One of only two men to ever be awarded the Polar Medal with four bars, Frank Wild was a giant of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He went South on five expeditions: once under Scott and Mawson and three times under Shackleton, eventually completing the Quest expedition after the death of the Boss. No serious aficionado of polar history doubts the significance of Wild’s contribution, so it’s something of a mystery that until now his memoirs have remained unpublished.
What little we know of Wild’s life after Quest seems to indicate that it was all downhill. If we believe contemporary newspaper accounts, Wild returned to southern Africa, tumbling from one failed farming project to another, taking dead-end jobs in hotel bars, scraping a living out of mining and railway projects. For decades the world, if it has noticed at all, has seen post-Antarctica Wild as a broken alcoholic who died in penury, the whereabouts of his remains unknown.
Sensing an injustice to the man, Butler sets out to find the real story behind the reports. She finds out that her instincts are good, but only to a point. Wild’s is a sad tale, but one with an unexpected outcome. In the process of metaphorically looking for the man, Butler, on her seventh visit to South Africa, finds his ashes. We probably all join her in the hope that they will one day be taken to Antarctica.
While it’s fascinating to see Butler’s spirited defence of Wild, her biographical sketch is really the curtain raiser for his previously unpublished memoirs. It seems inconceivable that it has taken so long for them to come to light, but the wait was worth it. It’s a shame that the memoirs were never finished, cut off abruptly with a cliff-hanging tale of life on Elephant Island during the Endurance expedition. At least that chapter in Wild’s life has a happy ending.
The Quest for Frank Wild, by Angie Butler, Jackleberry Press, pp214, £25