A staff post from Jesper Ericsson, Curatorial Assistant at The Hunterian.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition left England in September 1914. By that time, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been bloodied at the Battle of Mons the previous month and forced to retreat south into France thanks to a rapid German advance. The last snippets of news heard by Stevens and the men of the Ross Sea Party would have been received before they departed Sydney on Christmas Eve 1914.
The war was not going well for the Allies. The Battle of First Ypres in October / November had caused terrible casualties on both sides. In an effort to rest and reinforce, trenches had been dug along the entire frontage of the battlefield. The next news the survivors of the Ross Sea Party received about the war was upon their rescue in January 1917. The very fact that the war was still going on shocked them. The grim realisation that they had ‘missed out’ spurred the survivors to resolve to join up as soon as they were home and fit enough to serve.
Stevens joined up only two weeks after returning to the UK. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers (RE) on 5 September 1917, a natural choice given his geographical background and scientific experience. In the midst of his training, he married Molly Stevens in November that year.
Stevens arrived in France in around April or May 1918, and served at General Headquarters (GHQ) and with 5th Field Service Company (later 5th Field Service Battalion) RE, undertaking trigonometrical work in order to produce maps of the battlefield. This was of particular importance for the Royal Artillery, helping the guns to lay down accurate fire on enemy positions.
Stevens played a small but vital role in the last months of the war. Thanks to the complex and demanding work of the Field Service Battalions, British artillery dominated the battlefield from the summer of 1918 on. There is no doubt their efforts shortened the war. His work demanded that he go to the frontline and even in the rear, he would have been vulnerable to frequent enemy shellfire. Stevens would have seen the wounded and dead. He would have seen the worst and the best of times, the horrors and the dark humour of war. And he was a comparatively old man in poor health. He was 32 in 1918, older than the average British soldier. But as he proved in Antarctica, he was a survivor.