Curator of Numismatics, Jesper Ericsson, explores the incredible life of Alexander Stevens, Chief Scientist and Biologist of the Ross Sea Party.
Whilst cataloguing Dr William Hunter’s collection of British historical medals, I came across an item I had never handled before. It was a rare, silver Polar Medal, which immediately piqued my interest.
Engraved on the rim was: ‘A Stevens Biologist Aurora’.
Who was ‘A Stevens’? And why had he been awarded this medal? Little was I to know that my research would take me to the depths of an almost unknown chapter of a famous expedition undertaken during wartime. An extraordinary tale of survival against the odds, centred on a man’s life dedicated to the University of Glasgow.
Born in Kilmarnock and a graduate of the University, Alexander Stevens (1886 – 1965) was Chief Scientist and Biologist of the Ross Sea Party. This was a part of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914 – 17.
Alexander Stevens: The Ross Sea Party
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was composed of two parties. These were the Weddell Sea Party, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, and the Ross Sea Party, led by Aeneas Mackintosh.
The Weddell Sea Party sailed on Endurance to the Weddell Sea side of Antarctica. From there, the plan was that Shackleton would lead his party in a sledging expedition across the frozen continent. The Ross Sea Party sailed to Australia and on to the Ross Sea side, the opposite coast to Shackleton.
Their aim was to lay a chain of vital supply depots on the last part of the sledging route. As well as this, they undertook scientific work as they waited for their Weddell Sea Party comrades to arrive. However, disaster struck both parties. Shackleton and his men didn’t even manage to set foot on Antarctica.
The Endurance got stuck in ice, which eventually crushed the vessel. The party was forced to embark on an incredible journey back to civilization, emerging intact without losing a man.
The Ross Sea Party knew nothing of this. Without any way of receiving news and having lost their own ship, the Aurora, to an Antarctic storm in May 1915, they worked on regardless. They believed that their efforts might mean the difference between life and death to the Weddell Sea Party. But their heroic efforts were in vain.
Battling the elements and illness
Alexander Stevens’ tall, lithe frame was not suited to the appalling rigours demanded by the expedition and the unforgiving environment he found himself working in. Most of the 26 dogs that the party brought with them were no good for pulling the weight of the supplies for the depots.
This meant that the men were forced to do most of the hundreds of miles of pulling themselves. Nevertheless, Stevens did his bit out on the ice shelf. He even fell down a crevasse on 27 October 1915, which left him badly shaken but fortunately uninjured.
Due to exhaustion and illness, he was eventually ordered back to Captain Scott’s old hut at Cape Evans. The party was using this as a base. Stevens remained there alone between 30 October 1915 and 16 January 1916, before other party members started to trickle back.
His only company during that time of solitude was two huskies and a litter of pups. He kept himself busy by taking meteorological readings every four hours and maintaining other experiments. These included observations of earth, ice and sea temperatures.
Three more men arrived at the hut on 15 July 1916. They brought with them terrible news. Stevens’ best friend, the Reverend Arnold Spencer-Smith, was dead. Two more were missing, including Mackintosh, their leader. The two were never seen again. The seven survivors stayed in the hut, wondering what fate had befallen Shackleton and the Weddell Sea Party. At last, their rescue came on 10 January 1917.
James Wordie: The Weddell Sea Party
James Wordie (1889 – 1962) was Chief Scientist and Geologist of the Weddell Sea Party with Sir Ernest Shackleton on Endurance. Born in Partick, Wordie also graduated from the University of Glasgow. After completing his BSc in geology, he then studied further at St John’s College, Cambridge. Next, he volunteered for the expedition.
The Weddell Sea Party left Plymouth onboard Endurance on 8 August 1914. It sailed for Buenos Aires and then on to South Georgia. On 5 December, Endurance left the Grytviken whaling station, bound for Antarctica. Unexpectedly thick pack ice was quickly encountered, which slowed the journey.
By 14 February 1915, Endurance was completely trapped by the ice. The stricken vessel remained stuck over the Antarctic winter, slowly drifting north. Shackleton ordered the ship to be abandoned on 27 October as the ice crushed Endurance beyond repair. It eventually sank on 21 November.
The men were forced to survive in camps for several months. On 9 April 1916, the ice floe they were on broke up around them. Forced to take to three lifeboats that had been salvaged from the wreckage of Endurance, the decision was made to aim for Elephant Island. This was a distance of around 100 miles. The party arrived there seven days later.
Whilst most stayed on Elephant Island, including Wordie, Shackleton and five others embarked on an extraordinarily dangerous 800-mile journey to South Georgia in one of the open lifeboats, the James Caird.
Departing on 24 April 1916, they arrived on 10 May. Shackleton was then able to organise the rescue of the rest of his party, who were finally picked up on 30 August.
The First World War
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition left England in September 1914. By that time, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been bloodied at the Battle of Mons the previous month. They were forced to retreat south into France thanks to a rapid German advance. The last snippets of news heard by Stevens and the men of the Ross Sea Party would have been received before they departed Sydney on Christmas Eve 1914.
The war was not going well for the Allies. The Battle of First Ypres in October/November had caused terrible casualties on both sides. In an effort to rest and reinforce, trenches had been dug along the entire frontage of the battlefield.
The next news the survivors of the Ross Sea Party received about the war was upon their rescue in January 1917. The very fact that the war was still going on shocked them. The grim realisation that they had ‘missed out’ spurred the survivors to resolve to join up as soon as they were home and fit enough to serve.
Alexander Stevens joined up only two weeks after returning to the UK. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers (RE) on 5 September 1917, a natural choice given his geographical background and scientific experience. In the midst of his training, he married Molly Stevens in November that year.
Royal Engineers and the Polar Medal
Stevens arrived in France in around April or May 1918, and served at General Headquarters (GHQ) and with 5th Field Service Company (later 5th Field Service Battalion) RE, undertaking trigonometrical work in order to produce maps of the battlefield. This was of particular importance for the Royal Artillery, helping the guns to lay down accurate fire on enemy positions.
Alexander Stevens played a small but vital role in the last months of the war. Thanks to the complex work of the Field Service Battalions, British artillery dominated the battlefield from the summer of 1918. There is no doubt their efforts shortened the war.
His work demanded that he go to the frontline. Even in the rear, he would have been vulnerable to frequent enemy shellfire. Stevens would have seen the wounded and dead. He would have seen the worst and the best of times, the horrors and the dark humour of war.
And he was a comparatively old man in poor health. He was 32 in 1918, older than the average British soldier. But as he proved in Antarctica, he was a survivor.
Just three months after his commission with the Royal Engineers, Alexander Stevens was awarded the Polar Medal by King George V at Buckingham Palace.
After serving on the Western Front in the final months of the war, he returned to the University of Glasgow. Stevens became the University’s first Professor of Geography in 1947, and retired in 1953 after a long and distinguished academic life.
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