Gunner George Porter, RMA: Sledging toward Destiny

by Glenn M. Stein, FRGS


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




Gunner George Porter’s life forever changed when he embarked on HMS Alert on April 16, 1875, soon to be destined for the Frozen Zone. By the last days of May, the Alert, accompanied by HMS Discovery, left familiar shores under the command of Captain George S. Nares (Alert). The expedition explored northwest Greenland and northern Ellesmere Island in the high Arctic, and was equipped for a wide range of scientific studies.

Porter was one of only seven RMA men on this historic voyage, and in fact, he was one of a mere 15 RMA men entitled to either the Arctic Medal 1818-1855 or Arctic Medal 1875-76 for all the 19th century British Arctic expeditions. The marine artillerymen were trained to handle canisters of gunpowder and blast frozen obstructions and craft ice docks for the ships’ winter-quartersberths for the wooden walls of England. Porter was also a member of a giant ice-saw crew, which laboriously cut and moved jigsaw pieces around ice floe puzzles.

In addition, he and his fellow marines were servants to naval officers on the Alert and Discovery (Porter’s master being Lieutenant Pelham Aldrich). Aldrich also knew there were difficult times ahead on the sledging trails, as did Captain Nares, who sledged during the Frankin Search: snowblindness, frostbite blistering the skin, and extreme thirst caused by inhaling cold, dry air and exhailing moisture.

By August 25, the ships reached Discovery Harbour, on the northern side of Lady Franklin Bay, Ellesmere Island, the site chosen for Discovery’s winter quarters. The Alert continued up Robeson Channel, reaching Floeberg Beach at 82º 82’ N – the highest latitude reached by any ship up to that time – and established winter quarters on September 1. Autumn sledge parties established depots northward at Cape Joseph Henry, for extended journeys the following spring.

The New Year started off right for Porter, as he added a second Good Conduct Badge to his service record on January 1, 1876, but it was hardly a portent of things to come for the artilleryman.

In the spring, three major sledging parties (two from Alert and one from Discovery) set out to explore toward the North Pole and along the north coasts of Ellesmere Island and Greenland. On April 3, Lieutenant Aldrich’s Western Sledge Party and Commander Albert H. Markham’s Northern Sledge Party left the ship, along with supporting sleds. Markham’s party was composed of HM Sledges Marco Polo and Victoria (each with a boat). The object of his journey was to attain the highest northern latitude possible, and to determine to possibility of a more fully equipped party reaching the North Pole.

The scene was poignantly described by Markham:

At eleven o’clock, everything being in readiness for a start, all hands assembled on the floe, and prayers were read by [Reverend] Pullen. The hymn, “[Praise] God, from whom all blessings flow,” was then sung, after which the order was given to “fall in,” and amidst the hearty cheers of those few who were left behind, the sledging parties moved off. The captain and officers accompanied us for a short distance, when, wishing us God-speed, they turned to go back. This was a signal for three cheers from the travellers, after which they settled down to their work, and the march was steadily commenced.

After leaving the Alert, Markham described the traveling as “by no means good, snow deep, and the sledges dragging very heavily.” The temperature was 33º below zero, “rendering the task of writing up our journals when we halted extremely unpleasant and painful.” The second day, the temperature plummeted to 45º below zero.

April 10: After marching nine to ten hours every day, Markham wrote, “We experienced heavy work in cutting a road [with pick axe and shovel] through the line of shore hummocks that gird the coast, and did not succeed in reaching the depot [at Cape Joseph Henry] until eleven o’clock.” Here the Northern Sledge Party re-provisioned for six days. The next morning was thick and foggy, to which was added a heavy snowfall. The supporting sledges returned to the ship, and the two extended parties pressed onward: the Northern Sledge Party leaving terra firma and pushing straight out onto the rugged polar pack, while the Western Sledge Party continued exploration of Ellesmere’s coast to the westward. Markham’s sledges Marco Polo, Victoria and Support weighed a total of 6,079 lbs – 15 men were dragging a staggering 405 lbs per man – which offers some appreciation of the effort it took to get through the snow and over hummocks of ice as high as 30 feet or more.

By April 14, one of the men complained of “pain in his ankle and knee, both of which exhibited slight symptoms of puffiness”. Two days later, he was unable to walk and was obliged to be put on a sledge, adding to the burden of his mates. The temperature was 30º below zero, and “all unanimously came to the conclusion that it was the most wretched and miserable Easter Sunday that any one of us has ever passed.” Doubtless this was especially true for George Porter, who began complaining of stiff knees, which were treated by rubbing them with turpentine liniment.

The next day, “George Porter (Gunner, R.M.A.), one of the “Victoria’s” crew, was rendered hors de combat, his knees being very much swelled, and is suffering a good deal of pain.” Unable to walk any further, after lunch, Porter is carried on the sledge. “The travelling has been rough and heavy. The “Victoria” capsized, but was quickly righted without damage to either sledge or boat, and without even giving the invalid, who was securely wrapped up inside the boat, a shaking.”

April 19: Markham decided to abandon the 20-foot iceboat, as the smaller boat will suffice, if needed, for ferrying men and equipment from one floe to another.

The men also appear much distressed at the conclusion of a day’s work. Yesterday, after toiling for 10 marching hours, we only advanced 1 mile, and this with no road-making. Lightening our load by 800 lbs. will enable me to husband their strength a little.”

It is painful to witness the efforts of the poor fellows, whilst they are dragging, endeavouring to shield their faces from the cold, all scarified and scabby, lips sore and tips of the fingers senseless from frost-bite - yet they are all cheerful and happy enough.

Beyond, “The hummocks appeared interminable”... a labyrinth of piled-up masses of ice. The sea of hummocks included one that measured, from base to summit, just over 43 feet in height.

By the end of the month, more men were sick and Markham lamented, “Our invalids exhibit no signs of improvement… Men thoroughly fatigued. They would frequently drop off to sleep when halted only for a few minutes.” “Heavy hummocks, deep snow, and thick weather render our progress slow.” The Victoria, with her boat and Porter inside, capsize again, but fortunately he is uninjured from the mishap.

The first day of May brought a grim realization: “Porter’s symptoms appear to be scorbutic, his teeth are loose and gums sore, and his legs covered with a rash and discoloured in patches about the knee.” The next day, Markham wrote, “The invalids are not improving, and we are inclined to believe that they are all attacked with scurvy… Porter complains of great weakness, giddiness, and sickness of the stomach… Our strength is rapidly decreasing.”

Out of 15 men, one-third of Markham’s force were invalids, and more of the men began complaining of stiffness and pain in their legs – scurvy was slowly destroying the Northern Sledge Party.

The interiors of our tents of an evening have more the appearance of hospitals than the habitations of strong workingmen. In addition to the “cripples”, four men belonging to the “Marco Polo” are suffering from snow blindness.

Amazingly, in spite of the sled party’s pitiful condition, scientific work was carried out on May 11. After burrowing 64 inches through the ice for three hours, a 100-fathom line is cast down into the water, to a depth of 72 fathoms. A specimen of bottom sediment is collected and carefully preserved in a bottle for conveyance to the Alert.

At noon on May 12,

we obtained a good altitude, and proclaimed our latitude to be 83º 20’26” N., exactly 399 1/2 miles from the North Pole. On this being duly announced three cheers were given with one more for Captain Nares, then the whole party, in the exuberance of their spirits at having reached their turning point, sang the “Union Jack of Old England,” the “Grand Palæocrystic Sledging Chorus” winding up like loyal subjects with “God Save the Queen.”. . .A magnum of whisky that had been sent by the Dean of Dundee for the express purpose of being consumed in the highest northern latitude, was produced, and a glass of grog served out to all.

All seemed happy, cheerful, and contented, “but the men were now in a race for their lives”. Cracks appeared in the ice, floes began to shift and the traveling was very rough. “All of the party are more or less suffering from stiffness and aching bones.”

Toward the end of the month,

The other boat was abandoned, and along with it, the greater part of the ammunition, several spirit cans and 170 lbs. of pemmican, in an effort to move faster, but “we had 1,800 lbs. on the large sledge, whilst the two others were loaded to about 800 lbs. each.” The party encountered patches of dangerous young ice, only three to four inches thick, along with strong gales, thick fog, falling snow and dense drifts.

And by the second day of June,

Five men are carried on the sledges, and four can just manage to crawl after. Our routine is first to advance the heavy sledge, which is dragged by the whole available party, namely eight; then return and bring up the other two sledges, single banked, four dragging each.

The invalids steadily worsened and Porter could eat scarcely anything, and appears to be getting weaker, though up to the present time he has been able to help himself better than the others who have to be carried, and his pulse is still strong; today [June 5] he complains of not being able to lie on his left side, as it affects the action of the heart.

Two days later,

All hands appear very stiff and in pain… We are pulling 220 lbs. per man, and, as the snow is very deep, we find it hard work. Porter is very low, and is undoubtedly in a very precarious state, having been attacked last night by several very violent fits of coughing and retching, which strained him severely.

Markham and his men were quickly running out of time. At the rate they were traveling, it would take another three weeks to reach the Alert – only 30 miles distant.

June 8, 1876:

Poor Porter is no more! After halting last night he was placed as usual in his tent, where I visited him before supper. He said, in answer to my inquiry, that he was easy and comfortable, and appeared to be more cheerful and talkative. Before I had quite finished my supper, I was called in haste to his tent, where I found him suffering from a spasmodic attack of some nature, and quite unconscious: this was about 8 o’clock (A.M.).

He was revived by having his nostrils bathed with spirit of ammonia, and then a little rum, slightly diluted with water, was given him, when he regained consciousness. His breathing was short and torturous; he complained very much of difficulty in breathing, and appeared to be sinking fast. Two hours after he had a similar attack and was again brought round by the same means; but he seemed to be much exhausted, although between the two attacks he had enjoyed a short doze.

After this he sank rapidly, and expired, with my finger on his pulse, at 10 minutes past 12 (noon). He was sensible to within a few minutes of his death, and his end was calm and quiet. This is a sad calamity, although we were not totally unprepared for it, and I fear the depressing morale effect that this lamentable event will have on those who are very sick, and who consider themselves to be in nearly as precarious a condition.

With the ensign half-mast, and the Union Jack as a pall, the funeral procession, attended by all but the four very bad cases, started at 9, and the burial-service being read, the remains were consigned to their last icy resting-place in this world. Improvising a rude cross, formed with a boat’s oar and a spare sledge-batten, it was placed at the head of the grave, with the following inscription: ”Beneath this cross lie buried the remains of Geo. Porter, R.M.A., who died on June 8th, 1876. Thy will be done.”

Of all the melancholy and mournful duties I have ever been called to perform, this has been the saddest. A death in a small party like ours, and under the present circumstances, is a most distressing event, and is keenly felt by all. During the service all were more or less affected, and many to tears.

The next day brought an unusual sight – a rainbow. The party started at 9 p.m. with all eyes eagerly directed to the southward, the quarter from which were are anxiously expecting succour. We had advanced the heavy sledge one stage, and had just returned to drag up the two smaller ones, when something moving between the hummocks was espied, which from its rapid motion was soon made out to be the dog-sledge. Hoisted colours. The men appeared quite carried away by their feelings, and it was with difficulty they could muster up a cheer as [Lieutenant] May and [Surgeon] Moss arrived and shook us heartily by the hands.

The 15 men in the Northern Sledge Party were absent from the ship for 72 days, with only Markham and three others were capable of walking, the rest had to be carried by sledge back to the Alert. Wrote Surgeon Moss, “It was difficult to recognize any of the men, their faces were so swollen and peeled, and their voices so changed.”

Aldrich’s Western Sledge Party and sledgers from the Discovery faced similar agonies. During the expedition four men lost their lives to disease and the elements, and scurvy was eating away at many of their shipmates.

Though he was expected to stay in the Arctic until 1877, Nares realized his people could not survive another winter, so they prepared to head for home – leaving behind four souls as mute testimony to man’s failed effort to rule this quadrant of the globe. Porter Bay, an arm of the sea on Ellesmere’s northern coast, afterwards became the geographic memorial to an artilleryman’s service in the white desert.



Acknowledgements: Philip Attwood; Naomi Boneham: Joe Cussen; Dr H.J.G. Dartnall; Dix Noonan Webb ; Dr G.P. Dyer; Gillian Hughes; Peter John; A.J. Lane; Richard Noyce; Luisa Retamales; David J. Scheeres.

© Glenn ‘Marty’ Stein, FRGS, 2010. Glenn is a historian and writer. His objective is to preserve the memories of those who would otherwise be forgotten. Stein was the website Polar Historian for the International Polar Year 2007–08 (Certificate of Appreciation), and was awarded the Journal Prize for 2008–09 by the Orders and Medals Research Society of Great Britain. He lives in Florida, USA.




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