Heather Rossiter

Mawson's Unremembered Men

An edited version of this article appeared in The Mercury Hobart, In Mawson's Footsteps supplement 21 November 2011 pp 4,5

On 2 December 2011 the centenary of the departure of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition will be celebrated. The Derwent will again be alive with Antarctic-bound shipping, a flotilla of yachts and the Egeria, direct descendant of the Egeria in which Sir Harry Barron, the then governor of Tasmania, had accompanied the SY Aurora as far as the Iron Pot where in 1911 forty Greenland huskies were taken on board.

As everyone knows, the expedition was led by Dr Douglas Mawson, but who else set off on that memorable day? The other thirty members of the AAE have been forgotten, lost to Antarctic history. Let us see what they were doing on this day, 21 November 1911.

Most of them were streaming into Hobart, some by train, others by sea, and a few were already there. John King Davis, captain of SY Aurora, referred to behind his back as 'Gloomy Davis', had been in Hobart since 4 November, arriving just two months after the Aurora's stealthy midnight departure from London, Gloomy grumbling all the way about his crew. At first he complained about 'the idlers aboard', expedition members Ninnis and Mertz, but when he saw Xavier Mertz, Doctor of Law and a champion skier, in the rigging helping to take in sail or joyfully yodelling from the topmast 'Gloomy' changed his mind about the athletic young Swiss. If Mertz was quick and sure as he climbed to the crow's nest, Belgrave Ninnis was not. Beautiful when dressed in his uniform of a Lieutenant in the Royal Fuseliers, experienced on the African veldt, charming and nonchalant in manner, Ninnis's extreme height and general awkwardness made him dangerous up aloft though he was fearless down on the deck pulling apart a knot of snarling, biting fur when the dogs went for each other. On 21 November 1911 Ninnis and Mertz were at the quarantine station with their scrapping, fighting charges. Neither was destined to return from Antarctica.

Webb, the magnetician, was also in Hobart, kitted out with sweaters hand-knitted by his mother in good New Zealand wool and stocked up with heavy ply socks. So too was Englishman Frank Wild. Wild, an experienced Antarctican who had been south with Scott and again with Shackleton, was barely recovered from the crash in Adelaide of the Vickers monoplane which Mawson had hoped to fly in Antarctica. Mawson had been furious. Frank Bickerton, who would convert it into a tractor sledge, was on that day aboard a train trundling south from Launceston.

Charles Turnbull Harrisson 1913 Shackleton Glacier. Collection Geoff Harrisson

Charles Turnbull Harrisson was in his studio at Sandy Bay finishing his work on the covers for the Christmas number of the Tasmanian Mail. Down on the floor his young son was blowing pastel dust from the morning's masterpiece. Scattered about were delicate pencil studies of a sea eagle's head and the basalt cliffs at Cape Raoul, both now in the collection of The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. On an easel stood his wife Carrie's oil painting of Temma Beach, presently hanging in the Hobart home of the Honourable Edward Butler. From the house came enraged howls from their two-year-old daughter being put down for her afternoon sleep.

On the same train from Launceston as Bickerton were another nine expeditioners. Despite a rough crossing from Melbourne on the Loongana they were restless, anxious to get to Hobart, Dr Mawson especially so. As the train wound through the Midlands, George Ainsworth, from the Commonwealth Meteorological Bureau, delicately wiped smuts from his fingers. Leader of the Macquarie Island team, he did not plan to get his hands dirty, expecting his wireless telegraphists Sandell and Sawyer to do the heavy work. How wrong he was.

Morton Moyes and Alexander Kennedy gossiped about the anniversary dinner of St Peter's College, Adelaide. In 1912 they would celebrate the college's foundation with a dinner on the Shackleton Ice Shelf with a very different menu.

Rhode scholar Cecil Madigan was reading over a letter from the President of Magdalen College, Oxford, granting a year's postponement. Due to Mawson's late return from the field Madigan would spend a second tedious year in Antarctica before taking up his place. His reading was interrupted by young undergraduate Percy Correll, bubbling over with happiness at being included in the expedition.

Beside them Robert Bage was recounting his difficulties in getting leave. A serving officer with the Royal Australian Engineers, he had been drilled by his commanding officer on why he would want to go to Antarctica. Robert Bage would survive Antarctica but not a bullet at Gallipoli a year after his return.

Herbert Dyce Murphy was quiet, remembering train journeys in Europe when he had worked for British Military Intelligence. Then he had dressed as a woman, now, as leader of the third Antarctic party, he was more conventionally suited.

Hodgeman, draughtsman and articled architect, was sketching the Ross Bridge, cursing that it disappeared before he could get it down.

Out on Bass Strait the Paloona was making a rough crossing. Zoologists Charles Laseron and John Hunter lay on the deck, seasick, wishing they were still in Sydney rushing 'about the city from office to office, warehouse to warehouse, and from shipping company to wharf collecting demijohns of ethyl alcohol and formalin to preserve specimens, forceps and knives for dissecting them, and arsenical soap to wash their hands'.

There were three doctors aboard. Archie McLean was, as usual, puffing on his pipe, wondering what challenges a doctor would face in Antarctica, not aware that his greatest challenge would earn him the Military Cross in France some years later nor that his incessant pipe smoking would fatally compromise his fight with the tuberculosis he would contract there. Dr Evan Jones was also puffing away. But not Dr Whetter. In a sheltered corner he was quietly studying. He planned to study all through the winter and when he returned from Antarctica to set off immediately for London to take his FRCS. He still didn't know his mother had sent a cablegram to Doctor Mawson: '(Confidential) Do not accept Dr Whetter. Subject rheumatism just recovered bronchitis only son Reply paid New Plymouth NZ Edith Whetter'. She was too late. Whetter was already in.

Geologist Andy Watson was writing to his new fiancée. Would she wait, he wondered.

Walter Hannam's dreams were not of romantic love. Mechanic and wireless operator with a huge appetite, on his mind was potato pie and lemon meringue and a suspicion that rations at an Antarctic base might not be up to much.

The never-still Frank Hurley was packing away still camera lenses and preparing his cine camera for marine studies.

John Close was out on deck regaling the mate with yarns brought back from the Matabele and South African wars; that was dangerous stuff, he said, Antarctica will be easy. Little did he know. All the way from Brisbane was Les Blake, who would die on a battlefield in France, but now he was discussing the unknown continent with fellow surveyor George Dovers.

More about these unremembered men, particularly the eight who went to the forgotten Western Base 2000 km west of the Main Base, can be found in Mawson's Forgotten Men The 1911-1913 Antarctic Diary of Charles Turnbull Harrisson Edited by Heather Rossiter


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