Today, Friday 14 December 2012, marks 100 years since the death of Douglas Mawson’s sledging companion, Lieutenant Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis.
Ninnis was a Lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers, an infantry regiment in the British Army, before he joined Mawson’s 1911–1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition as a minder of the 49 Greenland huskies that would be used for sledging in Antarctica.
Ninnis was part of the three-man sledging team, the ‘Far Eastern Party’, with Douglas Mawson and Xavier Mertz, who headed east on 10 November 1912 to survey King George V Land.
After three weeks of excellent progress the party was crossing a glacier (now known as the Ninnis Glacier), when Ninnis fell through a snow-covered crevasse. Mertz had skied over the crevasse lid, Mawson had been on his sled with his weight dispersed, but Ninnis was jogging beside the second sled and his body weight is likely to have breached the lid.
Six of the best dogs, most of the party’s rations, their tent and other essential supplies disappeared into a massive crevasse 480km east of the main base. Mertz and Mawson spotted one dead and one injured dog on a ledge 46m down, but Ninnis was never seen again. He was 25 years old.
Mawson’s diary recalls their predicament:
“We called and sounded for three hours, then went on a few miles to a hill and took position observations. Came back, called and sounded for an hour. Read the Burial Service.
“Reviewed our position: practically all the food had gone down — spade, pick, tent, Mertz’s burberry trousers and helmet, cups, spoons, mast, sail etc. We had our sleeping bags, a week and a half food, the spare tent without poles, and our private bags and cooker and kerosene. The dogs in my team were very poorly and the worst, and no feed for them. The other team comprised the picked dogs, all dog food, and almost all man food. We considered it a possibility to get through to Winter Quarters by eating dogs, so 9 hours after the accident started back, but terribly handicapped.
“May God Help us.”
Mawson and Mertz continued their journey towards the main base, about 300 miles away, killing and eating dogs as they went. Mertz died on 8 January 1913, possibly of Vitamin A poisoning from eating husky livers. Mawson struggled on, falling through a crevasse at one stage. He reached the main base in early February, only to see the ship Aurora, departing on the horizon. He was forced to remain at Cape Denison for another year, along with six men who had remained behind to look for the sledging party.
Ninnis’ initials can still be seen carved into the side of his bunk at the Main Hut at Cape Denison, in an area of the hut called ‘Hyde Park Corner’.