Towards the end of January in 1916, six men from the Ross Sea Party, with their four sled dogs, reached the Beardmore Glacier, Antarctica. They had been on the ice since September 1915, laying stores for Ernest Shackleton’s attempted crossing of the Antarctic continent. Unbeknown to the party, Shackleton’s ship was crushed in the Weddell Sea and his crossing didn’t ever commence.

The men were exhausted, ill and running out of food. Arnold Spencer-Smith was dying, his body ravaged by scurvy. Aeneas Mackintosh and Victor Hayward also had black gums and blue, swollen limbs as scurvy took hold.

Halfway to the South Pole and 650 kilometres from their base on Ross Island, their companions Ernest Joyce, Ernest Wild, and Dick Richards knew the party had little chance of surviving.

South polar trail Ernest joyce p 30

Ross Sea Party sledging journey from South Polar Trail by Ernest Joyce p. 30

Spencer-Smith had to be carried on a sled, Mackintosh could barely walk and Hayward’s health was failing.  Joyce summed up the situation. “The next enterprise is the long trail back. The dogs are our only hope. Our lives depend on them.”[1]

Con, the lead dog, had been mighty. Resented by the other three dogs for his leader status, he had none the less got the party to their destination. Towser and Gunner had also performed grandly with scarce rations, heavy loads and brutal conditions, but now they were weak and hungry.

The fourth dog Oscar, though, couldn’t be relied on. He was lazy and fractious… “an unlovely specimen, a bit shambly, with a … low criminal-type forehead,” [2]  “extremely unpopular with the other dogs because of his surly ways and dirty habits”[3].

Camp on Great Ross Ice Barrier Keith Jack

 Camp on Great Ross Ice Barrier; H82.45/29

Each day was a desperate battle for survival. In mid-February they were hit by a ferocious blizzard. Trapped in their tents, their rations all but gone, they had to somehow get to their next depot. In Joyce’s words “Our food lies ahead and death stalks behind.”[4]

Joyce, Richards, Hayward and the dogs went out into the raging storm, leaving Wild in the tent to tend to Spencer-Smith and Mackintosh. “The wind was blizzard force…snow whirled everywhere and we staggered in our traces with its force.”[5] Hayward was near collapse, visibility was practically zero and three of the dogs were losing heart. Without the food depot they would all certainly die.

It was at this worst of times that wayward Oscar decided to step up:

In the crisis the massive Oscar just lowered his great head and pulled as he never did when things were going well, he even … tried [to] the bite the heels of the dog ahead of him to make him work….When things were going well he was inclined to be lazy, but….he alone gave that extra little strength that enabled us to finally make the depot.[6]

Perhaps like Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Oscar thought “I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill; Redeeming time when men think least I will.”

They struggled back through the blizzard with food for their companions.

Depot and abandoned sledge Keith Jack

Depot and abandoned sledge;  H82.45/32

On March 9,  just short of Hut Point, Arnold Spencer-Smith died.

Once at Hut Point, in the derelict, icebound shelter built by Scott in 1901, Hayward and Mackintosh recovered.  But after two months, against all advice, they attempted to cross the treacherous sea ice to get to the main hut at Cape Evans and were never seen again.

A few weeks later Towser and Gunner turned on Oscar and savaged him. The men managed to separate the dogs, but Oscar, badly injured, crawled off in the night to find a place to die. The men searched for him but could find no trace. It was a sad end for the dog that had so recently saved the party.

South Polar Trail Ernest JoyceJoyce and Oscar from South Polar Trail by Ernest Joyce (frontispiece)

But Oscar was hard to kill. A week later he was scratching at the door, sore and sorry but itching for a fight.

Finally in July 1916, Wild, Richards and Joyce and the dogs, made the ice crossing to reunite with their four remaining colleagues at Cape Evans.[7]

It was a grim winter. Their ship, Aurora, had been carried away in a storm in May 1915, leaving them marooned. Dick Richards, who had performed so magnificently, collapsed and was an invalid for the remainder of their stay.

Then Con, the fine, intelligent lead dog, was injured in a fight with the other dogs and died, despite tender care from the men.

Ernest Joyce wrote simply: “In spite of all my care the poor fellow died …. Another pal gone. We buried him on the hill.” [8]

Gaze with Gunner; Joyce with Towser, Richards (standing) with Oscar. Keith Jack (standing centre)

Irvine Gaze with Gunner; Joyce with Towser, Richards (standing) with Oscar. Keith Jack (standing centre); H82.45/62

The seven bedraggled survivors of the Ross Sea Party were finally rescued in January 1917. [9]

Ernest Joyce adopted Gunner[10], while Oscar and Towser went to Wellington Zoo.

Oscar didn’t get to enjoy his retirement for long. 18 months later, in June 1918, he collapsed and died. A post mortem showed a diseased liver and enlarged heart, legacy of his hard life in the Antarctic. [11]

Many years later Dick Richards wrote: “None of us who made the southern journey will ever forget those faithful friends of the dog world – Con, Gunner, Oscar and Towser. Without them the party would not have got back.” [12]

Oscar with survivors of the Ross Sea Party. Ernest Shackleton and Captain John King Davis at right

Oscar with survivors of Ross Sea Party – Jack, Stevens, Richards, Wild, Gaze, Joyce and Cope with Ernest Shackleton and Captain John King Davis H82.45/59

And here we are, a century later, remembering the dogs who saved the expedition, particularly Oscar. Lazy? Possibly. Unpopular? Maybe. With surly ways and dirty habits? Probably. But when the men were slowly dying, facing starvation and the insidious creep of scurvy, with three dogs exhausted, in ferocious weather, deep in the Antarctic and 100s of kilometres from safety, when all seemed hopeless, it was Oscar who “lowered his great head and pulled as he never did when things were going well”. [13]

So as winter turns to spring and the days lengthen, let’s look south, raise a glass, and say “Well done Oscar!”


[1] Joyce E.M., 1929, South polar Trail, Duckworth, London, p.138

[2] Tyler-Lewis, Kelly, 2006, The lost men, Viking, New York, p.156

[3] Richards, R.W., 2003, Ross Sea Shore Party 1914-1917, Bluntisham Books, Bluntisham, p.37

[4] Joyce, 1929, p.150

[5] Richards, 2003,  p. 28, 29

[6] Ibid

[7] Other expedition members Keith Jack, John Cope and Irvine Gaze formed a sledging team but were sent back at 80°S when their stove failed.  Alexander Stevens remained at Cape Evans.

[8] Joyce, 1929, pp. 192-3. See also diary entry from expeditioner Keith Jack re Con’s death

[9] Their ship Aurora was carried away in a storm in May 1915 and then trapped in ice for ten months before struggling back to New Zealand. It was refitted and returned to Ross Island under John King Davis, with Ernest Shackleton on board, to rescue the survivors of the Ross Sea Party in January 1917. See also Latrobe Journal article Vol 82, Spring 2008

[10] Tyler-Lewis, 2006, p.249

[11] Dominion (Wellington NZ),  15 June 1918, p. 8

[12] Richards, 2003, p. 23.  Dick Richards, just 21 when he joined the expedition, recovered from his Antarctic ordeal. He went on to become principal of Ballarat’s School of Mines, later retiring to Point Lonsdale, where he died in 1985, at age 91.

[13] Richards, 2003, p. 28,29

This article has 10 comments

  1. This is awesome as dick Richards is my great unlce

    • What a wonderful family connection. Your great uncle was a key member of one of the most epic and gruelling sledging journeys in history and a pioneer of Australia’s connection with Antarctica.

    • Clare Gervasoni

      Hi Bronwyn. I work at Federation University (formerly Ballarat School of Mines) and we are trying to get in contact with Dick’s sons, Brian and Peter. Are you able to make connect with us? You can email me at [email protected]

      Clare Gervasoni
      Curator: Art and Historical Collections

  2. What a wonderful story. The bravery of both the dogs and the men is extraordinary.

  3. A great story, well-written. I suspect what Andrew doesn’t know about Antarctic expeditions isn’t worth knowing.

  4. Thanks Andrew. An entertaining story, well-written and well-researched.

  5. Andrew, this is the stuff that movies are made from!
    I didn’t expect such a great, and as Richard says well researched, article. It gives us all thought, that less than a century ago, people could be out of touch and on the brink of death. Although they were largely unknown adventurers at the time, to the rest of the world, your article among others, helps to ensure they go down in history.

  6. Wonderful story Andrew.
    I found the Shakelton story in an Imax film amazing and aways read anything further I come across.

  7. Catherine Murnane

    A very interesting story. Thanks so much.

  8. Great story Andrew.
    what brave people and dogs they were.
    Dick Richards was originally a Bendigo lad.
    Ballarat seems to claim him these days.

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