The historically important Antarctic 1914-16 Polar Medal to Able Seaman Timothy McCarthy, Royal Naval Reserve, one of five men chosen by Shackleton to accompany him in the James Caird during his epic 800 mile open-boat voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia - over ‘the most tempestuous area of water in the world’ with ‘gales almost unceasing... in a small and weather beaten boat, already strained by the work of previous months’. An ever optimistic and hardy Irishman, McCarthy was the first to sight South Georgia, on the 14th day of arguably the greatest open-boat voyage of all time. Having survived the privations of the Antarctic he paid the ultimate sacrifice, 16 March 1917, when he was killed at his gun in action against U-44
Polar Medal 1904, bronze, G.V.R., 1 clasp, Antarctic 1914-16 (T. McCarthy, Able Seaman. “Endurance.”), suspension claw a little slack, otherwise good very fine £15000-20000
Polar Medal 1904, bronze, G.V.R., 1 clasp, Antarctic 1914-16 (T. McCarthy, Able Seaman. “Endurance.”), suspension claw a little slack, otherwise good very fine £15000-20000
FootnoteTimothy McCarthy (1885-1917) was the son of John and Mary McCarthy of Kinsale, County Cork. He was serving as an Able Seaman in the Royal Naval Reserve when he applied to join Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914. McCarthy was one of 26 men chosen to crew the Endurance for the expedition.
Little elaboration of this, one of the most famous of Polar expeditions, is required here. McCarthy’s prominent role, however, is worthy of further illustration. After leaving home shores the Endurance was held up by solid pack ice in the Weddell Sea in January 1914. This was before Shackleton’s trans-continental party could even reach its starting point. Prior to this occurrence common consensus amongst the whaling captains at Grytviken, South Georgia, with whom Shackleton had consulted, was that it was the worst year in living memory for currents and ice patterns. Shackleton had ploughed on regardless, and this indomitable spirit was to be tested countless times over the coming months.
Through January, and into February 1915, the ice continued to pack tightly around the Endurance as she drifted with the ice. It became apparent that the crew would have to winter with the ship in the ice. The pressure of the ice caused damage to the ship, and she began to leak. On 27 October 1915 the ship was abandoned and a camp set up on the ice. After a failed attempt to sledge to Robertson Island, another camp called Ocean Island was established on a large ice floe. As many supplies as possible were rescued and accumulated here before the Endurance eventually sank on the 21st November.
In December 1915 several reconnaissance journeys were carried out, but all were painfully slow due to the disintegrating ice. A new more secure camp was established some 10 miles from the old one. At Patience Camp the party waited for conditions to improve so that they may be able to use the three boats (Dudley Docker, James Caird and the Stancomb Wills) that they had with them. At the end of the first week of April 1916 Clarence Island and Elephant Island had been sighted. Shackleton realised with anxiety that beyond these islands there was no refuge. All this time the ice pack was breaking up and the situation becoming more fraught with danger. It was impossible at this juncture to use the boats, due to the risk of them being crushed in the ice.
Nonetheless it was imperative that action be taken and on the 10th April they embarked on their 5 day journey to Elephant Island. Conditions were perilous, ‘a terrible night followed, and I doubted if all of the men would survive it. The temperature was below zero and the wind penetrated our clothes and chilled us almost unbearably. One of our troubles was lack of water, for we had emerged so suddenly from the pack into the open sea that we had not had time to take aboard ice for melting in the cookers, and without ice we could not have hot food. The condition of most of the men was pitiable. All of us had swollen mouths and could hardly touch the food... we were all dreadfully thirsty, and although we could get momentary relief by chewing pieces of raw seal meat and swallowing the blood, our thirst was soon redoubled owing to the saltiness of the flesh.’ (South, The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914-17, refers).
Elephant Island - Wild and McCarthy Find a Base
Exhausted, Shackleton’s men hauled their supplies on to an inhospitable landing place on Elephant Island. After a reconnaissance it was quickly apparent that the beach was unsuitable for a long term base. On the 16th April Shackleton decided to send a party, under Frank Wild, to find a more suitable site for a camp. The party was to be comprised from some of the more hardier individuals, and McCarthy was amongst them, ‘I had decided to send Wild along the coast in the Stancomb Wills to look for a new camping-ground, on which I hoped the party would be able to live for weeks or even months in safety.
Wild, accompanied by Marston, Crean, Vincent and McCarthy, pushed off in the Stancomb Wills at 11am and proceeded westward along the coast... The Stancomb Wills had not returned by nightfall, but at 8pm we heard a hail in the distance and soon, like a pale ghost out of the darkness, the boat appeared. I was awaiting Wild’s report most anxiously, and was greatly relieved when he told me that he had discovered a sandy spot, seven miles to the west... Wild said that this place was the only possible camping-ground he had seen, and that, although in very heavy gales it might be spray-blown, he did not think that the seas would actually break over it. The boats could be run on a shelving beach, and, in any case, it would be a great improvement on our very narrow beach.’ (Ibid)
On the 17th April the three boats set off for the new site. The seven mile pull took most of the day, as they almost immediately encountered a gale on the open water. Most of the members of the Expedition were suffering severely from salt water boils, and to a slightly lesser extent frostbite. The new camp, however, appeared to offer relative safety for as long as the dwindling food supplies lasted.
The Greatest Open-Boat Voyage of All Time...
With the onset of winter near, however, it was clear that Shackleton had to do something. It was unlikely that there would be enough food for all of the men, and the latter were becoming weaker and more demoralised as the days went by. What ensued was to become one of the greatest open-boat voyages of all time:
‘The conclusion was forced upon me that a boat journey in search of relief was necessary and must not be delayed. The nearest port where assistance could certainly be secured was Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, 540 miles away; but we could scarcely hope to beat up against the prevailing north-westerly wind in a frail and weakened boat with a small sail area.
It was not difficult to decide that South Georgia, which was over 800 miles away but lay in the area of west winds, must be our objective. I could count upon finding whalers at any of the whaling-stations on the east-coast, and, provided that the sea was clear of ice and that the boat survived the great seas, a boat party might make the voyage and be back with relief in a month.
The hazards of a boat journey across 800 miles of stormy sub-Antarctic ocean were obvious, but I calculated that at the worst this venture would add nothing to the risks of the men left on the island. The boat would not require to take more than one month’s provisions for six men, for if we did not make South Georgia in that time we were sure to go under....
The perils of the proposed journey were extreme, and the risk was justified solely by our urgent need of assistance. The ocean south of Cape Horn in the middle of May is known to be the most tempestuous area of water in the world, and the gales are almost unceasing. We had to face these conditions in a small and weather-beaten boat, already strained by the work of the previous months.... I had at once to tell Wild that he must stay behind, for I relied upon him to hold the party together while I was away... I determined to take Worsley with me as I had a very high opinion of his accuracy and quickness as a navigator... Four other men were required, and, although I thought of leaving Crean as a right-hand man for Wild, he begged so hard to come that, after consulting Wild, I promised to take him.... I finally selected McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent, in addition to Worsley and Crean.... The crew seemed a strong one, and as I looked at the men I felt confidence increasing....
After the decision was made, I walked through the blizzard with Worsley and Wild to examine the James Caird. The 20-foot boat had never looked big, but when I viewed her in the light of our new undertaking she seemed in some mysterious way to have shrunk. She was an ordinary ship’s whaler, fairly strong, but showing signs of the strain she had endured. Standing beside her, and looking at the fringe of the tumultuous sea, there was no doubt that our voyage would be a big adventure.
I called McCarthy [McNeish], the carpenter, and asked him if he could do anything to make the ship more seaworthy. He asked at once if he was to go with me, and seemed quite pleased when I answered “Yes.” He was over fifty years of age and not altogether fit, but he was very quick and had a good knowledge of sailing-boats. He told me that he could contrive some sort of covering for the James Caird if he was allowed to use the lids of the cases and the four sledge-runners, which he had lashed inside the boat for use in the event of a landing on Graham Land at Wilhelmina Bay. He proposed to complete the covering with some of our canvas, and immediately began to make his plans.’ (Ibid, in this account, written in 1919, Shackleton occasionally confuses McCarthy with McNeish, the latter was in his 50’s whilst McCarthy was in his 20’s)
The voyage commenced on 24 April 1916, ‘the tale of the next sixteen days is one of supreme strife amid heaving waters, for the sub-Antarctic Ocean fully lived up to its evil winter reputation. I decided to run north for at least two days while the wind held, and thus get into warmer weather before turning to the east and laying a course for South Georgia.
We took two-hourly spells at the tiller. The men who were not on watch crawled into the sodden sleeping-bags and tried to forget their troubles for a period. But there was no comfort in the boat, indeed the first night aboard the boat was one of acute discomfort for us all, and we were heartily glad when dawn came.... Cramped in our narrow quarters and continually wet from the spray, we suffered severely from cold throughout the journey. We fought the seas and winds, and at the same time had a daily struggle to keep ourselves alive. At times we were in dire peril. Generally we were encouraged by the knowledge that we were progressing towards the desired land, but there were days and nights when we lay hove to, drifting across the storm-whitened seas, and watching the uprearing masses of water, flung to and fro by Nature in the pride of her strength.
Nearly always there were gales. So small was our boat and so great were the seas that often our sail flapped idly in the calm between the crests of two waves. Then we would climb the next slope, and catch the full fury of the gale where the wool-like whiteness of the breaking water surged around us.... Much bailing was necessary, but nothing could prevent our gear from becoming sodden... There were no dry places in the boat, and at last we simply covered our heads with our Burberrys and endured the all-pervading water. The bailing was work for the watch.
None of us, however, had any real rest. The perpetual motion of the boat made repose impossible; we were cold, sore and anxious. In the semi-darkness of the day we moved on hands and knees under the decking. By 6pm the darkness was complete, and not until 7am could we see one another under the thwarts.... The difficulty of movement in the boat would have had its humorous side if it had not caused so many aches and pains. In order to move along the boat we had to crawl under the thwarts, and our knees suffered considerably. When a watch turned out I had to direct each man by name when and where to move, for if all hands had crawled about at the same time the result would have been dire confusion and many bruises.’ (Ibid)
During this testing period Worsley records that when McCarthy had finished his time on watch at the tiller, he always displayed his ‘cheerful optimism’ and his habit of handing over the helm with “It’s a fine day, sorr.”
By the seventh day, the weather finally started to improve to the extent that the party were able to calculate that they had travelled roughly over 380 miles towards South Georgia. Over the course of the following three days steady progress was made, despite increasing suffering caused by exposure and a diminishing supply of food.
On the eleventh day, 5th May, the weather changed for the worse, ‘a hard north-westerly gale came up... The sky was overcast and occasional snow-squalls added to the discomfort produced by a tremendous cross-sea - the worst, I thought, which we had encountered. At midnight I was at the tiller, and suddenly noticed a line of clear sky between the south and the south-west. I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then, a moment later realised that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave.
During the twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods I had never seen a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas which had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted, “For God’s sake, hold on! It’s got us!” Then came a moment of suspense which seemed to last for hours. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half-full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We bailed with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle which came into our hands; after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us. She floated again, and ceased to lurch drunkenly as though dazed by the attack of the sea. Earnestly we hoped that never again should we encounter such a wave.’ (South, The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, Sir Ernest Shackletonrefers)
McCarthy First to Sight South Georgia
Privations continued among the men, with Vincent having collapsed under the strain and water now running desperately low. The 6th and the 7th May, ‘passed for us in a sort of nightmare. Our mouths were dry and our tongues swollen. The wind was still strong and the heavy sea forced us to navigate carefully. But any thought of our peril from the waves was buried beneath the consciousness of our raging thirst... Things were bad for us in those days, but the end was approaching. The morning of May 8th broke thick and stormy, with squalls from the north-west. We searched the waters ahead for a sign of land, and, although we searched in vain, we were cheered by a sense that our goal was near. About 10am we passed a little bit of kelp, a glad signal of the proximity of land. An hour later saw two shags sitting on a big mass of kelp, and we knew then that we must be within ten or fifteen miles of the shore.... We gazed ahead with increasing eagerness, and at 12.30pm, through a rift in the clouds, McCarthy caught a glimpse of the black cliffs of South Georgia, just fourteen days after our departure from Elephant Island. It was a glad moment. Thirst-ridden, chilled, and weak as we were, happiness irradiated us. The job was nearly done.’ (Ibid)
On the 10th of May, despite being tormented by one last hurricane, the James Caird finally managed to land in a small cove, with a boulder strewn beach guarded by a reef on the south side of King Haakon Bay. The crew had not drunk anything for 48 hours. Completely exhausted, and unable to pull the boat out of the water they landed their stores and rested for a few days in a cave. They hunted for birds, and slowly recuperated some strength thus enabling them to embark again on the 15th May for the 8 mile trip to King Haakon Bay.
Shackleton’s men arrived at the head of the bay, and proceeded to establish Peggotty Camp under the beached and upturned boat. From here it was decided that Shackleton, Worsley and Crean would set out on foot for Stromness Bay, and the whaling stations. On the evening of the 18th May, ‘we turned in early that night, but troubled thoughts kept me from sleeping. The task before the overland party would in all probability be heavy, and we were going to leave a weak party behind us in the camp. Vincent was still in the same condition and could not march. NcNeish was pretty well broken up. These two men could not manage for themselves, and I had to leave McCarthy to look after them. Should we fail to reach the whaling station McCarthy might have a difficult task.’ (Ibid)
On the 19th May the three men set off to cross the mountains to Stromness. They managed the journey, despite their weakened state, by the following day. They had traversed a completely unexplored mountain range. Worsley set off in a whaler to rescue McCarthy and his two charges that night. They returned to Stromness on the 22nd May, ‘McCarthy, McNeish and Vincent were landed on the Monday afternoon, and quickly began to show signs of increasing strength under a regime of warm quarters and abundant food. McCarthy [McNeish] looked woefully thin after he had emerged from a bath. He was over fifty years of age and the strain had told upon him more than upon the rest of us. The rescue came just in time for him.’ (Ibid)
Shackleton arranged for McNeish and Vincent to be returned to England. He also arranged passage for McCarthy to be sent home, with both his and Worsley’s warm expressions of gratitude.
The Great War - Ultimate Sacrifice
Whilst Shackleton eventually rescued the rest of his men from Elephant Island, McCarthy, who had barely survived the ordeals of the Antarctic was almost immediately thrust into service during the Great War. He returned to the Royal Naval Reserve, and served as a Leading Seaman in S.S. Narragansett. She was a defensively armed British Steam Tanker, and on the 16th March 1917 was employed on a voyage from New York to London transporting lubricating oil. On the latter date she was torpedoed and sunk by U-44 off the south-west coast of Ireland. Forty-six sailors lost their lives, including McCarthy.
As Shackleton remarked himself of his crew, ‘The same energy and endurance which they showed in the Antarctic they brought to the Greater War in the Old World. And having followed our fortunes in the South it may interest you to know that practically every member of the Expedition was employed in one or other branches of the active fighting forces during the war. Of the fifty-three men who returned out of the fifty-six who left for the South, three have since been killed and five wounded. McCarthy, the best and most efficient of sailors, always cheerful under the most trying circumstances, and who for these reasons I chose to accompany me on the boat journey to South Georgia, was killed at his gun in the Channel.’ (Ibid)
Tragically McCarthy never lived to see his hard earned Polar Medal, nor does it appear from the roll that his Great War medals were ever claimed or issued. He is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.
Note: Neither McNeish nor Vincent were recommended by Shackleton for the Polar Medal and neither received it. Thus, of the six gallant men of the James Caird, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean received Silver medals or clasps, whilst McCarthy alone received the Bronze medal and clasp.
The James Caird, named after one of the sponsors of the expedition, survives to this day and is proudly displayed at Dulwich College, South London.
Tim McCarthy polar medal to be auctioned
Eugene Furlong, Polar Exploration Historian, discusses the sale of a polar medal which was awarded to Irish man, Timothy McCarthy