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‘Great God! This is an awful place . . .’ so wrote Captain Scott

Posted in Disasters, Exploration, Famous news stories, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about Scott of the Antarctic first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Captain Scott,  picture, image, illustration

Scott reached the Pole only to find that he had been beaten by Amundsen, by Angus McBride

The race to the South Pole was on! Captain Robert Falcon Scott, RN, had not wanted a race, but now he had no choice. The great Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, was out to reach the Pole first, having switched his plans to try and be the first man to reach the North Pole!

Captain Scott was leader of the 60-strong British Antarctic Expedition, which had headed south from New Zealand aboard the Terra Nova, surviving a terrible battering in heavy seas to reach the mighty southern continent on the last day of 1910. Scott was following up an earlier expedition to the fabulous, majestic land of ice and snows, a land of awe-inspiring, desolate beauty, of stupendous mountains and glaciers, of deadly danger and many other wonders to behold.

He and his men had come to learn first and reach the Pole second in an unhurried way. Now he had to decide at once whether or not to challenge Amundsen, for news had just reached him that the Norwegian had landed at the Bay of Wales, 60 miles nearer the Pole than he was, and Amundsen was interested in success, not science, and had more than 100 dogs to get him to the Pole.

Scott made up his mind. They would “go forward and do our best for the honour of the country without fear or panic.” From his base at McMurdo Sound it was 923 miles to the Pole. He decided to use motor sledges at first, then the ponies they had brought with them, then dogs. For the last lap, Scott and a few picked men would drag a single sledge to the Pole, having left the dogs and supplies at a depot for the return journey.

They started on November 1st, 1911, after the Polar winter was over, in high spirits and sure of success. The motor sledges had gone on ahead and they marched with the ponies and the dog-drawn sledges to One Ton Depot, which they had built the previous autumn. Twelve men, 10 ponies and a dog-team reached the depot on November 15th.

Then things started to go wrong. First the cylinders of the motor sledges cracked and they had to be abandoned. Then the ponies, despite every effort of Captain Oates of the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, began to die. And the weather, which should have been good, turned nightmarish, with blinding blizzards and glaring sun in between them which caused snow-blindness. Twelve miles from the great Beardmore Glacier they were brought to a standstill and remained trapped in a camp for days.

Even Captain Scott confessed his deep depression to his diary, though to none of his men. By December 7th, there was hardly any food for the ponies and the men were eating into their advance rations. Then at last the wind dropped.

The ponies now had to be put out of their misery, after which came the terrible climb of the Beardmore Glacier, 8,000 feet high. On December 22nd, some of the party were sent back to await their return, heartbroken that they had not been chosen for the final dash to the Pole. Christmas dinner included horsemeat and onion, plum pudding, cocoa and other delicacies, then, on January 3rd, 1912, Scott had to choose his four companions for the last lap.

He selected Captain Oates, Dr Wilson, the expedition’s chief scientist, a rugged sailor, Lieutenant Bowers, and Petty Officer Evans, the strongest man in the entire expedition. Sadly, three more men bade them farewell and headed back.

Certain of success Scott and his party headed on. They were only 27 miles from the Pole on January 15th. “We ought to do it now,” wrote Scott in his journal. But had Amundsen already got there first?

On January 16th, the keen eyes of Bowers spotted something ahead. They hastened on to find to their crushing disappointment a black flag tied to a sledge-bearer. It was not the Pole, but there was no doubt what that flag meant. Their hearts were leaden.

On the 17th, they reached the Pole. “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority,” wrote Scott. They found a tent the next day, a message in it from Amundsen, whose men had got there on December 16th, a full month before. They took photos, raised a sad Union Jack and planned to start the 800 mile journey back to their depot as soon as possible.

Their epic, glorious retreat is fully documented in Scott’s journal, found after his death. They set out on January 19th with Evans frostbitten, Wilson half snow-blind, Oates crippled by the cold and Bowers with a strained muscle. Scott was almost killed when he crashed into a crevasse and Evans had a similar near-disaster which helped bring about his death. Food was short, and what there was did not contain enough vitamins. Poor Evans died on February 17th.

The temperature dropped to 40 below and the chances of reaching One Ton Depot were receding fast. A month after Evans died, Captain Oates demanded to be left behind, but his comrades would not allow it. The valiant soldier was so distressed at holding up his friends that he left the tent, walking out into a blizzard with the words: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He was never seen again.

On March 19th, they pitched camp only 11 miles from safety. If the weather had got better, not worse, they might have made it, but a savage blizzard closed in on them as slowly their brave lives ebbed away. Scott wanted them to die on the march, but they could not leave their final resting place. He was just able to scribble a final message – “We shall stick it to the end, but we are getting weaker . . . It seems a pity, but I can write no more. R. Scott. Last Entry. For God’s sake look after our people.” Even as he died he was thinking of others.

The next Spring, searchers found the tent. There were the bodies, lying peacefully in death. There was no fuel and only mere scraps of food. The grieving men found the journal, also a number of letters, including one from Scott trying to analyse the causes of failure – most of all the terrible weather, but also the loss of the ponies, the early death of Evans, the lack of fuel in their small depots set up along their route for their return.

But there was no regret in his letter – “We took risks; we knew we took them . . . we have no cause for complaint.” He ended with these wonderful words: – “Had we lived, I should have 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 . . .”

The whole world, and not just his country, was to hear his story thanks to his “rough notes.” There has never been a more glorious failure than that of Scott and his men, for it has inspired whole generations ever since. A cross, nine feet high, was later raised to the five men overlooking the Great Barrier Reef. On it are their names and the beautiful words by Tennyson, “To Strive, to Seek, to Find, and not to Yield!”

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