Filchner of the Antarctic, 1877-1957

We are now in the centenary year the race to the south pole.  That story is too well known for this blog; enough to say that Amundsen got the gold, Scott the silver. Less well known are the other two polar expeditions of 1912.  There was a Japanese expedition headed by Nobu Shirase.

Then there was Wilhelm Filchner.

If Amundsen had a smooth time, Scott a dreadful time, Filchner lay somewhere in the middle, tending towards the really bad: bedevilled by climate, clashing personalities, sabotage, suicide, death, a proposed duel – the Antarctic is a harsh testing ground.   

He was born in Bayreuth in 1877 and got itchy feat at a young age.  Certainly he was a known quantity in the heroic explorer game, having at age twenty one joined an expedition to Russia.  At twenty three, Filchner was trekking through the Pamir mountains of Central Asia.  In 1903 -1905 he entered Tibet, some thirty years before Heinrich Harrer began his seven years in that country. The lure of the cold seemed to be with him and he took on the task of a German expedition to the Antarctic.

The German’s had been there before (1901 – 1903) with geology professor Erich von Drygalski.  Von Drygalski had been trapped in ice for fourteen months and perhaps for that reason was done with the area, but he encouraged Filchner to have a go.   Money was a problem, as it tends to be in these affairs.  Ideally Filchner would have liked to have had the Kaiser put his imprimatur on the expedition; heavy purses tend to follow royal trends.  Wilhelm, however, had a vision of Count von Zeppelin taking an air trip over the polar cap and suggested that Filchner hold off at least until the Count was down.  Filchner refused, and, monarchy being not so absolute as it once had been, Wilhelm could do nothing but storm out of the room, leaving Filchner to dangle.

You can’t keep a good explorer down. In short order had lined up other backers, principally in Bavaria.  His goal was not adventure – anyone can plant a flag – but instead to serve the cause of serious science. He planned to take oceanographic measurements of the South Atlantic and meteorological and magnetic measurements of the Southern continent.

The chief task, however, was  to  determine once and for all whether the polar cap was a single land mass or a variety of of islands.  Where did ice shelves begin and end?  Filchner had it in mind to arrange a twin expedition, one half crossing from Weddell sea and the Ross sea, the other from the opposite direction.

Weak German financing precluded that scenario, though he thought it might be possible to interest other nations in a co-venture.  In the happy days before the first world war, the good German did in fact meet up in London with Captain Robert Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton to discuss their twin goals.   So convinced were they that they would pull this off side by side that Scott’s last words to Filchner as the Englishman was setting off to rendezvous with his crew in New Zealand, “see you in Antarctica!”

In the event, they would never see each other again

If this was to be a disappointment, it was only the first of many.   Provisions were not a problem. With Bavarian backers, Filchner managed to gather a seven member scientific crew,  seventy five Greenland sled dogs, eight meat eating Manchuria ponies, two motor sleds, and crates and crates of scientific equipment.  The ship, the Deutchsland, was solid, the timing good.

The problem was one of personality.  The commander of the Deutschland was a Captain Richard Vahsal, who had been second officer of the first German Antarctic expedition.  The power of absolute command went to his head, it seems and was impolitic enough to state publicly that he could clap Filchner himself in irons if he felt so inclined.  Perhaps it was the secondary syphilis talking, but such comments did not go down well with the rather humorless Filchner.

Real trouble began once the ship reached the polar regions in late fall of 1911. They suffered a rough crossing of the South Georgia sea.  They lost their third officer Walter Slossarczyk in an apparent suicide.  On December 11, they ran into ice fields.  On January 28, 1912, the pack ice cleared and land was seen in the distance, which they named for their patron, Prinze Regent Luitpold.

Filchner was keen to get on shore and get on with his investigations. Captain Vahsel delayed, claiming safety concerns in getting the Deutschland too close to shore.  Come February, he finally agreed to set them off on an ice shelf, assuring Filchner that the place he chose had been vetted by the ship’s resident expert on ice formation.

No truth in that claim.  In fact the ice expert had made no such recommendation, indeed, had never discussed the matter with Vahsel at all.  Indeed, he said that the chosen site was in no way part of the Antarctic mainland.  Which fact was soon confirmed when, a little over a week after they had set up camp, a spring tidal surge had lifted the ice, which broke off “as if a dozen cannon were fired simultaneously”.

Filchner’s camp was now free floating, no longer attached of the continent, and useless  to anyone.  It took two days to salvage what they could and return equipment by lifeboat back to the Deutschland.  The sea itself was so clogged with ice that pushing inland was out of the question.

So much for science, so much for expedition, at least for that season.

But if Vahsel thought they would get out of the area early, he was mistaken.  The long dark cold winter had begun.  On March 15, the sea hardened and the Deutschland was trapped and would drift for the next eight months.    By April, captain and exsporer were not speaking and the crew had split into two camps, those loyal to the captain, those to Filchner.  Fearing for his life and wanting something to do, Filchner embarked on a short sledding trip in June simply  to get away from the ship and to try to salvage some pieces of scientific value (specifically, to disprove the existence of Morrell Land). It was either desperation or foolhardiness and although the mini-expedition was navigated by Alfred Kling, his only ally among the ship’s officers, they were in serious danger of not making it back at all – the ship had, in their three week absence, drifted some 38 miles, and it was a matter of some luck that they could see the ship’s masts in the distance.

By August, Vahsel was  dead, victim of pericardial  effusion and syphilis.  This might have simplified matters, had not the first mate unilaterally Lorenzen declared himself the new commander, effectively on the same terms as the previous commander. A split between those loyal to him and those loyal to Filchner.  Filchner wrote in his diary that he locked his door and carried a loaded gun in fear for his life.  On the mariners’ side, the navigation officer, a teetotaler, was put in charge of liquor locker which he eventually had to defend at gun point, no doubt preventing bad from going to worse.

It was another three months before the ice had loosed sufficiently that the Deutschland could exit the area.  The arrival at Grytkien, the closest outpost of civilization, brought no end to recriminations. A fight broke out and was put down by the British local chief of police. For his part, Lorenzen broke down and admitted he’d been excessive.  His excuse: “I was crazy.”

Filchner wasn’t much better.  While on the return leg, he had challenged the navigation officer to a duel, which proposition was postponed until they could get back to land where he was persuaded to drop the matter.

None of this  made it into the official record.  Once the ordeal was over, all agreed that the less noble aspects of this trip were best kept to themselves. Scientists and seamen all left on separate ships and there was nothing left but the accounting. Filchner wrote a stiff account of the tale, leaving out all the lurid details that were preserved in his diaries.

(The still healthy Manchurian horses were, happily, released on South Georgia Island, allowing them to run wild on the Hestesletten (Horse Plain). The descendants of these horses remained on the island for decades.)

Filchner never returned to the Antarctic, or indeed to sea again.  Instead, after service in the First World War on the Western Front and later, ironically, Naval Intelligence, he was off the mountains, Tibet and Nepal by preference, for which work he was awarded Nationalpreis fur Kunst und Wissenschaft (Hitler’s answer to the Nobel prize which he felt had been tainted by being awarded to Jews). In 1939 he was involved in geomagnetic work in Nepal when he contracted malaria.  Closest treatment was in British held India where he was interned for the duration, albeit with considerable freedom of movement.

He remained in India until ill health prompted his moving to Switzerland in 1949 where he died in 1957.  The Filchner Ice Shelf is named after him.  In some irony, some claim it will not survive the twenty first century.


Post Script

I take a special interest in this matter as my great- uncle,  Captain Johannes Müller (1885-1943),  was the navigation officer on this expedition (not to be confused, as some accounts have, with his father and namesake the zoologist).  Besides daily checking of how the ship’s hull was dealing with the pack ice and keeping thirsty crew members out of the liquor closet, he taught a class in navigation to anyone who was interested.  On returning to Germany, he wrote a brief account of the matter, served in the Kriegsmarine (WWI), then continued his long maritime career with North German Lloyd,  co-wrote the standard text for ship’s officers in German (first published before this expedition and still in print).  Recalled to the navy at the start of the second war, he was in hospital for a heart condition in late 1943 when he learned that he was on the list of officers to be arrested for anti-Nazi activity.  Seeing the inevitable consequences of this,  he took his own life.  His sister, my naturalized American grandmother, learned of it though the New York Times of all places.  His photographs and personal papers concerning the voyage were stored along with official records of the city of Hamburg in what was to become the Russian zone.

Hamburg got her records back some time in the 1980’s. JM’s are presumably somewhere in Russia to this day.  If anyone is able to get access to them, the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg would love to hear from you.  As, of course, would I.


Filchner, Wilhelm: Ein Forscherleben. Wiesbaden 1950

Zum sechsten Erdteil. Die zweite deutsche Südpolar-Expedition. Berlin 1923

To the Sixth Continent: The Second German South Polar Expedition, 1911-1913. Translated and edited by William Barr, 1994

A Scientist in Tartary: From the Hoang-ho to the Indus, London, 1939

Kirschmer, G., 1985, Dokumentation über die Antarktisexpedition 1911/12 von Wilhelm Filchner. Deutsche Geodätische Kommission, vol. E 23, München,

Müller, Johannes, Etwas vom Südpol:  Einiges aus der Geschichte der Südpolarforschung, unter besonderer Beriicksichtigung der letzten deutschen antarktischen Expedition und ihrer Navigation (Berlin, 1914).

4 thoughts on “Filchner of the Antarctic, 1877-1957

  1. Very interesting! My great grand father, Eugen Panofsky (1855-19220), was the “treasurer” of this expedition and I read the sanitized expedition account (Filchner’s I gather) translated into English a number of years ago and found your version more interesting! Thanks.

    David Panofsky

  2. Pingback: Wilhelm Filchner - Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions

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