On 8th November 1916, the passenger and refrigerated cargo steamer, Highland Laddie, arrived in Tilbury docks in London. On board was Tom Crean and a number of his Endurance colleagues..
Offered free passage from Buenos Aires by the company’s Nelson Line owners, were eleven men who’d set sail on the Endurance over two years earlier. Ten of the returning party had spent a harrowing four and a half months on Elephant Island.
The stranded men kept faith that they would be rescued despite the seemingly impossible barriers that their comrades who set off in the James Caird lifeboat would have to face.
Frank Wild, Shackleton’s deputy and the man in charge at Elephant Island, calculated and had written August 25th in his diary as the date they would be rescued. As it turned out he was five days early with his prediction.
The rescue was indeed timely and, had it been a few days later, Crean and Shackleton may have met with a very different scene as their boat approached the shore. The stranded men were down to their last ration of Bovril, the only form of hot beverage they had left and their meat provisions would have lasted them another three days.
Two years into the First World War, the men arrived back to a to a time and place unrecognisable from the world they had left behind. George Marston, the expedition’s artist, conveyed that sentiment best as Highland Laddie navigated it’s way up the Thames into London:
“Getting into touch once more with the outer world, our senses were stunned by the amazing facts we were called upon to accept. To us, the world seemed mad and we its only sane members. While news of the daily happenings of the war were being carried to all corners of the earth by every means known to science or by the efforts of the humble runners of the outposts of civilisation, we were perhaps the only human beings who were in total ignorance of the happenings of those two years. We had lived the life of primitive man battling with nature for existence. Politics and innumerable small worries of civilisation were, for us, a thing of the past. The fact that nations were fighting for their very existence was a mere shadowy thought. Our struggle with nature had readjusted our minds to the narrow outlook of our forefathers. While civilisation had been led step by step to accept, as natural everyday occurrences, the events of the most bitter war in the world’s history, our speculations had narrowed.”
Speaking to Reuters after disembarking the Highland Laddie, Frank Wild, recalling the historic journey of the James Caird, said:
“Those who accompanied Shackleton on the 800-mile daring journey to South Georgia were chosen from the physically fittest of the men. That journey is, in my opinion, the finest thing ever done”.
The evacuation of the 22 men on Elephant Island was completed in just one hour amidst rough seas and they made their way to Punta Arenas to a fanfare of well-wishers greeting their return.
After a period of recuperation followed by a train journey over the Andes to Buenos Aires, they were back at sea and heading home.
One notable absentee on the returning groups of men was Perce Blackborrow, the youngest crew member who’d been a member of the stranded party. Blackborrow remained in hospital in Punta Arenas where he spent three months in treatment after the amputation of the toes on his left foot due to severe frostbite.
Among the party of men returning on Highland Laddie was the Irish Giant Tom Crean, who’d played a primary role in the greatest rescue in maritime history.