Book review: The Quest for Frank Wild by Angie Butler

When journalist Angie Butler set out to unravel the truth of the final years of Edwardian Polar explorer Frank Wild, it turned into a seven-year voyage of discovery.

Monday, 19th December 2011, 8:36 am

The Quest for Frank Wild is her gripping story of the indomitable Yorkshire-born traveller who tackled the frozen wastes of the South Pole with Sir Ernest Shackleton three times during the heroic age of the early 20th century.

Now recognised as one of the greatest British Edwardian Polar explorers of all time, Wild’s last years have long been a puzzle. He supposedly died in penury in the small mining town of Klerksdorp near Johannesburg, apparently unable to come to terms with Shackleton’s death and forgotten by his fellow pioneers.

The little that was known of his later life in South Africa has been distorted by history and sensational journalism and, most tragically of all, no-one knew where he was buried.

Butler’s tireless investigations have finally uncovered an extraordinary untold story which not only fulfils Wild’s wish to have his memoirs published but also makes an astonishing discovery.

Her book resurrects the career of an outstanding man who was lost both in life and death, and provides a unique and fascinating account of the dangers faced by the early Polar explorers.

John Robert Francis Wild, the eldest of 11 children from a North Yorkshire family which later moved to Bedfordshire, was a veteran of five Antarctic Expeditions and the only man to achieve four Polar medals.

He went to sea with the Merchant Navy in 1890 at the tender age of 16 and joined the Royal Navy when he was 26. In 1901 he served as an Able Seaman on HMS Edinburgh in Sheerness but later that year joined Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ship Discovery as a sailor and befriended Shackleton.

Wild was invited to take part in Shackleton’s first Antarctic expedition on the Nimrod and was one of four people in the party to get within 180 kilometres of the South Pole.

On Douglas Mawson’s Australian expedition from 1911-13, Wild led the Western Party and he was Shackleton’s second-in-command on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914–16.

During the Endurance expedition, Wild took command of 21 men who became marooned on desolate Elephant Island where they lived in upturned boats and survived on a diet of seal, penguin and seaweed for four months.

They were finally rescued by Shackleton aboard the Chilean ship Yelcho. Point Wild on Elephant Island is named after Frank Wild, with a monument dedicated to the Chilean captain Luis Pardo who rescued him and his men.

His final mission was as number two on the Quest expedition which he completed as commander following Shackleton’s death in January 1922.

Butler’s extraordinary book includes previously unpublished photographs as well as heroic and moving tales of survival and near-death experiences, from sledging in blinding blizzards to terrifying cases of frostbite, tackling crevasses big enough to swallow buildings and sleepless nights in -50C temperatures.

The amazing and moving story of a forgotten hero.

(Jackleberry Press, hardback, £25)