded without a comrade like Wild, extraordinary character that he was. Trix was unable to bury Frank in South Georgia because of the outbreak of war and lack of money later in her life. I will be very happy when we’ve put that right and he is in the perfect place with his friend.”

sheena.hastings@ypn.co.uk