Commemorating Shackleton

Commemorating Shackleton

Mr Dominic Faulkner was invited to represent Cheltenham College at the Shackleton Memorial in Westminster Abbey; here he gives his account:

By Mr Dominic Faulkner

Shackleton, Scott and WilsonShackleton departs to Elephant Island for South Georgia to rescue his men

It seems incongruous remembering events in icy Antarctica on a warm summer’s day in the midst of a busy London but Friday 20 May marked a hundred years since one of the greatest tales in exploration came to an end. Over a thousand people gathered in Westminster Abbey and when the great west door shut behind the Princess Royal, the noise of the bells receded and a mood of reverence descended. I was fortunate enough to attend not just this commemoration to Ernest Shackleton, but also to Captain Scott in St Paul's Cathedral four years ago. Both were led by the Bishop of London and both had the Princess Royal in attendance, but there, just as in their real lives, the similarity ends. It is an irony that for two men who once shared a tent together at the far ends of the earth, their respective memorials a hundred years later had to be on opposite sides of London. Reluctantly caught between the two was Old Cheltonian Edward Wilson. The three men conducted the Discovery expedition together in 1903 during which they went further south than any human before them. Over ninety-three days they drove themselves to the point of starvation and shared unimaginable hardship. In the following years, Wilson was to side with Scott, if only because he was more inclined to support Wilson's scientific and artistic endeavours. After the deaths of Scott and Wilson in 1912, Shackleton, ever ambitious, set sail in 1913 just before war broke out. In exploration terms, the expedition was a disaster. Trapped in the ice for months their ship, the Endurance, eventually sank and so began one of the greatest survival quests in history. Long given up for dead Shackleton emerged at the whaling station on South Georgia on 20 May 1916. Not only had he survived but so had all his men.

His leadership style has been analysed and debated for the last century and though controversial, it was never in any doubt that he led from the front. He believed that no man was above ‘scrubbing the decks’, least of all himself. He led his men with humour, firmness and humility. It is true that he could be unforgiving, but he also would never have forgiven himself had he lost men through a failure of leadership. His style set a precedent that broke with the hierarchical leadership of the Victorian era. In Shackleton’s eyes men were to be measured solely by their contributions and abilities. The Bishop of London referred to a principle of Shackleton’s that all Cheltonians can take away: “We learn that success and failure are both relative terms and that endeavour is to be honoured.”

After the grandeur of Scott's memorial, there was something more grounded about today's event, despite the magnificent surroundings. The service closed with musician Michael King on the banjo playing Lament to Kildare, a tribute to Shackleton's Irish roots. Its poignancy was exaggerated by the sunlight streaming through the Abbey's stained glass as over a thousand people paid tribute to a man they had never met but knew so well.

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