"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Antarctic Journals, Chaper Fifteen, War Made Personal

January-February, 1915.   

The Great War against the Imperial German army is going poorly for Britain and her allies.

At the same time the Endurance is battling gale force winds and thick ice, German Zeppelin airships fly over the east coast of Great Britain and bomb two towns.

In early February, Germany declares a submarine blockade of Britain, and warns that all ships approaching that country are considered targets.

Ernest Shackleton and the men of the Endurance have no way of knowing how the war is progressing.  They have lost radio contact with the whaling station on South Georgia Island. 

The plan was for the Endurance to reach Vahsel Bay, drop off the excursion party and a mountain of supplies, build a winter hut, then return to Argentina.  With no radio contact, no one knows the ship is struck fast in the slowly revolving ice of the Weddell Sea.  No rescue operation will be mounted.

Black and white photographs by Frank Hurley.

      South with Endurance: Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917
      The Photographs of Frank Hurley
      Book Creation Services, Ltd., London, 2001
      ISBN 1-932302-04-2


Falklands flag
Michael brings the war to us. 

Bouncing across the Falkland moors, grinding through the mud and tracks of four-wheel drive vehicles, gale force winds plaster rain against the windows as we pass through an area that is now cleared of land mines buried by the Argentine forces in 1982, and Michael brings the war to us. 

He’s too young to be a veteran.  The war was thirty years ago, and he’s less than that.  But he’s an islander, born and raised here.  His speech is British-accented and there are many colloquialisms.

“My father has a farm near here,” he begins.   "British soldiers would go there and target practice on their time off.  The ground was littered with brass.

“After the invasion, an Argentine military helicopter landed in the yard one day.   An officer stepped out and looked around the property.  He saw the brass.

“My father was taken away on the helicopter, accused of being a spy, of communicating with the British Forces.  All communications equipment in the house was confiscated—telephones, everything.  They flew to a remote area and landed.  The officer ordered my father to get out and bury the radios and things.

“My father refused.  He said they would shoot him in the back if he got out.  Again he was ordered and again he refused.

“A voice came from the back of the helicopter, a voice with an American accent.  It was another Argentine officer, one who had been educated in America.  He told my father that he would walk behind him, stand between him and the helicopter while he buried the equipment, then walk in front of him on the way back.

“And he did.  Then they took my father home.”

He speaks of a military craft full of soldiers who were told to go ashore without their kits.  The heavy equipment would be off-loaded the next day, they were told.  The soldiers refused because they did not want to be separated from their kits.

That night the ship was attacked by Argentine planes.  The loss of life on the ship that night was the single-most loss in any conflict of the war for the British.

“Since the war,” he continues, “there have been more British soldiers lost by suicide than died during the war.  They thought they were going to fight soldiers.  They found themselves fighting boys.”  

That rings a bell.  Back in Argentina, we were told that young boys from the poorer parts of towns being were sent to war believing they were going to liberate their countrymen from the hated yoke of British colonialism.

I’ve been all over the internet since I got home, trying to verify these and another of Michael’s stories.   Obviously, I cannot verify what happened to Michael’s father unless I could talk with him.

I found enough information about the attack on the boat to think it might be true.* 

As for the loss of life since the war, that is true.   

Two hundred and fifty-five British died during the war.  In a 2002 report, 264 veterans were known to have committed suicide.  The toll for the Argentine military is worse.   They lost 649 in the war, and 464 veterans since.  As for the residents of the Falklands, three women were killed in the British bombardment of Stanley when the Argentines occupied it.

The Argentines have refused to take their dead home.  They are buried in the Falklands because Argentina continues to claim sovereignty here.

I know that tour guides sometimes make up stories to regale the tourists.  I know they exaggerate.  As to whether or not Michael was telling us the truth as he knew it, or telling us whoppers, only he knows.

What I do know is that Michael brought the war to us in the cab of the Land Rover that afternoon as we drove towards Stanley.  It wasn’t our war.  It wasn’t our country.  It wasn’t us.  It was a cover on Newsweek, a mention in the newspaper, sparse coverage on TV.   And it was so very far away.

 But somehow, in the cab of that Land Rover, the war became personal.



  1. Really enjoying the Journals. You pick such great trips. Thanks on taking me along.

  2. Hi Gully. First, just to say how much I’m enjoying these chronicles (and also, thanks for the penguin footage).

    And now for the comment on this post: A classic example of the pointlessness of people dying to feed the cynical political agendas of two pathological leaders. The post-fighting suicide figures are strikingly similar to what Stars and Stripes published a while back for American personnel after their return from Iraq and Afghanistan – at least as many killing themselves back home as having died in action.

    When will we ever learn?

  3. Yeah, I know. I meant 'sociopath' rather than 'pathological'. Or maybe I meant 'sociopathological'.

  4. I think both Margaret Thatcher and the ruling Argentine military junta were "wagging the dog." Do you now that expression?

  5. Know it too well, Gully. It's the new black as far as all politics go.

  6. I was touched by the military officer .. educated in America .. being between Michael's father and the helicopter .. going and returning .. HOO BOY ! THAT MOVED ME ! I can almost hear his words as he made the offer to Michael's father ..

  7. I barely remember the war. I wasnt that young, but like you said; sparse coverage. I grew up thinking only a couple men died.. never did know what it was about. Thanks