Tag Archives: ‘The Worst Journey in the World’

Apsley Cherry Garrard (CHERRY), CONTINUED

25 Jul

I wrote about Cherry’s childhood and his appointment to the ‘Terra Nova’ on 5th July.           This is part 2


The TERRA NOVA expedition, 1910-1914.


Cherry loved the life on the ‘Terra Nova’, but the expedition, which started so well, was to leave an indelible scar. Cherry was Wilson’s assistant zoologist, he became expert at skinning birds and animals. He enjoyed the on–board camaraderie and joined enthusiastically in any work that needed to be done. He was able to laugh at himself. Wilson wrote that Cherry ‘really is splendid’.


Scott’s brief was to continue the exploratory, scientific and geographic work begun on the Discovery expedition and to get to the South Pole (Wilson wrote, we must get to the Pole). In addition, Wilson had a personal aim – to investigate a possible link between dinosaurs and birds by investigating penguin embryology. A German zoologist and naturalist Ernst Haeckel, had promoted and popularised Charles Darwin‘s work and developed the theory “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” which suggested that an individual organism’s biological development, (ontogeny), parallels its species’ evolutionary development (phylogeny) i.e. if Wilson could obtain early specimens of Emperor Penguin eggs he might find scales to back up this theory i.e. that the birds had descended from dinosaurs.


Wilson chose Emperor Penguins for his investigation because they were flightless and he thought (wrongly), that they were amongst the most primitive of birds. Apart from Wilson’s scientific enthusiasm, there was the added incentive that if the theory of development could be substantiated it was entirely possible that the connection would earn the expedition the highly influential Darwinian Prize.


Wilson picked Cherry and his friend ‘Birdie’ Bowers for the 60 mile trek to the Emperor Penguin colony; a round trip of 5 weeks. The trip was to be Cherry’s first serious trial on the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition.


Emperor Penguin chicks had been found on the Discovery expedition and Wilson, thinking that the eggs would be laid towards the end of June, set out at the end of that month. Cherry embarked on a potentially suicidal journey, enduring almost continuous darkness, freezing temperatures – at one point down to -77°F, ice surfaces like sand, progress of about a mile per day, lurking crevasses and permanent fatigue. He developed blisters on his fingers that leaked puss by night and froze by day.

On the trip meteorological information on the Antarctic Ice Barrier was recorded. Cherry gave up hope of survival. His hope was to die without much pain.

I don’t believe minus seventy temperatures would be bad in daylight, not comparatively bad, when you could see where you were going, where you were stepping, where the sledge straps were, the cooker, the primus, the food….when it would not take you five minutes to lash the door of your tent and five hours to get going in the morning.



The Winter Journey around Ross Island to obtain Emperor Penguin eggs


The three men reached the penguin colony in nineteen days. In order to investigate the eggs in situ three precious days were spent building a stone igloo on a high ridge below the top of a hill (the remains of the hut were discovered by Sir Edmund Hillary on his journey to the Antarctic in the 1950s).


Penguin Colony


Finally the men collected five eggs, but Cherry’s eyesight was so bad that he fell repeatedly on the return to the hut and smashed the two he had been given to carry. Later the three endured another ghastly complication -with the wind was blowing ‘as though the world was having a fit of hysterics’ the canvas roof of their ‘hut’ was blown away and the three lay exposed to the raging elements, mummified in snow, in darkness and with no food or drink. They sang songs and hymns. Cherry’s admiration for his two older companions was without bounds.

They had also carried a tent. This was blown away by the storm, this loss made a successful return virtually impossible. When the storm abated, the tent was found. It was weighted down by ice and had dropped out of the sky like a closed umbrella. Wilson insisted they returned to their base.


Cherry, Wilson and Birdie Bowers after the journey to the penguin colony. Cherry’s fingers are stiff and swollen with puss. The trio were voraciously hungry and, when they warmed up, smelt horribly.


Cherry had contributed to the collection of meteorological records that would not be repeated for seventy years (and then by machines which malfunctioned). Despite this heroic journey for scientific advance when the eggs were finally examined, years later, the three eggs that Cherry left in the Natural History Museum did not prove the connection between dinosaurs and birds.


Cherry, aided by his friend and Hertfordshire neighbour George Bernard Shaw, later wrote The Worst Journey in the World, about the expedition. It is a best seller.


Cherry’s next big experience was the assault on the Pole. Scott divided the advance into three distinct sections: the Ice Barrier, the Glacier and the Plateau. The expedition set out with motor sledges, pony sledges (the ponies were to be sacrificed when they had got their loads to the glacier) and dog sledges. Cherry was a pony handler. His pony ‘gallant little Michael’, black eyes dulled with fatigue, was shot in early December. The next day Michael was eaten.


Cherry was one of the twelve men who strained and struggled to haul three laden sledges up the Beardmore Glacier — 120 miles long, 25 feet wide, riddled with crevasses and rising from 300 feet to 9000 feet. Scott whittled the advancing party down to eventually, five men. Cherry was sent back on the 20th December with three others. Characteristically he asked Scott if he had disappointed him—‘No, no, no’.


The assault on the South Pole


Scott sent the last party of three back on the 3 January 1912. The returnees, the Last Supporting Party, were led by Scott’s Second in Command, Teddy Evans who was to become seriously ill on the return.


Cherry’s personal trials were to evolve.


As is well known, Scott and his four companions all died on their attempted return from the Pole, but in February 1912, anticipation of a successful return was high. Scott had instructed that a sledge should be sent with supplies to ‘One Ton Camp’, a depot one hundred and fifty miles away on the Barrier. As arrangements were being finalized for this journey, news reached base that Teddy Evans had collapsed and was thought to be dying from scurvy, thirty –five miles out on the Barrier.


Dr. Atkinson, who had been going on the supply mission, clearly had to abandon these plans to go out and rescue Teddy Evans. There were few people at the Base – a decision had to be reached as to who should accompany Dimitri, the dog handler, on the supply mission. Of the men available, Wright, an oceanographer, was needed to continue scientific work. Cherry had to go; he was not a navigator, he had never driven dogs, he had awful eyesight, but with trepidation (‘I’m right in it’), he set out with Dimitri to find a depot 150 miles distant in a featureless barrier. His goggles misted, he struggled with the navigation; Dimitri had to pick out the cairns.


Scott had initially issued instructions that the dogs were to be saved at any cost (for a further attempt), but had apparently subsequently issued further verbal instructions, via Teddy Evans when he sent Teddy back, that the dogs should come further south to meet him (Scott) on his return. These orders were not transmitted to Cherry, probably in the confusion around Teddy’s collapse. Cherry, who would of course never disobey an order from Scott, thought his priorities were to save the dogs. In any case, as he set out for ‘One Ton Camp’ he had no reason to suppose the Polar party were in need of food.


But tragically, when Cherry was waiting in ‘One Ton Camp,’ Scott’s party were in desperate trouble, hoping against hope that the supply sledge HAD gone further south with the supplies that could have saved them.


At ‘One Ton’ Cherry and Dimitri were caught in a storm that made further progress pointless. The dog food was running out. Dimitri developed a paralysis of his right arm and side. Cherry had no idea that his leader was in desperate straits. On the 10th March, with just enough food for the return journey Cherry laid a small depot of food and turned north towards his base.


Dear Sir, We leave this morning with the dogs for ‘Hut Point’ (the base). We have made no depots on the way in being off course all the way, and so I have not been able to leave you a note before. Yours sincerely, Apsley Cherry Garrard.

(quoted in Sara Wheeler’s ‘A Life of Apsley Cherry Garrard’).


Scott Wilson and Bowers were to die later that month, just twelve and a half miles to the south of “One Ton Camp”


To be continued





Apsley Cherry –Garrard (Cherry)

5 Jul

In a blog some weeks ago I wrote about Apsley Cherry- Garrard’s  devotion to Edward Wilson both in person and after Wilson’s death.

I think Cherry deserves further attention – he paid a pivotal role in Scott’s attempted return from the South Pole in 1912, and he wrote a book about a search for Emperor Penguin eggs (The Worst Journey in the World, published in 1922), that is one of the most popular Antarctic books ever published. An excellent biography, ‘Cherry, A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’ was published by Sara Wheeler in 2001.

Family photo album: Acc 6030: Apsley Cherry -Garrard with Ada: Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies (HALS)

Cherry was wealthy, but shy and uncertain of himself, his social isolation exacerbated by extremely poor eyesight – he could hardly recognize friends across the room (his father, General Cherry-Garrard, who was influenced by the army’s refusal to allow soldiers to wear glasses which were thought to be a sign of weakness, only allowed him to wear wire framed pebble-lense glasses when he was fifteen).

But General Cherry-Garrard is said to have been the central presence of Cherry’s life and as a young man he was enamoured by stories of his father’s achievements in India and China where he (Cherry’s father), had fought with merit in the army. Cherry wanted to live up to his father’s example.

Family photo album: Acc 6030: Family Group, 1894: Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies (HALS)

But the General died in 1907 at the age of seventy-four, when Cherry was only twenty-one and in his final year at Christ Church, Oxford (his father’s college).   When he ‘came down’ (with a Third Class degree), Cherry came into an inheritance that included a large estate in Hertfordshire, an estate in Berkshire, land in Wales, a large income, his mother, five younger sisters, plus all the attendant responsibilities and worries. He felt unequal to the challenge. uncertain what to do with his life, at loose end, – he knew he was unsuited to follow his father into the army, he certainly didn’t want to settle down to the life of a country gentleman. He decided to see the world and set off on extensive travels in 1909.


Clutterbuck Vol VII, p494c   Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies (HALS)



Family photo album: Acc 6030: Apsley Cherry- Garrard on ship: Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies (HALS)

But by chance, before he set out,i n 1908, he visited his much older cousin,Reginald Smith. Smith, a brilliant barrister, had abandoned the law to lead the publishing company Smith Elder and Co (the company published Trollope,Thackeray and Browning among others). Smith and his wife had a shooting lodge in the Highlands which their close friends Edward and Oriana Wilson visited regularly and when Cherry visited his cousin he met the couple.

The visit took place when Cherry’s father had been dead for less than a year. He was vulnerable, uncertain, without motivation. The meeting with Edward Wilson was a wonderful panacea — Cherry had lost his faith some years before and he found Wilson’s belief in a divine purpose attractive and reassuring. It gave him a purpose in life and a meaning to life. He came to admire Wilson greatly; a guide and a father figure.

When he was on his travels and in Brisbane, he heard the official news that Robert Falcon Scott was planning a second expedition to Antarctica. Cherry knew immediately that this was the opportunity he wanted. Wilson had been appointed Chief of Scientific Staff and Cherry wrote to Wilson and Reginald Smith (who knew Scott), suggesting he cut short his travels and apply for a position on the Terra Nova expedition.

He knew that his chances were slim – 8,000 men applied to join Scott. But Wilson, via Reginald Smith, suggested that, to help the shaky finances of the expedition, Cherry should offer £1,000 pounds (Captain Titus Oates gave this amount also). Cherry had absolutely no scruples about this and promptly forwarded the money. His application was refused.

He decided to leave the cash in Discovery’s coffers anyway. Scott was impressed, met him, and offered him a place as a member on the scientific team. Cherry was delighted, (though he almost failed the medical examination because of his eyesight–it was decided to accept him if he accepted the additional risks). By this time, he wrote, he ‘would have accepted anything’.

Preparations started immediately: He learnt to type. His sister sewed a special sledging flag –she visited the Kensington School of Art to learn special stitching that looked identical on both sides of the cloth. Cherry got to know his fellow officers and the crew.

His Antarctic experience had begun!

To be continued






4 Sep

One of my talks is on ‘The Voyages of Discovery’. ‘Discovery’ was built for Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1901-1904. She was sold on after the expedition returned to England.

It was a surprise to find how many reincarnations she has had – she became a cargo vessel for the Hudson Bay Company of Canada, carrying textiles, tools & mirrors to barter for furs, she was involved in the Whaling Industry, became an oceanographic and research vessel, returned to the Antarctic with Douglas Mawson, was a training ship on the Thames and is now enjoying honourable (and relative), retirement at Dundee Point, where she is visited by thousands.

In WW1 in 1915, she was involved in supplying Archangel. Archangel was the only Russian port available to the West for the transport of supplies to Russia (the Germans controlled the Baltic, the Turkish Navy controlled access to the Black Sea via the Mediterranean). Discovery travelled in convoy via the North Sea to the Barents Sea and Archangel The approach to the White Sea was littered with German minefields. As ‘Steamer 141’ she went to Archangel between June and September 1915. Ten ships in the convoys were lost in these months. In the whole heroic strategy, 110 ships were lost, a third of the total. The courage of the seamen was phenomenal.

This transit was to be repeated in WW2. Winston Churchill called the journey the Worst Journey in the World. (a homage to Cherry Garrard’s book of this name). British and American ships supplied Archangel between 1941 and 1945. As in the WW1 the risks were terrible. The convoys sailed round German occupied Norway; the men endured freezing temperatures (minus 40°C), U boat attacks, and bombardments. The first of these convoys reached Archangel in September seventy-five 75 years ago. They provided supplies, moral support and eventually airplanes to the Soviet Union, as Hitler attacked.

These heroic men were celebrated recently in Archangel in events to mark the anniversary. Eight veterans were feted. The Princess Royal attended and visited British war graves.

No praise is too great.


20 Dec

Edward Wilson put his and the lives of his companions, ‘Birdie’ Bowes and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, at risk, when they made their scientific expedition to obtain specimens of very early penguin eggs in 1911. The three survived darkness, temperatures down to minus 76° F and a surface snow like sand, that held progress at little more than a mile on some days day. The sortie which lasted 5 weeks, was the subject of Cherry-Garrard’s book ‘The Worst Journey in the World’
Edward Wilson wanted to investigate the evolution of birds. Haekel had postulated that species pass through their early evolution in the embryo form and Wilson thought if he could get very early eggs he might find evidence of teeth or other evidence, that threw light on avian development. Had birds actually descended from dinosaurs? He chose penguins because, as they were flightless, he thought they were amongst the most primitive of birds. In spite of his fantastic efforts he did not find evidence to support the theory.
Now an international investigation The Avian Phylogenomics Consortium has revealed how birds evolved after the mass extinction of dinosaurs. After the asteroid hit some 65 million years ago, larger birds were exterminated but a few feathered species remained. These had an unrivalled opportunity to diversify.
The Consortium undertook the mass genome sequencing that has done much to explain the avian tree. Scientists examined small pieces of flesh from 45 bird species that had come from museums around the world. They were able to extract the birds’ genomes and add these to genomes of three species that had been previously sequenced. The genomes were compared and arranged into a family tree. The results of this groundbreaking work have been published extensively recently. Apparently it took nine computers the equivalent of 400 years of processor time to compare the genomes and arrange them in an avian tree.
As Wilson wished to investigate birds ARE descended from toothed dinosaurs, (as was shown in the fossil bird Archaeopteryx), but this analysis shows that their common ancestor lost their teeth more than 100 million years ago. A number of genes that allow bird song is similar to those that give humans the ability to speak.
This study throws light also on Emperors, Wilson’s particular interest. Emperors possess genes that make proteins for feathers, so that they have a dense coat that allows then to survive sub zero temperatures. The Emperor male, who nurtures his chick for weeks in the caterwauling gloom of the Antarctic winter, has three genes involved in lipid metabolism, which help it survive his ordeal without food.
Penguins evolved about 60 million years ago and have wonderfully survived ever since.


3 Apr

Edward Wilson’s interest in science was overriding. In 1910 there was much interest in the idea that birds have descended from dinosaurs. The polymath Ernst Haekel (biologist, naturalist, physician, artist, who amongst other things suggested the terms, phylum and phylogeny), proposed that ‘ontology recaptures phylogeny’–the recapulation theory–,

i.e. an individual’s biological development, ontology, follows its species evolutionary development, phylogeny. He was also, importantly from Wilson’s point of view, a supporter of Darwin and Wilson was very interested in this theory.

He postulated that if he obtained early specimens of Emperor Penguin eggs, he might find vestiges of teeth or other evidence that would show that birds do indeed descend from dinosaurs. He was interested in Emperor Penguins because they were flightless and he thought they were amongst the most primitive of birds. His journey, in mid winter, in the dark and in temperatures that reached -76 degrees F, was a horrible story of endurance made famous by the book, ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ by the youngest member of that sortie, Apsley Cheery-Garrard

The Oates Museum has a wonderful collection of penguins but lacked an Emperor (there are apparently few well preserved stuffed specimens in the UK). When one died naturally near the British Halley Research Station in Antarctica, arrangements were made to add this specimen into the collection. The journey, of over 9780 miles, is worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan. The frozen male bird was taken from the Antarctic Peninsula on the research ship ‘Shackleton’, to Port Stanley. The complications of paper work, a licence from DEFRA and a passport was successfully navigated but the defrosting and taxidermy work took so long that the Emperor ‘ missed the boat’ when the ship ‘Shackleton’ returned to England.

Contacts were contacted. The Ministry of Defence were able to help, but would have to charge for the air freight which was expensive, The situation was saved eventually when the Governor of the Falklands, His Excellency Nigel Haywood, agreed to bring the 40 kilo box to England as part of his luggage.

The Earl of Portsmouth opened the exhibit; The Emperor is now a proud part of the collection in the Oates Museum.

I am not sure what Oates would have made of it but Wilson would have been delighted.


28 Jan



A new colony of 9,000 Emperor Penguins has been visited in Antarctica.

Fascinatingly they were located via satellite images that showed faecal staining on the ice.

The early explorers of 1902 were the first to realise that Emperors could breed in Antarctica. Until then it was thought that no animal would evolve to breed in the

the caterwauling gloom of Antarctica; it was assumed the birds migrated north to breed.

But on Scott’s first expedition Emperor chicks ware found.

Do birds descend from dinosaurs?  In the early 1900s a biologist, Haekel, postulated that the embryos of each animal went through each stage of its early evolution, so it was thought that if early embryos of the Emperor Penguins could be found, there might be vestiges of teeth or scales that would support the theory. This was no small matter. Evidence of this nature might secure the expedition the Darwinian Prize.

Dr Wilson was primarily a scientist.  To investigate this theory was one of his reasons for going on the ‘Terra Nova’ Expedition. He realised, from knowing which month chicks has been found in 1902, that to obtain embryos, he would have to get to the colony in the middle of the Antarctic winter—this was the last unsupported journey to be made in winter months until Sir Ranulph Fiennes present expedition to cross Antarctica –. Wilson went with two companions, one of whom, Cherry- Garrard was to write the sortie up in his famous book, ‘The Worst Journey in the World’, (Cherry-Garrard hoped to die, the conditions were so awful).  The three travelled in darkness, over surfaces that sometimes allowed progress of one mile per day and in temperatures, always well below freezing and on one occasion, minus 76°F. They captured five eggs, but Cherry-Garrard fell and smashed his two.

After the expedition Cherry-Garrard took his precious specimens to the Natural History Museum where, if his account is accurate, they were received with less that enthusiasm. Years later, when they were examined, the theory of descent from dinosaurs was not substantiated.

Wilson thought penguins were very primitive birds because they are flightless. We now know this is not the case. Bur he would not have regretted his expedition. It was made in the true spirit of scientific enquiry. But he would have been very impressed by the ease with which satellite images can locate the elusive creatures and pleased to know that indeed birds ARE descended from dinosaurs.