Tag Archives: Arctic Club

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

ARCTIC CLUB MEETING IN EDINBURGH

27 Dec

I attended the annual dinner/meeting of the Arctic Club recently. This was held in Edinburgh and was enjoyable and successful.
The Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, Mike Robinson, gave a talk on Polar Heroes, Young enthusiasts who had received awards from the society made presentations. Motivational speakers who have encouraged, enthused and trained school children for Arctic expeditions, showed how the experience has increased the young peoples’ confidence and abilities to a degree that they would have thought impossible previously. I gave a short version of William Speirs Bruce’s life.
I was particularly interested on Mike’s comments about Nansen. I learnt, really for the first time, about the magnitude of Nansen’s achievements. I had obviously heard of Nansen’s attempt at the North Pole and had come across him in relation to his meetings with Bruce. When Bruce joined the Jackson Harmsworth Expedition, he was amazed to find Nansen (who had been feared lost on his attempt to reach the North Pole), in Franz- Joseph land. Nansen had turned south at 86° N and was journeying to Spitsbergen via Franz Joseph Land. This was a wonderful meeting for Bruce and the two remained friends—when Bruce was feared lost himself on an expedition to Spitsbergen in 1909, Nansen, who was visiting the island with his son, offered to help to search for him.
But exploration was only part of the Nansen ‘oeuvre’. He studied zoology in Christiania (Oslo). He made scientific studies on Arctic zoology and found that sea ice forms on the surface of the water rather than below. He worked as curator in the zoological department of the Bergen Museum working for years on neuro anatomy. He was the first to cross Greenland. He made this awful crossing from the uninhabited east coast to the populated west coast (with no possibility of retreating to a safe base).
The ‘Fram’ expedition towards the North Pole began in 1893. The book that Nansen wrote on the experiences was an instant success and gave him financial security. As an authority on Polar exploration he was consulted by many explorers including Robert Falcon Scott before his 1901-4 ‘Discovery’ expedition (Nansen advised dogs for transport, and said the dogs should be fed on stockfish).
He became a diplomat. Sweden and Norway were united under a common monarch until 1905 when Norway left the union. Nansen published a series of newspaper articles supporting the separatist argument and presented the Norwegian case internationally.
In the 1914-18 war, Norway was neutral, but experienced severe food shortages because many prewar international trade arrangements were lost. This worsened when the United States entered the war and imposed further trade restrictions. Nansen’s mission to the States secured food and other supplies in return for rationing. After the war he became president of the Norwegian League of Nations Society and by persistent advocacy, ensured that Norway became a full member of the League of Nations.
To me, one of his most influential and imaginative advances related to his work of repatriation of the hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war, stranded in by the war in various parts of the world, far from home. Nansen wrote that never in his life had he been brought into contact with such a formidable amount of suffering. But by 1920 over 400,000 prisoners had been repatriated to 30 different countries helped by his efforts. In 1921 he worked on the repatriation of 2,000,000 Russian refugees displaced by the Russian Revolution. Since a major problem was that these people had no documents to confirm their identity or nationality, Nansen produced a document “the Nansen Passport”. This provided a form of identity that was accepted eventually by more that 50 countries. Countless numbers benefited including luminaries such as Marc Chagall, Ivor Stravinsky, and Anna Pavlova.
Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work for prisoners of war, the Russian Refugees and the refugees in Asia Minor.
A fantastic life!