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The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition of Heroism, Survival, and Adventure

Updated on October 25, 2014

Book Review: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
by Caroline Alexander, Frank Hurley (Photographer)

List Price: $20.96,


This book is not about the military or a branch of service that I belong to, the U.S. Marines. The Endurance is not about the U.S. Naval Service or any other country’s navy either. However, it is about what U.S. Marines represent and strive to emulate. The Endurance is also a book that all military service members should read because of its many lessons. As such, it’s a book that many Armed Forces Journal readers will enjoy and one I highly recommend. It has provided me with a new perspective on our military missions and assisted my career path in areas of moral courage and character development.

Author Caroline Alexander presents the true heroic tale of Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 explorers in a crisp, flowing, and enthralling work. Her book, not to be confused with many others on the same subject, presents a profound tale of heroism, sound leadership, and indeed, endurance, in a hypnotic and memorable fashion.

In August 1914, days before the start of the Great World War, the renowned explorer, Ernest Shackleton, and his crew set sail to claim the last prize of worldly exploration--the first on-foot crossing of the Antarctic continent. Blazing a treacherous path through the daunting waters of the Weddell Sea, they came within 85 miles of their destination when hard icepack left them stranded. Their vessel, Endurance, was ultimately crushed by the massive ice floe. Trapped in the ice pack for nearly 20-months, the men survived with no casualties and a tale worth retelling. They were finally rescued by open boat due primarily to Shackleton’s courage, management, and leadership.

The mesmerizing story of Shackleton’s men who endured sub-zero temperatures, hurricane force winds, and scarce food supplies serve as a template to measure other great human achievements. Combine this rare story with characteristics of survival, optimism, and teamwork and a recipe for success is derived. The most important element of the book, for military readers, is the leadership exhibited by Shackleton throughout the ordeal.

As Marines, we are continually mindful, or should be, of the fourteen Marine Corps Leadership Traits[1]. Think of The Endurance as a case study in the application of the fourteen traits. Additionally, the book provides a fresh look at the traits due to their framing in a non-military environment. Granted, Mr. Shackleton was the leader of an expedition that ensued great risk of life to all (not unlike combat), however, the enemies facing these few men were extreme cold weather, loss of will to live, and insurmountable odds against survival. Shackleton’s men persevered inspite of these challenges and, in my estimation, because of judicious application of the fourteen leadership traits.

It is interesting to see the leadership traits applied in “civilian” settings. The traits are simple to understand, clearly outlined, but difficult at times to apply in everyday life. Regardless, the formula works. As our Commandant has reiterated many times over, our mission as a Marine Corps is to “Fight and win America’s Battles and make Marines[2] (i.e., good citizens).” The Endurance provides a true story that clearly articulates why having Marines among citizenry is good—-Marines bring a pureness of purpose and, simply put, do great things. Such is true of Ernest Shackleton and his 27 charges--although they were not Marines. It is important to note that Marine Corps leadership strategies have found their way into other books as well, Corps Business by David H. Freedman, who applied 30 management principles of the Marine Corps to commercial business settings is but one other example.

An additional attribute readers will enjoy about The Endurance is its numerous pictures and maps. The expedition’s gifted and gritty photographer, Frank Hurley, provides another medium to present the story. His photographic montage provides vivid black and white photos that the Author strategically places throughout the book. These original photos, that also miraculously survived the 20-month winter siege, serve to reconfirm that this story is true and required nothing short of undaunted courage to survive.

To read The Endurance is to take a journey that few, if any, will ever take again. It presents us with the true magnitudes of human achievement and an appreciation for what can be accomplished when one puts the mind to it. We as Marines understand this, but may take it for granted at times. Just as the Marines are “The Few and The Proud”--so was Shackleton’s men, but in a subtly different way. We as Marines should learn from Shackleton and allow his lessons to seep into our tried and true formula of success—and indeed, we will also continue to endure.

[1] The leadership traits are dependability, bearing, courage, decisiveness, endurance, enthusiasm, initiative, integrity, judgement, justice, knowledge, tact, unselfishness, and loyalty.

[2] Jones, James L. General, Commandant’s Guidance, July 1999.

© 2014 J. Scott


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