Arms Heroism and Tragedy in the Antarctic


In 1999 investigators entered Captain Scott's hut at Cape Evans in the Antarctic, the first people to do so since 1917. Among the items that they found was a wallet, wedged in a bunk frame. The only clues to the identity of the owner were three photographs, a tall man standing outside a tent with three boys and separate photographs of two of the boys (one on a horse), a ticket for a return tram ride in Cape Town and a ferry pass, dated 21 November 1914, to Cockatoo Dock in Sydney. Painstaking detective work by journalist Bruce Montgomery of The Australian has established that the wallet almost certainly belonged to a Queensman, the Revd Arnold Spencer-Smith who perished in appalling circumstances in the Antarctic in 1916, aged 32. Spencer-Smith was a member of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated expedition to cross the Antarctic and thus salvage some glory for Great Britain after the Norwegian explorer Amundsen had beaten Scott to the South Pole in 1911.

Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith was born on St Patrick's Day, 17 March, 1883 in Streatham, London. He went to Westminster City School and then aged 13 to board at Woodbridge School, Suffolk. On 4 October 1899 there was a lecture at the school on Arctic exploration, perhaps the spark that inspired Spencer-Smith to apply to Shackleton for a place on his expedition 15 years later. At school he was much involved in sport, excelling in cricket, football, fives and gymnastics. He followed his brother Philip (1901) to Queens' to read History, coming up in 1903.

Arnold Spencer-Smith was the founding editor of the student magazine, The Queens' Courier, renamed after two issues The Dial. He played left half for the Football Team and is described as "Slight but bony. Plays an extremely useful spoiling game ... Now that he has learned to head in the right direction his height is useful. Shows his keenness by denying himself more than 18 cigarettes per diem". He was President of the St Bernard Society, the College debating society, and Secretary of the Quaerists, a society which met for discussion "of learned papers in philosophical and theological questions in general relation to modern thought". He was on the May Week Concert Committee and tried rowing but gave it up "owing to fundamental difficulties". Each term the editors of The Dial selected an undergraduate as a `Man of Mark' and wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about that colleague. A P Spencer-Smith was the Man of Mark in the Lent Term 1907 edition which includes a picture (quite clearly the same man who appears in the famous picture in the wallet - The Australian persuaded the New South Wales police forensic service to compare the photograph in the wallet with one of Spencer-Smith in the party setting out for the Antarctic. Their director is sure it is the same man). There is also a witty thumb-nail sketch of the man: "As regards his personal appearance, we are asked to contradict the rumour that he was not made all in one piece. His lithe and lengthy form, studious stoop, pallid brow, neatly-groomed head, mediaeval raiment, decadent pumps, and inevitable Woodbine, are familiar in the courts (of the College). It has been said that he has charming manners".

In 1905 he was scheduled to take Part I of the Historical Tripos, but had the 'flu and so was allowed the examination. He never took Part II and graduated in 1907 with a Pass Degree. He became a schoolmaster at Merchiston Castle School and was ordained in post in 1910. The School lies close to the open country of the Pentland Hills and it was common practice for the boys and their masters to go horse-riding and camping. In 1913 Spencer-Smith was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the following year submitted his application to join the `British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition'.

Shackleton had proclaimed that "there remains but one great main object of Antarctic journeyings - the crossing of the South Polar Continent from sea to sea". He planned to cross with the main party from west to east, from the Weddell Sea, south of South America, across to McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea, south of Australia. Meanwhile a second team would land at McMurdo Sound and walk 700 km towards the South Pole, establishing depots of food and fuel to help the main Shackleton group heading east to complete their journey. Spencer-Smith was the chaplain and photographer of this second group. Most of this `B Team' sailed from England on the liner Ionic, calling at Cape Town (the tram ticket is for a well-known tourist trip to the seaside resort of Camps Bay) before proceeding to Sydney where their ship the Aurora was being refitted for the expedition at Cockatoo Dock. The Aurora sailed to Hobart to pick up the dogs and then set out for the Antarctic on Christmas Eve 1914.

The story of the disasters that befell the main Shackleton group is well-known. Their ship, the Endurance, became trapped in ice in the South Atlantic and drifted for nine months before sinking in October 1915. The 28 men on board floated in whalers on the pack ice for a further 5 months before landing on Elephant Island, a storm-swept spot near the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton and five others set off on an epic row 1200km to South Georgia to fetch help, returning to rescue the others in August 1916.

Meanwhile the `Bteam' knew nothing of the desperate plight of the main expedition and set off to set up Shackleton's food depots. First of all the Aurora could not get within 14 km of Captain Scott's Discovery Hut, their intended base, and had great difficulty anchoring near Cape Evans. Undaunted the team set off in three groups with sledges and dogs. Conditions were atrocious and most of the dogs died. On 23 March 1915 Spencer-Smith was among a party of four picked up by the Aurora from the Discovery Hut and delivered to Scott's hut at Cape Evans. It would become their winter base and haven. At some point during the stay Spencer-Smith lost his wallet with its photographs of camping expeditions in the hills near Merchiston down the side of the bunk where it was to remain undiscovered for 84 years.

On 6 May, when the Aurora's skipper was ashore leading one of the sledging parties, the ship snapped her hawsers and disappeared, her crew still aboard. She drifted for 10 months, right out of the Ross Sea into the Southern Ocean. The crew managed to sail her to New Zealand but the `B team' was stranded. They decided to go ahead with their mission, unaware that Shackleton and his party were by then adrift on the ice-locked Endurance, their expedition abandoned.

Arnold Spencer-Smith photgraphed by J. Palmer Clarke in 1907.


Harrowing diaries detail what the `B team' experienced - atrocious weather, inadequate food and clothing, frostbite, hunger, scurvy, bleeding bowels and snow blindness. Ernest Joyce wrote, "Still blizzarding. We are lying in pools of water made by our bodies through staying in the same place for such a long time. Idon't know what we shall do if this does not ease ... The food for today was one cup of pemmican amongst three of us, one biscuit each, and two cups of tea among the three ..."

On 19 January 1916 Spencer-Smith was near the base of Mount Hope and was so ill with scurvy that the party had to leave him in his tent with what food they could afford. Ten days later and after perpetual blizzards they returned. He was still alive. For 40 days they sledged him back towards Cape Evans, but on 9 March he died, his body blackened by disease. He was buried in his sleeping bag, a bamboo cross on a cairn at the graveside. One of his team reported, "He never uttered a word of complaint". Two other members of the `Bteam' perished. It was July 1916 before the exhausted survivors reached Cape Evans and January 1917 before they were rescued by Shackleton in the repaired Aurora.

News of the death of Arnold Spencer-Smith was noted in the Lent 1917 copy of The Dial and a more extensive report promised. No such report ever appeared - perhaps the details were just too grim when they became known, perhaps the promise was overlooked in the midst of the holocaust of the Great War in which so many of Spencer-Smith's Queens' contemporaries died. His brother Philip served in the London Regiment, was wounded and made prisoner-of-war, but he survived and died aged 73 in 1955.

This article is mostly abridged by kind permission from that published in The Australian, Christmas Weekend Edition 24-26 December 1999, by Bruce Montgomery.