Five men pose in a snowy landscape, their faces blackened by sun and smoke, their hats and beards crusted with ice. These men have just conquered the South Pole, but their faces show only bitter disappointment; they have failed in their bid to be the first to reach one of the most terrible places on earth, beaten by a party of Norwegians who should have been busy conquering the North Pole instead.
At the centre of the picture their leader, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, stands to attention, back ramrod straight in military posture, eyes closed as he draws himself up to full height and takes a deep breath, unable to make eye contact with the camera, tormented by failure, determined to make the best of a bad job, hoping his tale of the ‘hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions’ would ‘stir the heart of every Englishman’.
The picture was taken on 17th January 1912, just hours after discovering the flag of Norwegian rival Roald Amundson planted firmly at the South Pole.
Dressed in canvas smocks and trousers, the men wear harnesses for pulling sleds, fur mittens, and reindeer skin boots. The diminutive Birdie Bowers pulls a string attached to the camera to take this picture, an early selfie. Their struggle had taken them twenty-seven days of man-hauling heavy sledges over difficult terrain, into head-winds and with temperatures below -60˚C, but worse was yet to come.
By 29th March that year, all five men would be dead, trapped by a blizzard just eleven miles from One Ton Depot where food and supplies awaited them.
The heroic failure of Captain Scott and his loyal men, touched the hearts of the British public. The story was chronicled in the detailed diaries kept by Scott, and in the hauntingly beautiful photographs taken by Herbert Ponting. Even today there is a fascination surrounding this doomed journey to the frozen south.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott was a British Royal Navy Officer who had become caught up in the so-called ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’. Between 1897 and 1922 some seventeen major expeditions to discover Antarctica were launched by ten different countries. In 1904, Scott returned from leading the Discovery expedition to the Antarctic, and was determined to make a second expedition with an attempt to reach the South Pole and claim this prestige for England. The The Terra Nova expedition was not a military undertaking, but along with Royal Navy personnel, included both Merchant Seamen and civilians, nevertheless, Scott insisted on military discipline at all times, and the divide between officers and men was strictly enforced.
It was a privately funded venture, and Scott found himself spending time and energy in raising funds and commercial sponsorship. Companies such as Oxo, Bovril, Fry’s Chocolate, Tate sugar, Lyles Golden Syrup, and Heinz beans, provided much of their food and the brewers Bass donated cases of ‘Kings Ale’ to toast a victory upon reaching the Pole. Top fashion houses of the day Jaeger, Burberry and Wolseley supplied clothing and boots. Donations from wealthy individuals wanting to join the adventure were also welcomed, most famously Captain Oates, and assistant Zoologist Apsley Cherry-Garrard each contributing £1,000 to expedition funds; the equivalent of more than £50,000 today; it was not surprising they were offered positions on the team.
In his proposals for the expedition, Scott announced that his main objective was “to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement”, but he also laid emphasis on scientific research. In support of this he recruited a team of scientists and experts to carry out research into, geology, magnetism, meteorology and the biology of this hitherto unknown field of Glaciology. Herbert Ponting was in charge of photographing the expedition; his photographs still show the beauty of the ice, the hardship of the journey, and the resilience of the men who took part.
Based on his own experience of the Antarctic, as well as that of others such as Ernest Shackleton, Scott believed that their best chance for reaching the pole was to use ponies and dogs to pull the heavy sledges and distribute supplies to a series of depots along their route. 19 Siberian ponies and 34 dogs travelled on the Terra Nova from New Zealand, along with some of the latest technology in the form of three newly designed motorized sledges as a means of transporting provisions. But Scott believed that man-hauling sledges on ski’s was the means by which they would have most success in their aim to reach the pole.
The men in the picture are the team Scott had chosen for his final assault on the pole and consisted L to R; Standing; Oates, age 32, Scott, age 43, Evans, age 37; Sitting; Bowers, age 28, and Wilson age 39. Their average age was 36.
Dr. E A Wilson had accompanied Scott on previous expeditions and was his right-hand man and confidant. Appointed Chief Scientist to the expedition, he was a qualified medical doctor, zoologist and talented artist, however in 1898, he had been diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. In July 1911, during the Antarctic winter, Wilson together with zoological assistant Cherry-Garrard, and Bowers set off on an expedition to collect eggs from the Emperor Penguin rookery at Cape Crozier. There was a theory that penguins were evolutionarily primitive birds, and studying their embryology would prove the case. No one had ever attempted to travel in such conditions and the three men suffered horribly in the cold, darkness and blizzards. Cherry-Garrard described the journey with great bitterness in his book ‘The Worst Journey in the World’. He had paid £1000 to join the expedition, and never really recovered from the experience. The eggs failed to prove Wilson’s theories.
Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, came from an independently wealthy family, and was recruited to the team after offering a donation of £1,000. He had served in the Boer War, and suffered an injury to his left thigh, which was shattered by gunshot. When it healed, the leg was an inch shorter than his right leg. He was put in charge of the ponies purchased by the expedition dog handler, Meares who knew little about horses. Oates was dismayed by the animals when he saw them; they were old and in poor condition, and he doubted their usefulness in Antarctic conditions.
Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers had no previous polar experience, but was recruited to the ships party without interview to act as storekeeper. Initially unimpressed with the slightly built, red haired young man, Scott soon promoted him to the shore party, and by the end of their journey was singing his praises as ‘a marvel’; placing him in charge of provisioning, observations, navigation, photography as well as keeping meticulous meteorological records.
The final member of the team was P.O. Edgar (Taff) Evans, a giant of a man who liked a drink. He was nearly left behind in New Zealand after falling drunkenly into the water while attempting to board the ship. Scott chose to overlook this mishap, in favour of his strength, resourcefulness and cheerful store of anecdotes. Evans was thought to be the strongest man of the party, and Scott was astonished that he was the first to die. Evans had cut his hand whilst repairing a sledge, and the wound was refusing to heal. As the infection weakened him, and probably suffering from scurvy, Scott worried that he was ‘very broken down in brain’, suffering from blistered and frostbitten feet, a frostbitten nose, and suppurating wounds. It seems he hit his head in a fall on the ice, and on February 17th 1912, he died at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. A cairn was built over his body.
Oates was the next to go. It has been suggested that scurvy was causing his old war wound to re-open, but his feet were badly frostbitten, and he feared that he was slowing the progress of the other men. On 16th March, 1912, after weeks of suffering, he uttered the famous words “ I am just going outside and may be sometime”. His body was never found.
Scott, Wilson and Bowers continued a further 30 km where, frostbitten snow-blinded and exhausted they made their final camp. Fierce blizzards continued for nine days, and as food and fuel supplies ran short, Scott wrote his farewell letters. The three men died in their tent as the storm howled around them.
Along with their equipment and supplies, they had been hauling over 14kg of geological samples.
So what went wrong? And was this expedition doomed to failure from the start?
Scott’s disappointment began early in the expedition. Roald Amundsen had set off in 1910 to conquer the North Pole, but on hearing unconfirmed reports that two other explorers had already succeeded in the Arctic, he turned his attention to the South Pole. He did not tell his crew of this change of plan until after they had set sail believing they were heading North. In February 1911, Scott received the devastating news that Amundsen and his expedition party was camped in the Bay of Whales. Realising that Amundsen would be able to start his journey south earlier in the season than would be possible with the ponies, Scott began to concentrate on the research side of his expedition.
“One thing only fixes itself in my mind. The proper, as well as the wiser, course is for us to proceed exactly as though this had not happened. To go forward and do our best for the honour of our country without fear or panic.”
He now feared he would lose the race to the pole.
Scott himself believed that every preparation had been made to perfection and that had it not been for unforeseeably bad weather conditions throughout their journey, they would have successfully returned to safety, but the expedition was subject to bad luck from the start. A storm at sea, caused the loss of a considerable amount of coal, and fuel, and the Terra Nova was a hungry ship. Two ponies and a dog were also lost in the storm and a further delay cost them twenty days when the ship became stuck in pack ice. More bad luck ensued as the motorized sledges were unloaded from the ship. In their hurry to get the equipment ashore, one of the sledges sank through the ice and was lost in 60 fathoms of water.
The Polar party had very bad luck with the weather. It was unseasonably cold, with high winds. The men suffered from frostbite, snow-blindness and malnutrition. Sleeping bags made from reindeer skins soon became soaked with perspiration, and froze. It was impossible to thaw and dry them during the day, so the men found themselves struggling to climb into frozen sleeping bags at night.
Despite all Scotts careful planning, the last minute inclusion of Bowers to the polar team disrupted their supplies of food and fuel and meant that rations measured out for four men, had to be increased to feed five. It seems likely that Bowers was included as the only member of the team qualified to navigate accurately. Bowers was the only man to reach the pole on foot, having been ordered to depot his ski’s before being included with the polar party.
The sledging rations had been carefully measured, but were actually insufficient for the calorific expenditure of the men. The science of nutrition was still in its infancy and not properly understood. Their diet was rich in protein, and comprised pemmican (ground beef mixed with suet), biscuit, sugar, butter, tea and cocoa, supplemented by pony meat. The lack of vitamin C in their diet was leading to scurvy, and it is likely that this contributed to the deaths of both Evans and Oates. They were literally starving.
The two surviving motorized sledges proved useless as they both broke down beyond repair, while the pony and dog teams, in the hands of inexperienced Englishmen, proved equally troublesome. In spite of the limited success Shackleton had had with ponies on a previous expedition, their small feet sank into the snow, and no one insisted on fitting their show shoes to prevent this. Their coats soon became wet with perspiration, which froze, and their compressed fodder formed a large part of the weight they had to pull. The dog teams were more successful, although unused to handling dogs, the men were frustrated by their fights, and more than once had to risk their own lives to rescue dogs who had fallen into crevasses. Scott misjudged the use of dog teams, taking them further south than had been planned for, so that the ponies had to be shot, and the man-hauling begun earlier. Scott had not insisted on compulsory ski training for the men although he had enlisted Norwegian ski expert Tryggve Gran, to coach the men and maintain their ski equipment. The Norwegian team was at home in snowy conditions, unlike the Englishmen who struggled to pull sledges efficiently on skis.
Their clothing was also at fault, and the men frequently complained of the cold; whereas the Norwegians wore loose furs, the Englishmen’s woollen and windproof canvas clothing which trapped sweat, was not suited to the strenuous activity of pulling.
In his determination to salvage some good of the expedition, Scott refused to depot the 14kg of rock samples they had collected, increasing their load as they raced against the weather with a shortage of food and fuel. Having lost the race to the pole, at least Science would benefit from their loss of life.
In one final misjudgment, Scott changed the location of One Ton Depot from 80˚S to 79˚ 29’S nearly 50km north of its intended location. No one can say for sure, but this decision might have cost them their lives.
It is not enough to compare Scott’s failure to be first at the pole with Amundsen’s success. Scott may have made some bad decisions, and misjudgments, but he wanted to prove the mettle of Englishmen, and died in the process. They did succeed in their goal of reaching the South Pole, and they did succeed in their goal of collecting new and important scientific data. As he lay in his tent, dying of cold, starvation and dehydration, Scott’s thoughts were filled with justifications for his actions, immense pride in the loyalty, compassion, spirit, patriotism, and manliness of his companions, and pleas that the families of those who died should be provided for. He spent his last days writing letters to the families of his men, praising their courage, bravery and steadfastness.
To his great friend Sir J M Barrie, author of Peter Pan, he wrote “I may not have proved a great explorer, but we have done the greatest march ever made and come very near to great success.”
At the end Scott wrote in a message to the public; “We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.”
“Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”
His last diary entry on 29th March 1912 read “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. For God’s sake, look after our people.”
Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Heroic failure of Antarctic exploration. He who refused to heed the wisdom and experience of those who knew better, who chose a bunch of crocks for his team out of gentlemanly good manners (plus a good donation of cash) Who determined to race to the south pole in the interests of science, and paid the ultimate price of failure. In another age, I think I might have fallen in love with Captain Scott. I might have written him letters, begging to be included on the journey, and saved my pennies to try and offer my own £1000 contribution to the expedition. To be one of the first people to set foot in a new and unexplored land, to see the magnificence of the ice and the beauty of nature, I would have volunteered in an instant.
As a British Naval Officer, Scott was happy to include the war-wounded Captain Oates in his team, but I think he would have drawn the line at inviting women.
His last letter
To Sir Francis Bridgeman
My Dear Sir Francis
I fear we have shipped up – a close shave. I am writing a few letters which I hope will be delivered some day. I want to thank you for the friendship you gave me of late years, and to tell you how extraordinarily pleasant I found it to serve under you. I want to tell you that I was not too old for this job. It was the younger men that went under first. Finally I want you to secure a competence for my widow and boy. I leave them very ill provided for, but feel that the country ought not to neglect them. After all we are setting a good example to our countrymen, if not by getting into a tight place, by facing it like men when we were there. We could have come through had we neglected the sick.
Good-bye and good-bye to dear Lady Bridgeman
Excuse writing – it is -40, and has been for nigh a month.
The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
Scott’s Last Expedition, The Journals by Robert Falcon Scott