The Zoology Museum

Captain Leslie Russell Blake MC and the Aberdeen University penguin egg

Late in the summer of 2004, towards the end of the harvest, I stood at the foot of the grave of a young Australian soldier who was killed on the Somme battlefield just four short weeks before the end of the Great War.

The soldier was only 28 years old when he died but his achievements before and during the war had been great. I was at the end of a journey that had started six months earlier in Scotland, in the storeroom of the Zoology Museum at Aberdeen University.

That day, whilst exploring the contents of a rather dusty cupboard, I came across a single egg of the royal penguin Eudyptes schlegeli. The egg had been collected on Macquarie Island, the only place in the world where royal penguins breed, and written on it in old black ink were the enigmatic letters AAE, the initials L.R.B. and the date 20-1012.. With a degree of research, using the astonishing power of the Internet, I quickly learned that the egg had been collected on one of the series of epic Antarctic expeditions that took place in the opening years of the 20th century. I even knew the name of the man who had collected it!

Royal penguin egg
Photograph: Martyn L Gorman

The full story of the egg as published in the journal Current Biology in May 2005 can be read below. You can also download the paper as a pdf file; this will open in a new window.

Captain Leslie Russell Blake MC Polar Medal and the tale of Aberdeen University's Penguin Egg.

I write for those whose men, dead in battle, now rest there, where they gave their lives. I write for those who may never be able to go to France or Belgium. I have just seen the first finished cemetery, and it is the most perfect, the noblest, the most classically beautiful memorial that any loving heart or any proud nation could desire to their heroes fallen in a foreign land.

Your own man has a wonderful grave, the nation has a wonderful monument.

Picture this strangely stirring place. A lawn enclosed of close-clipped turf, banded across with line on line of flowers, and linked by these bands of flowers, uncrowded, at stately intervals, standing in soldierly ranks the white headstones. Every one is set apart in flowers, every one casts its shade upon a gracious space of green.

It is the simplest place, it is the grandest place I ever saw. It is filled with an atmosphere that leaves you very humble, that gives you wonderful thoughts.

Lieut. -Gen. Sir Robert Pulteney wrote this evocative description of a British War Cemetery in the Ypres salient in the early 1920s [1]. Late last summer, towards the end of the harvest, I stood in a similar place; at the foot of the grave of a young Australian soldier who was killed on the Somme battlefield just four short weeks before the end of the Great War. The soldier was only 28 years old when he died but his achievements before and during the war had been great.

I was at the end of a journey that had started six months earlier in Scotland, in the storeroom of the Zoology Museum at Aberdeen University, where I am the honorary curator.

That day, whilst exploring the contents of a rather dusty cupboard, I came across a single egg of the royal penguin Eudyptes schlegeli. The egg had been collected on Macquarie Island, the only place in the world where royal penguins breed, and written on it in old black ink were the enigmatic letters AAE, the initials L.R.B. and the date 20.10.12. With a degree of research, using the astonishing power of the Internet, I quickly learned that the egg had been collected on one of the series of epic Antarctic expeditions that took place in the opening years of the 20th century. I even knew the name of the man who had collected it!

Royal penguin egg
© Martyn L Gorman

After Shackleton's heroic but failed attempt to reach the South Pole in 1908, the world waited in expectation as Scott and Amundsen made their plans to win glory and the race to 90°S. In 1911, as the two rival parties went about setting up their bases and logistic support, the Australian geologist Sir Douglas Mawson was quietly organizing an Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). With men mainly recruited from the Australian and New Zealand universities, the main aim of the expedition was to chart the 2000 miles of unexplored Antarctic coastline that lay between Cape Adare, to the south of New Zealand, and Gauss Berg, south of the Indian Ocean. The expedition vessel, the Aurora, was purchased from the Newfoundland sealing fleet. She was an old but immensely strong whaling boat that had been built, for polar conditions, in Dundee in Scotland.
Reaching the South Pole did not figure at all in Mawson’s plans for the 1911-14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Instead, his chief objective was the thorough scientific exploration of a stretch of essentially unknown Antarctic coastline and of Macquarie Island, a sub-Antarctic island that lies some 850 miles south-south-east of Hobart, Tasmania.

The Aurora in Dundee harbour 1890s. © Arbroath Herald

A party of 5 men was landed on Macquarie, together with a hut and stores, on the 22nd of October 1911 with the primary objective of establishing a radio station to relay messages between Antarctica and Australia. The five team members were G. F. Ainsworth, Leader and Meteorologist; H. Hamilton, Biologist; C. A. Sandell Mechanic and Wireless Operator; A. J. Sawyer, Wireless Operator; and Leslie R. Blake, Cartographer and Geologist, the L.R.B who collected our egg on the 20th of October in 1912.

Map showing the positionof Macquarie island

The rest of the expedition then moved on to the Antarctic mainland where small parties of men were to set out on separate journeys of exploration. Mawson's The Home of the Blizzard [2] is a classic account of his own epic trek around Commonwealth Bay in eastern Antarctica, following the loss of a sledge carrying the tent, most of the food and spare clothing and the death of his two mates. His descriptions of drinking the last of his dog soup (and other culinary delights) bring tears to the eyes! He finally made it back, on foot, to his hut, but had to wait a further year before he could be rescued.

Back on Macquarie Island the prefabricated hut was erected within a week and the wireless station was quickly set up and radio communication with the outside world was established for the first time on February 13th 1912. The scientists in the party were then able to start their own work, that of studying the meteorology, biology, geology and geography of the island.

Blake’s main contribution, appropriately for a geologist and cartographer on leave from the Geological Survey Department of Brisbane, was the mapping of the island and a description of its geology. This involved the collection of a host of rock specimens, and a topographical survey by land and sea (in a tiny dinghy) of the whole rugged 170km2 island, a task that Blake carried out with consummate skill. Ably assisted by the party’s biologist, Harold Hamilton, he set out a survey baseline on the northern plateau on the 17th of January 1912 and then set up sighting poles on all of the prominent features to allow a topographic triangulation of the entire island. This resulted in the production of a detailed map with contours at 200-foot intervals for the whole island and at 50-foot intervals for the northern half. Blake, born in 1890, had just three years of experience under his belt as a field surveyor when he was appointed to the expedition, and yet his 1911-13 survey of Macquarie Island produced maps that are in many ways as accurate as, or better than those produced in the 1970s [3] [4]. The maps and the geological report on the island were deposited with Sir Douglas Mawson who subsequently published them [2] [5].

From: Scientific Reports of the Australiasia Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914
Series A, Volume 5 - Macquarie Island, Its Geography and Geology

Given the difficult conditions and limited facilities on Macquarie in 1911 [2] Blake's map-making achievements are quite remarkable. When away from base camp food was at a premium and was supplemented by egg collecting and by hunting, particularly the admirably tame weka or Maori hen Gallirallus australis which had been introduced some 25 years earlier. When away from the base camp, shelter was taken in sealers’ huts or in sea caves, the average annual temperature was less than 5oC and there was mist, rain, sleet or snow, often all of them, on over 300 days in the year, which must have made surveying and observations extraordinarily difficult.
The position of Macquarie Island midway between Australia and Antarctica meant that a detailed study of its biology was a primary objective. In particular it was hoped that an investigation of the marine and terrestrial fauna and flora would lead to an insight into the supposed connection, in the remote past, of the great land masses of the southern continents that was so strongly suggested by the distribution of living and fossil organisms. This, remember, was a time long before continental drift was to become an accepted fact.

The collection of biological material and data was Hamilton’s primary responsibility but he was often accompanied and assisted by Blake. Ainsworth, the leader of the Macquarie party, in describing events on Macquarie, in a chapter in Mawson’s book [2], wrote “Hamilton and Blake were busy at Lusitania Bay during the first 2 weeks of October securing sea elephant specimens and collecting eggs. Hamilton returned on the 21st but Blake stayed on.” It must have been during this foray that Blake collected the egg that I was to re-discover in Aberdeen over 90 years later.

Blake labeled the egg “Royal Penguin, C. schlegeli”. The species is now called Eudyptes schlegeli (Eudyptes means good diver and schlegeli refers to Professor H. Schlegli after whom the penguin is named) but in Blake’s time it was known as Chrysolophus schlegeli.

Royal penguins breed only on Macquarie Island where they nest in large colonies, the largest, at Hurd Point, containing over 500,000 birds. Royals are migratory birds and outwith the breeding season they spend their time in the southern seas between Australia and Antarctica feeding on krill, squid and fish. The breeding season starts with the male birds coming ashore in September to build their nests of stones among the tussock grass. The females arrive a couple of weeks later and after a period of courtship two eggs are laid towards the end of October, but the first is small and is discarded and only the second is incubated. [6] [7]

Royal penguins are now fully protected, with a world population of around 850,000 birds, but at the end of the 19th century they were, together with elephant seals, the victims of a lucrative oil industry. In Blake’s time at least 150,00 birds were being killed annually for their oil.

Blake's own photographs of royal penguins still exist, as do photographs of Blake himself, taken, in the southern summer of 1913 on the way south to Antarctica, by J. Frank Hurley the official expedition photographer. Hurley, a photographer of consummate brilliance, was later to accompany Sir Ernest Shackleton on his epic but ill-fated 1915 expedition on the Endeavour and was to meet up with Blake again in the next, tragic phase of his life.



Royal penguins, nest and eggs. Photograph by Leslie Blake. © Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Australia.

Leslie Blake photographed aboard the Aurora in Antarctic waters, by Frank Hurley, Christmas, 1913. © Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Australia.

After Blake had visited the Antarctic mainland during the final cruise of the Aurora in the summer of 1913-14 he returned, with his Polar Medal, to carry out geological work in the goldfields of Queensland. At Mawson’s request he continued to work on his Macquarie data and maps for the expedition reports but this was soon disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. Perhaps out of patriotism, or simply eager for further adventure after the AAE, Blake immediately volunteered for the army but, initially, he was turned down on medical grounds. Following a spell of hospital treatment he was eventually allowed to enlist as a gunner in the artillery, in August 1915 at Gympie, Queensland. Not surprisingly, the army soon recognized Blake’s qualities and he had been promoted to sergeant by November of the same year. He briefly served in the Middle East, landing at Suez in December 1915, but mainly on the Western Front in France and Flanders, disembarking at Marseilles on the 25th of March 1916 as a newly commissioned second lieutenant.

Blake had what used to be called a “good war”. The edition of the London Gazette published on November 25th 1916 announced that Lieutenant Leslie Russell Blake of the Field Artillery, Australian Imperial Force had been awarded the Military Cross. The award was for conspicuous and continual gallantry in the field, around Pozières during the great Somme offensive. Under heavy fire, Blake had used his special skills to full advantage by making a detailed survey of the line held by the Allies from Pozières to Monquet farm. This information, obtained under heavy fire, was vital for ensuring the relative safety of friendly soldiers during the forthcoming barrage against the German positions. After receiving his medal from the hands of King George at Buckingham Palace, Blake sent it back to Australia, to Eileen Elliot to whom he had become engaged just before going off to war.

Blake was also Mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatch of November 13 1916, for distinguished and gallant services and for devotion to duty.

By July 1917 he was attached to the 105th Battery (4.5 inch Howitzers) and took part in the third Battle of Ypres, in Flanders, along with almost the whole of the artillery of the Australian Imperial Force, which suffered severely. Whilst at Ypres Blake was photographed by his old friend from the AAE, Frank Hurley, now an official war photographer.

Leslie Blake inspecting the effect of a 9.2-inch British shell on a German reinforced concrete dugout on Hill 60 (Ypres), Menin Road Area. The dugout was about ten feet below the surface of the ground, and its roof and walls were over two feet thick. Photograph by an unknown photographer and dated August 1917. © Australian War Museum.

 

An interior view of the dugout occupied by officers of the 105th Howitzer Battery at Hill 60. Left to right: Captain Leslie Russell Blake; Lieutenant D. B. Ikin; Major H. N. Morris, Officer Commanding. Photograph by Frank Hurley and dated August 1917. © Australian War Museum.

Blake was wounded on a number of occasions, most seriously in September 1917 when a fragment from a High Explosive shell so badly damaged the tendons and bone of his right arm that he was evacuated to hospital in England.

He rejoined the Brigade in February 1918 and was promoted to the rank of Captain on the 13th of May. Towards the end of August he enjoyed a period leave in France, returning to the front on the 15th of September. He then had just a few days left to live.

In 1917 the Germans had retreated to behind the Hindenburg Line, or the Siegfried Stellung as they called it, a vast system of formidable defences in Northern France built during the winter of 1916-17. It ran from the area around Arras all the way to beyond St Quentin, and consisted of deep and wide trenches, thick belts of barbed wire, concrete machine-gun positions, concrete bunkers, tunnels and command posts. It was considered virtually impregnable but was successfully attacked and broken by the Allies in late 1918 after which the Germans began to talk seriously of peace.

On October 2nd 1918 with the offensive very nearly over, Blake found himself in action at Hargicourt, near to the Hindenburg line, between the villages of Nauroy and Estrées on the Somme. Blake was on horseback, directing ammunition wagons and guns to their laying positions, when he was hit by a shell, which blew off his leg and killed his horse from under him. He was still alive when taken to the 58th Casualty Clearing Centre, but most grievously wounded; his left leg was amputated above the knee, he had shell wounds to the face, a fractured skull and multiple wounds to the left thigh and he died about 6.10 am on the following day. He was buried in the Military Cemetery, (New British Cemetery) at Tincourt.

Tincourt cemetery 1918

As I stood in Tincourt Cemetery last summer, and laid the red poppy that I had brought from Scotland for Leslie Blake, I was reminded of an epitaph that I had read on another Australian headstone in another Somme cemetery. It read simply, What a Bloody Waste.

Tincourt cemetery 2004

Blake's grave

How Blake’s penguin egg came to be in Aberdeen we have no idea but we value it very greatly indeed as a memento of an extra-ordinary man who, in his short life, was an outstanding explorer and scientist and a heroic soldier who, like so many of his comrades, was brutally killed long before his due time.

References

1. Pulteney, W. and Brice, B. (1925). The immortal salient: an historical record and complete guide for pilgrims to Ypres. (Published for the Ypres League by John Murray, London).

2. Mawson, D. (1915). The Home of the Blizzard. (William Heinemann, London).

3. Dartnall, H. J. G., Ward, N., Selkirk, P. M., Adamson, D. A. and Pharaoh, M. (2001). The influence of L R Blake, pioneering sub-Antarctic geographer and geologist, on the topographic mapping of Macquarie Island. Polar Record. 201: 143-150.

4. Selkirk, P. M. and Adamason, D.A. (1995). Mapping Macquarie Island. The Globe. 41:53-67.

5. Mawson, D. (1943). Macquarie Island - Geography Scientific Reports Series A; Government Printers Office, NSW.

6. Williams, T. (1995). The Penguins. (Oxford University Press, New York).

7. Lloyd S. and Renner, M. (2003). Penguins (Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut).