For a century, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis have been remembered simply as the two men who left on the Far Eastern Journey with Douglas Mawson during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE, 1911–14), but, tragically, did not return. Ninnis died by falling down a crevasse in December 1912, and, a little more than three weeks later, Mertz died during a desperate effort to reach the base at Commonwealth Bay, leaving Mawson to continue alone on what became one of the greatest stories ever of Antarctic survival (Riffenburgh 2011). Sadly, not a great deal more than this has been widely known about Ninnis or Mertz, despite the latter being the sole member of the expedition not representing the British Empire, as well as the first Swiss to winter in the Antarctic. This omission has now been remedied by this valuable production of Mertz's journals.
Mertz was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1882, and became an accomplished mountaineer, a ski champion, and a successful lawyer who helped run the family's manufacturing business. In 1911 he applied to join the AAE. He was accepted and placed jointly with Ninnis, a lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers, in care of the expedition's dogs. The two were the only members of the Antarctic land party to make the long voyage from Britain to Tasmania on the expedition ship Aurora, during which they became fast friends; Ninnis began more and more to look up to and model himself after his older and more-experienced comrade. The two continued in charge of the dogs, including breaking them in for sledging, when the expedition's main base was established at Cape Denison, which, unfortunately for those working outside, proved to be the windiest place on Earth (Wendler and others 1997).
The longest of the planned sledging journeys was to be made by the Far Eastern Party: Mawson, Ninnis, Mertz, and 17 dogs. The goal was to race over the Plateau, going some 350 miles to Oates Land, an area discovered from Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova in 1911, thereby linking the AAE's discoveries with those made previously. The party made relatively good time until, approximately 300 miles from the main base, Ninnis, his sledge, and his dog team were lost down a ‘hell hole’, a seemingly bottomless crevasse, after Mertz and Mawson had safely crossed over it. It was later suggested that Ninnis was walking next to his sledge, and that his weight, without being distributed by skis or the sledge, caused him to break through the ice thinly covering the crevasse. Ninnis’ team included those dogs that were in the best condition, and his sledge held the vast majority of the party's food. With no depots established on the way out, Mawson and Mertz had little option but to race back to Cape Denison, killing the remaining dogs one at a time for food. Unfortunately, they both began to suffer from hypervitaminosis A, a medical disorder caused by excessive intake of vitamin A, which had been stored at high levels in the dogs’ livers. Enduring numerous unpleasant symptoms, Mertz grew progressively weaker and eventually died far from base. Somehow, Mawson managed to struggle on and reached Cape Denison successfully, although it took him months to recover from his privations.
From the day he joined Aurora in London, Mertz kept a journal of the expedition. In it, he recorded the health, behaviour, and relationships among the dogs; described the weather, sea conditions, and the scenery on land; reported daily events; and candidly mentioned other members of the expedition. The journal is thus a key addition to the story of the AAE as told in the diaries and journals of other expedition members at the main base, some of which have published in recent years, including, for example, those of Ninnis (Mornement and Riffenburgh 2014), John Hunter (Hunter 2011), Cecil Madigan (Madigan 2012), and Frank Stillwell (Hince 2012), and others that have long been held at the Mitchell Library, the State Library of New South Wales, in Sydney (such as those of Walter Hannam, Frank Hurley, Charles Laseron, Archibald McLean, and Eric Webb).
Mertz also carried a smaller sledging diary with him on field trips, including on the Far Eastern Journey. Following Mertz's death, Mawson tore out the blank pages at the end of this diary in order to lighten his load so that he could bring it back with him. Mertz's sledging diary is arguably even more valuable than the main journal, as it is the only account other than Mawson's of the events of that disastrous journey (for Mawson's account, see Jacka and Jacka 1988). Both the main journal and the sledging diary are included in this book.
Yet either all or parts of Mertz's record of the expedition, originally written in German, have previously been translated into English several times (for details, see Lucas and Leane 2013). So what makes this version so valuable? The answer is, first, that unlike the other translations, this one has actually been published, meaning it is now available to the public, rather than just being able to be found in archival holdings. And second, and more importantly, is the rich historic and linguistic context that Anna Lucas, the editor and translator, was able to bring to this translation. The original two journals, after being returned by Mawson to the Mertz family, long ago disappeared, other than copies of two pages that had been photographed to be reproduced in Mawson's expedition account, The home of the blizzard (Mawson 1915). Before the journals disappeared, however, two separate transcripts in German were produced. It was these transcripts that were the basis of the current translation, although they differed considerably at points due to ‘a daunting mix of German and English words, some phonetically spelt, some misspelt. Many words and phrases commonly used one hundred years ago, in German, Swiss-German, and in English, are not always familiar today; colloquialisms and the idiosyncratic lexicon of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition added to the confusion, making errors inevitable’ (page v). These issues, which had plagued all earlier transcriptions and translations, were resolved with the help of Swiss and German scholars who had a clear understanding of those early-twentieth-century languages and dialects; by the editor's familiarity with the language used in the huts at Cape Denison; and by her knowledge of the events described by Mertz due to being able to compare his accounts with those of the other expedition members. All of this allowed for a translation that not only places Mertz's details in greater historical context, but that maintains as closely as possible his own ‘voice.’
This fresh and accurate translation of Mertz's journals makes for fascinating reading, marked throughout by Mertz's humour and keen observations. Equally interesting, in its own way, is the book's account of previously little-known occurrences affecting Mertz's journals and correspondence after the expedition, including how the early transcripts came to exist and to be available to scholars. This detailed explanation is a fitting conclusion to an effort that seemingly required the skills of a detective as much as of a scholar in order for the project to come to fruition.
In summary, this book will be extremely valuable to anyone interested in the AAE or the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration in general. Xavier Mertz was a significant member of Mawson's expedition, and bringing him back to life, in a sense, with the publication of his diary, is a service to the entire polar community.