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Journey to the pole: The doomed final expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott

January 2017

The realm of exploration has always been fraught with excitement and danger.  When things go wrong, they can be disastrous.

Royal Naval Captain Robert Falcon Scott is one such explorer who lived for thee adventure and paid a heavy price for it.  He led two expeditions to the Antarctic in an attempt to be the first man to stand at the South Pole:  the Discovery Expedition (1901-1904) and the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913).

Robert Scott was born on 6 June 1868, in Plymouth, Devon, England, the third of six children of John and Hannah Scott.  Scott’s early life was a comfortable one, due to his father’s ownership of a small brewery and service as a magistrate.

With a long line of military service in his family, Robert and his younger brother Archie were destined to serve too.  Scott spent four years at a local school before being sent to Stubbington House Shool in Hampshire, a school that prepared candidates for entrance examinations to the naval training ship HMS Britannia in Dartmouth.  Scott passed his exams at the age of 13 and entered naval service as a cadet in 1881.

Scott rose through the officer ranks and had a fairly normal career, but this all changed beginning in 1897 with the death of his father, who had lost most of the family fortune three years earlier, and then the death of his brother Archie the following year, left Scott as the sole supporter for his mother and two unmarried sisters.

Scott sought further promotions that would bring in extra income, but opportunities for career advancement were limited and he had to compete with other ambitious officers.

While home on leave in June 1899, Scott had a chance meeting with Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), whom Scott had last met as an 18 year-old Midshipman.  Markham was known to size-up young naval officers with an intent of employing them on polar expedition work in the future and Scott had been on such officer who Markham had taken note of at that time.

It was during this chance meeting that Scott learned of an impending Antarctic expedition by the RGS aboard the Royal Research Ship Discovery.  Although Scott never envisioned himself as a polar explorer, he quickly saw this as an good opportunity for a command and a chance to distinguish himself.  Three days later, Scott volunteered to lead the expedition.

The Discovery Expedition was a joint enterprise of the RGS and the Royal Society.  Scott was given overall command, along with a promotion to the rank of Commander, and appointed a Member of the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII, who had taken a keen interest in the expedition and make a personal visit to Discovery the day before the ship set sail.

RSS Discovery set sail for the Antarctic on 6 August 1901.  Unfortunately for Scott, few of 50 member expedition party had any Arctic or Antarctic experience and very little special training before setting sail.

On this expedition was Ernest Shackleton, a man who would later be an Arctic and Antarctic explorer in his own right.  Shackleton, a Master Mariner in the Merchant Navy, was commissioned into the Royal Navy Reserves, with the rank of Sub-Lieutenant on 4 June 1901, and made third officer of the Discovery.

Also on this expedition was Dr. Edward Wilson, an ornithologist and painter, who was the mission’s Junior Surgeon, Zoologist and expedition artist.  Wilson would also accompany Scott on his second, doomed expedition in 1911.

The Discovery expedition was both a scientific and exploration mission in what was then largely an untouched continent.  An early exploration mission ended in tragedy when a blizzard trapped expedition members in their tent.  Ultimately the party ventured out only to have one member, George Vince, die when he slipped and fell over a cliff on 11 March 1902.

Scott, Shackleton and Wilson undertook a journey towards the South Pole.  The party had 22 dogs with them, but they were not experienced in using them.  All the dogs eventually died of disease and on 31 December 1902 having reached latitude 82°17’S, the trio were forced to turn back.  They were around 500 miles from the South Pole, further than any man had traveled.

The return journey was hard on all three men, who all suffered from snow blindness, frostbite and scurvy.  Shackleton was suffering worse than the others.  He deteriorating rapidly, coughing blood and suffering fainting spells and unable to help pull the sledge.

The party finally made it back to the ship on 4 February 1903.  Shackleton was ultimately sent home on a relief ship to recover his health, but there is unconfirmed conjecture that Scott sent him home because of resentment of Shackleton’s popularity and used his ill-health as an excuse to get rid of him.

After Shackleton’s departure, the expedition had greater success with many important geological, biological and zoological data collected, but the crew were later criticized for some of their meteorological and magnetic readings, as inaccurate.

The highlight of the expedition was the discovery of the Polar Plateau, a huge continental plateau, with a diameter of 620 miles and an elevation of 9800 feet, on which the South Pole sits, along with the modern-day Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

Scott returned to Great Britain in 1904 as a popular hero and genuine arctic explorer.  He received several awards and medals, including the gold Royal Geographic Society medal, the Polar Medal and Legion d’Honneur.  Scott was also promoted to a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII and to the rank of Captain, RN.

For the rest of the year and into 1905, Scott attended public receptions, gave lectures and wrote the expedition record The Voyage of the Discovery.

Scott returned to duty with the Royal Navy in 1906, first as an Assistant Director of Naval Intelligence at the Admiralty and in August 1906, as a flag-captain to Rear-Admiral Sir George Egerton on HMS Victorious.

On 11 February 1907, Scott did suffer a minor blemish to his career when the battleship he commanded, HMS Albemarle, collided with the battleship HMS Commonwealth, resulting in minor bow damage.

However, another Antarctic expedition was always on his mind and in 1908, Scott began to make plans for a second attempt to reach the South Pole.  These continuing polar ambitions would cause Scott to have a dispute with his former expedition partner Ernest Shackleton, who also was planning an Antarctic expedition of his own.

It was also in 1908 that Scott married socialite Katherine Bruce.  A son, Peter Scott was born on 14 September 1909.  Peter would later go on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

In December 1909, Scott was released by the Admiralty at half-pay to take up command of the Terra Nova Expedition (officially the British Antarctic Expedition 1910) aboard the whaler and supply ship Terra Nova.

On board the ship were supplies for the expected three year journey, including 400 tons of coal, 2500 gallons of gasoline, 2 portable huts, 40 sledges, 3 motor sledges, sleeping bags, clothing, scientific instruments, food for three years, 19 ponies and 34 husky dogs.

Unlike his last expedition, whose primary purpose was scientific with exploration and reaching the pole secondary, neither the Royal Geographical Society of the Royal Society were in charge this time and Scott made it clear that the main purpose was to reach the South Pole, with the secondary purpose this time being scientific.  Edward Wilson, another veteran of Scott’s last expedition, was made the Chief Scientist of the scientific part of the expedition

Scott took with him a 65-man party for ship and shore crews.  Among the men selected for the expedition were several men seconded from the Royal Navy including Lieutenant Edward Evans as the captain of the Terra Nova and Scott’s second-in-command (Evans had previously been captain of the relief ship on Scott’s last Antarctic expedition), Lieutenant Harry Pennell as the navigator at sea and in-command of the ship once at shore, Surgeon-Lieutenants George Levick and Edward Atkinson and former RN officer Victor Campbell as First officer, whose job it was to lead a party of 6 men to explore and carry out scientific work in King Edward VII Land.

Some of the lower-deck RN personnel seconded to the expedition included Antarctic veterans Petty Officer 1st Class Edgar Evans, Tom Crean and William Lashly, along with Patrick Keohane, Robert Forde, Thomas Clissold as cook, and Frederick Hooper as domestic steward.

Two non-RN officers on the expedition were Royal Indian Marine Lieutenant Henry Bowers and Captain Lawrence Oates, from the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons.

Oates, who was independently wealthy, donated £1,000 (around £75,000 in 2016) towards financing the expedition.  Nicknamed “the soldier” by his fellow expedition members, Oates was responsible for the nineteen ponies that Scott intended to use to pull the sledges while setting up the depots and for the first half of the trip to the South Pole.

Oates disagreed with Scott on several management issues relating to the expedition, including the issue of the ponies, whom he felt were too old and “a wretched load of crocks.”  Oates further wrote in his diary, “Myself, I dislike Scott intensely and would chuck the whole thing if it were not that we are a British expedition....He (Scott) is not straight, it is himself first, the rest nowhere…”. However, Oates would attribute many of these harsh words to the hard conditions.

Scott wrote less harshly, calling Oates “the cheery old pessimist” and “The Soldier takes a gloomy view of everything, but I’ve come to see that this is a characteristic of him”.

Scott also recruited Bernard Day, who had been on Shackleton’s 1907-09 expedition, into his crew as his motor expert.  Scott looked into the possibility of taking motorized traction vehicles with him, with his engineer Reginald Skelton developing a caterpillar track for use on snow surfaces, but Scott concluded that man-hauling and the use of horses would still be required on places such as the Beardmore Glacier.

Scott experienced several setbacks early in the expedition, including the near-sinking of the Terra Nova and it being trapped in ice for twenty days, resulting in a late-season arrival in the Antarctic.

When Scott’s party finally did arrive in Antarctica, they set up a base camp on the shore of the Ross Sea, near the Antarctic volcano Mount Erebus.  The men discovered penguins and seals along the water’s edge and spent the following winter studying the habits of the penguins and making sketches.  Scott wrote in his diary about the penguins:  “They seemed to say Halloa!  What do you ridiculous things want?”

The earlier delay, combined with deteriorating weather conditions, the loss of one of the motor sledges when it fell through the ice while being off-loaded and the ineffectiveness of the ponies who eventually had to be shot, caused problems for setting up the main supply depot along the route, which they set up during the daylight months.  One Ton Depot was set up 35 miles north of the originally planned location as a result of these problems.

After returning to the main base, Scott was informed that his main rival, Roald Amundsen, whom he knew was also attempting a polar journey, had set up his camp 200 miles to the east in the Bay of Whales, complete with a teams of cold-tolerant dogs instead of ponies, putting him approximately 60 miles closer to the pole.

Scott and his team began the journey to the pole on 1 November 1911.  The initial party was supported by motor transport, dogs and horses.  The team set up supply depots at predetermined points along the route.  Members of the support team headed back to the base camp as they were no longer needed.

One of the men who was supposed to accompany Scott to the pole was his second-in-command Edward Evans.  They were within 150 miles of the Pole when Evans became seriously ill with scurvy and was forced to turn back, nearly dying on the return to the base camp.  It was an odd twist of fate that a near-fatal illness actually saved Evans’ life, as had he accompanied Scott as intended, he would have met the same fate as Scott and the others.

On 4 January 1912, Scott and the remaining seven-man team reached 87° 34′ S.  At this point, Scott picked his final team for final leg of the journey:  Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans.  The other three men, Teddy Evans, William Lashley and Tom Crean returned to the base camp.

Some of Scott’s diary notes from the final leg included:  “I am going forward with a party of five men with a month’s provisions and the prospect of success seems good, provided the weather holds and no unforeseen obstacles arise.” and,  “It is wonderful to think two long marches will land us at the South Pole.  Only twenty miles from the pole – we ought to do it now.”

On 17 January 1912, the group reached the South Pole, finally realizing Scott’s long-held dream.  Their euphoria quickly deteriorated when they saw the Norwegian flag flying atop a tent.  Inside the tent they found a note from Amundsen, informing Scott that he had reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911, beating them by 35 days.

Scott’s disappointment was indicated in his diary: “The worst has happened”; “All the day dreams must go”; “Great God! This is an awful place”.

Dejected, the party began the 800 mile journey back to the base camp after spending two days at the pole.  Scott wrote in his diary that day, “I’m afraid the return journey is going to be dreadfully tiring and monotonous.”

Despite poor weather, Scott and the men proceeded at a good pace on the 300 mile journey across the Polar Plateau, clearing it by 7 February.

It was while descending the Beardmore Glacier, a 100 mile journey, some days later that they started to run into problems.  Edgar Evans’ physical condition was worsening, something Scott had noticed was declining as early as 23 January.  Evans was suffering from frostbite to his fingers, nose and cheeks, as well as a cut to his hand, sustained on the journey to the pole that didn’t heal properly.

On 4 February, Evans was injured when apparently suffered a concussion when he fell into a crevasse, something that continued to worsen as time went on.  His injury resulted in a slower descent down the glacier for the party, something which helped to drain their food and other supplies quicker than planned.

Evans condition reached a critical point when he collapsed near the base of the glacier on 16 February.  The next day, Evans was still not able to continue the journey.  Oates remained with Evans while the others carried on to the next supply depot to get supplies and a sledge.

Scott wrote in his diary about Evans’ condition when they returned to get him, “He was on his knees, clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten and with a wild look in his eyes.”  The men pulled him back to the supply depot on a sledge.

Evans died that night, having earlier lapsed into unconsciousness.  After burring his body, the others carried on with the journey.

On 27 February, the party reached latitude 82.30°S, a prearranged meeting point for one of the dog teams, three days early.  Scott noted in his diary, “We are naturally always discussing possibility of meeting dogs, where and when, etc. It is a critical position. We may find ourselves in safety at the next depot, but there is a horrid element of doubt.”

By 10 March, the temperature had dropped unexpectedly to below -40 °C and it soon became evident to Scott that the dog teams were not coming: “The dogs which would have been our salvation have evidently failed. Meares [the dog-driver] had a bad trip home I suppose. It’s a miserable jumble,” Scott wrote in his diary.  The men still had 400 miles to travel across the Ross Ice Shelf and their physical condition was deteriorating, along with the weather.

By 16 March, Scott wondered whether they had overshot the meeting point.  He fought against a concern he had that they had been abandoned by the dog teams, writing in a letter to Sir Edgar Speyer, one of Scott’s patrons and an honorary treasurer of the fundraising for the expedition:  “We very nearly came through, and it’s a pity to have missed it, but lately I have felt that we have overshot our mark. No-one is to blame and I hope no attempt will be made to suggest that we had lacked support.”

Oates was the next to physically decline to the point of danger.  His feet had become severely frostbitten and was weakening faster than the others. In his diary entry of 5 March, Scott wrote “Oates’ feet are in a wretched condition… The poor soldier is very nearly done.”

By 17 March, Oates was afflicted with gangrene and frostbite.  After the men set up their tents to ride out yet another blizzard, Oates realized he was done and was only slowing down his companions.  The men needed to maintain a pace of over 9 miles a day to reach the supply depots laid out along the route, but by this time were only making 3 miles a day due to Oates’ rapidly deteriorating condition.  Short of food, fuel and suffering from the cold, all four men were suffering greatly.

In the middle of the blizzard, Oates walked from his tent and according to Scott’s diary, uttered the words “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

Scott further wrote “”We knew poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew that it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.”

It has been theorized that one of the things that lead to Oates’ demise was that his leg wound from the Boer War wound had re-opened due to the effects of scurvy, but as his body was never found, this can’t be confirmed.

After walking 20 miles farther despite Scott’s toes now becoming frostbitten, the three remaining men made what would become their final camp on19 March, 11 miles from One Ton Depot.  The next day a fierce blizzard prevented their making any further progress.

Scott wrote his second last diary entry on 23 March, then didn’t write anything more until his final entry on 29 March 1912.  Their fuel had run out and the food was almost gone.

Captain Scott wrote one final time in his journal on 29 March 1912, resigned to his fate:

“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last … 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, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.

I do not regret this journey which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardship, help one another and met death with great bravery as ever in the past.  Had we lived, I should have a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which 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.  How much better it has been than lounging in too great comfort at home.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

Scott also left letters to Wilson’s mother, Bowers’ mother, his former commander Admiral Sir George Egerton, his own mother and his wife.

Scott also wrote his “Message To The Public”, primarily a vindication of the expedition’s organization and conduct in which the party’s failure is attributed to weather and other misfortunes.

Eight months later, on 12 November 1912, a search party led by the expedition’s surgeon Dr. Edward L. Atkinson found Scott’s tent, now almost completely buried in snow.  In it they found the bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson.

The search party collected up the photographic film, scientific specimens, documents and other materials found in the tent.  They built a cairn over the tent and made a cross out of broken skis, intending to return later to retrieve the bodies.  However, later parties could not locate the campsite as continuing snowstorms made it difficult to locate again.

It’s unknown exactly when Scott and the others died, but the search party concluded Scott must have died last due to the position of the bodies and that it wasn’t long after his last diary entry.

After a century of snowstorms have covered the cairn and tent, which are now encased in the Ross Ice Shelf, which is slowing moving towards the Ross Sea.  Glaciologist Charles Bentley estimated in 2001 that the bodies are likely under about 75 feet of ice and have traveled around 30 miles from their original resting place.  It’s possible in around 275 years that the bodies would reach the Ross Sea and perhaps float away, encased in an iceberg.

On January 1913, before Terra Nova left for home, the crew erected a large wooden cross made by the ship’s carpenters as a permanent memorial on Observation Hill overlooking Hut Point, near the modern-day McMurdo Station, a United Sates Antarctic research centre.  On the cross they inscribed the names of the lost party and Tennyson’s line from his poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

In 2010, the British Museum acquired Captain Scott’s medals awarded both during his lifetime and posthumously.  The 24 medals were held by the Scott family for almost a century until they were given to the museum, originally on loan, but they are now a permanent part of the museum’s collection.

Oates’s reindeer-skin sleeping bag is now on display at the Scott Polar Research institute in Cambridge along with other artifacts from the doomed expedition.  His Queen’s South Africa Medal and Polar Medal are held by the Royal Dragoon Guards Regimental Museum and the regiment holds an annual regimental day in honour of Oates.

Edward Evans, the one “fortunate” enough to get scurvy on the journey to the pole, returned to his duties in the Royal Navy and served until retiring as an Admiral on 9 January 1941.

During the remainder of WWII, Evans served as London Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence and was made a Peer as Baron Mountevans, of Chelsea.  He died on 20 August 1957.

Sources:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Falcon_Scott, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_Nova_Expedition, “A first rate tragedy:  Robert Falcon Scott” and the race to the pole by Diana Preston, “Heroes of polar exploration” by Ralph Andrist, “Famous Explorers” by Ramon Coffman and Nathan Goodman.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/journey-to-the-pole-the-doomed-final-expedition-of-captain-robert-falcon-scott/

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