Wild with Shackleton
The hero with the ice blue eyes
Name a great polar explorer - a contemporary of Scott and Shackleton who had more experience than either; was the only man to be awarded a four bar Polar Medal and was described as “Shackleton’s right hand man”. No? A man who was part of the Discovery Expedition; a member of the Nimrod team who planted the Union Jack in the “furthest south” position; led the Western base of the Aurora Expedition and took command of the horrific Elephant Island survival on the Endurance Expedition and the entire Quest Expedition following Shackleton’s death. Still no? It’s unsurprising - Frank Wild’s name has been buried under the pack ice of ill recorded history and time.
If you google Frank Wild, the accepted story breathlessly recounts how the CBE decorated Polar Explorer, so shattered by the death of Shackleton, became a drifter and alcoholic in South Africa and died an unnoticed death. This portrayal of a forgotten hero would have remained unchallenged if it hadn’t been for, writer, Angie Butler who has spent the last seven years on an odyssey to discover the truth whilst writing The Quest for Frank Wild. When I met her to talk about the polar hero, she explained that she “set out to change his reputation and to find his ashes”.
The whereabout’s of Wild’s ashes has been one of the most perplexing mysteries of polar exploration and one that starts with the burial of his leader, Ernest Shackleton, who Wild wrote of in his memoirs (which are published for the first time as part of the book) “in my considered opinion for the best points of leadership, coolness in the face of danger, resource under difficulties, quickness in decision, never failing optimism and the faculty of instilling the same into others, remarkable genius for organisation, consideration for those under him and obliteration of self, the palm must be given to Shackleton, a hero and a gentleman in every truth”. Shackleton was buried, in 1922, in a South Georgian cemetery that Angie described to me as “the most beautiful little cemetery with a white picket fence...where whalers are buried (beside) a wooden Lutheran church.”
Seventeen years later, Frank Wild died of pneumonia in Klerksdorp just before war broke out meaning that his second wife Beatrice ‘Trix’ Rowbotham was obliged to keep his ashes with the local funeral director until they could be transported to be buried next to Shackleton. What happened after that is unknown but Wild’s remains were never laid to rest beside his leader. Angie searched for the ashes throughout her research and eventually, recalls that she had “given up - the book had gone in for editing” when she found old correspondence regarding the chapel in the Braamfontein Cemetery. She “flew back to South Africa for a matter of days” and asked for the chapel to be opened up and was taken down into the vaults where there were “rows of shelves full of urns”. “I had such a strong feeling that this was a very important room...and that they could be hidden behind another urn...I started to look through the cobwebs” but time meant that Angie had to return to England empty handed from where she tracked down Alan Buff “a sleuth originally from Yorkshire who finds graves for the municipality”. He went to work and emailed her on the 31st January 2011 to tell her that he had found Frank and Trix Wild’s ashes.
Angie was certain about what needed to be done - “I knew he wanted to go back to Georgia”. She gained “Frank Wild’s descendants permission to bring the Ashes back to England at the end of March. I flew them back in my hand luggage!” On the 20th November of this year, 90 years after the start of Shackleton and Wild’s last expedition, Angie will set out on a voyage to bury the ashes accompanied by six members of the Wild family, the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton (Ernest’s granddaughter) and 80 other passengers. I asked Angie how she will feel once Wild is buried: “Incredibly moved and a great sense of relief. It’s really important that he goes back when you understand his relationship with Shackleton. Finally they are going to be united again”.
Angie’s investigation will succeed in restoring both the ashes and Wild’s reputation. She cites lazy journalism and “chinese whispers” as possible reasons for the sensationalism of Wild’s final years. Her research shows that he was “employed most of the time” and that the Daily Mirror Story of “...a fallen hero working for £4 a month as a bar tender” was taken out of context “he was helping a friend...and said ‘I’m not a loafer and it’s a job'’’. He was a “hard drinker” but there is no evidence that this was anymore than a combination of a navy background and the Jazz Age. His funeral, contrary to reports in the British press, was well attended and almost a state occasion.
The book’s black and white pictures are testament to Wild’s compelling handsomeness and Angie talks of his “ice blue eyes that would penetrate you”. I wondered, though, what was her attraction to Wild and she answered that it was about the polar heroes themselves “They were so different. Today we find it very difficult to put up with any hardship. They were dignified...very gentlemanly...in the diary of the furthest south march - the privations, the frostbite, he was so measured. He plays it down."
Angie Butler has a vibrant sense of adventure herself “I love being pitted against the elements” and has adopted challenges from cycling 500 miles to reach Timbuktu to kayaking in Madagascar to becoming a partner in polar tourism company Ice Tracks.
Agreeing with Wild’s saying “once you have been to the white unknown you can never escape the call of the little voices” she shows her awe of the place “You get a fantastic sense of the ice sheets, icebergs and ice cliffs - the scale of how vast everything is...ice is very noisy. It cracks all of the time and sounds like Rice Krispies...camping on the ice is really an experience”
and poetically describes the polar atmosphere “there’s a pink hue to everything that changes as the night goes on....with huge wide open spaces where the sky meets the horizon”. After her first visit to Antarctica Angie was “absolutely hell bent on going back” - a sentiment that I have no doubt would have made Frank Wild raise a tot of rum to his ballsy biographer.
- The Quest for Frank Wild (including his original memoirs) is published on 1st August 2011.
- To learn more about Ice Tracks polar voyages visit ice-tracks.com
- To hear Angie Butler talking about The Quest for Frank Wild on Radio 4 programme Excess Baggage visit the BBC website.