THE POLAR MEDAL

3 Feb

The medal is awarded by the Queen. It was known first as the Arctic Medal, which was issued in 1857 and awarded to, amongst others, the expedition trying to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew, lost in 1847 whilst trying to discover the North West Passage. The Polar Medal was introduced in 1904 in recognition of the achievements of Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctica. It was awarded to members of the Discovery crew, also, I understand, to the crews of both rescue ships the Terra Nova and the Morning. A few years later members of Shackleton’s expeditions (1907-09 and 1914-1916) were honoured also.

The medal is given to citizens of the United Kingdome and Northern Ireland who have made significant contributions to knowledge in the Polar Regions or those who have given outstanding support in the acquisition of this knowledge and the objectives of polar exploration. Both groups have to have had experience of the hazards and rigours of the Polar environment.

The Arctic Club is delighted that its honorary secretary has been awarded the 2016 Polar Medal. Seven people have been awarded the medal this year ‘for outstanding achievement and service to the United Kingdom in the field of polar research’ with three of these related to Arctic work’.

As you know I am writing about William Speirs Bruce who led the major (Scottish) expedition, the Scotia expedition, to the Weddell Sea in 1902. After the expedition Bruce expected that he would get London-based recognition for his scientists and officers, but none received the Polar Medal. Bruce considered this a tremendous slight to himself and his crew and battled for years for the honour. He was convinced that Sir Clements Markham, the powerful President of the Royal Geographical Society and not a man to be crossed, influenced the decision. Sir Clements was the father of the Discovery expedition. He thought (and wrote) that he considered that Bruce had diverted monies that should have gone to Discovery to the coffers of the Scotia. This fundamental disagreement left Bruce with a lifelong distrust of Sir Clements and a conviction that the powerful president had effectively prevented the award.

Appeals by the Government to convince the Palace that the award should be granted were rebuffed. But recent evidence suggests that Bruce’s suspicions were wrong. The refusal appears to have been neither due to doubts as to Bruce’s scientific achievements, nor to Sir Clement’s malign influence, but because the Scotia expedition had been financed in Scotland and did not require government monies nor Admiralty rescue i.e. it had not had financial support out of Scotland (one of the ironies of this decision is that Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition did not have London-based financial support either). King Edward VII refused the award, his son George V was not prepared to overturn his father’s decision, a reason given that to honour Bruce’s expedition would set a precedent by widening the scope of the medal. A more recent application also failed.
Bruce considered, until his dying day, that Sir Clements had caused an estrangement between him and the Royal Geographical Society after the Scotia Expedition

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