The Death Of The Polar Party
Terra Nova Expedition
On the 29th of March 1912, in a blizzard battered tent on Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, Robert Falcon Scott’s trembling frozen hand scribed his final words – “Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. 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. R. Scott. Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people.”*
Scott, Bowers and Wilson had been trapped in their tent for nine days, unable to strike for One Ton Depot, which as Scott had stated lay a mere 11 miles away. It must surely have haunted Scott, to know that his decision not to establish the depot where initially intended, in February of 1911, would now definitively decide the mens fate.
Had he done so, the starving, scurvy stricken men would have reached the potentially life saving cache, approximately twenty miles south of where they currently lay dying. Ironically Lawrence Oates, who had protested in vain to Scott, during that depot laying excursion, that they should forge ahead and lay the supplies at the predetermined point, walked to his death in the vicinity of the intended depot on March 17th 1912.
Prior to Oates’ tragic demise the Polar Party had lost Edgar Evans on February 17th, through a combination of scurvy and a serious concussion he had suffered when falling into a crevasse on February 4th. The three remaining men made scant progress after the disappearance of Oates, perhaps covering a further 20 agonising miles, before the adverse weather trapped them in their tent, and slowly wrought their doom.
It was a desperately harrowing and tragic finale to an excursion, that mile by mile had weaved a tale of intricate misfortune, mistakes, bravery, heroism, survival and death. In my opinion it is without doubt the most convoluted and utterly dramatic episode ever played out on the ice of the frozen continent. From the moment Scott stood with his final seven men, 150 miles from the South Pole, and opted to take four of them with him on the final leg of the journey, instead of the prearranged three, the story lurches uncomfortably into the sphere of intrigue.
Was the decision undertaken to benefit the push southwards, when in fact it probably hindered it, and how did Scott justify this arrangement to Crean, Lashly and Evans, who he had sentenced to a return journey of 750 miles, as a three man team instead of the conventional four man unit. It seemed an extremely selfish compromise and one that greatly hindered their chance of surviving the return journey.
Add to this the fact that Crean and Lashly were among the strongest and least afflicted of the weary party that stood with Scott at this point, a testament borne out later, by their gallant heroics in hauling the dying Teddy Evans along the Barrier, to within 35 miles of Hut Point, before Crean embarked on his epic solo march to complete the salvation.
Yet Scott had decided to send them back, and opted instead to select Oates and Edgar Evans.
Oates despised Scott and retained a respect for him, in ever fluctuating measures, but Scott’s decision to select him for the final leg of the journey must surely have infuriated him personally. He had limped the duration of the journey, due to one leg being two inches shorter than the other, the result of a prior war wound. His feet were badly frostbitten and though Scott did not know of the severity, he was aware that Oates was suffering. Oates too had worked tirelessly on the outward journey to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, as his was the task of handling the ponies. He had laboured many hours in excess of the other men, and had missed out on vital meals as a result. He should never have been elected a member of the Polar Party, but his military instincts probably governed that he keep a stiff upper lip and accept the decision of his captain, which he did.
Bowers too would suffer from Scotts erratic decision making. Having been teamed with Crean, Lashly and Teddy Evans, they were earlier ordered by Scott to depot their skis, and proceed on foot, trudging through the snow beside Scott, Oates, Wilson and Edgar Evans all of whom advanced on their skis. Once selected as the added fifth member of the Polar team, Bowers now faced the daunting prospect of plodding the journey abreast of his gliding companions.
This he did, 150 miles onwards to the South Pole and for 150 miles back, then the distance again beyond that, to the place the skis had been left. Whilst Bowers spirit was surely lifted after locating his skis, the overall mood was one of defeat and deflation as the returning team had arrived at the Pole to discover that Amundsen had preceded them there by more than a month.
The imputous of a victorious return for the men evaporated but Scott clung to the hope that they could reach civilisation before Amundsen, and at least break word of their attainment of the Pole before the Norwegians announced their victory, in the race to be first to stand at the end of the Earth. The notion was almost as hopeless as the situation that lay ahead. Despite initial good progress back across the Polar Plateau, by the time they had reached the Beardmore Glacier, Edgar Evans was in decline. He had to fall out of harness as his condition deteriorated and the pace of advancement was constantly punctuated by efforts to maintain him.
All of the men were suffering from scurvy, cold and malnutrition yet Scott had found time to forage and collect scientific specimens and add 30kg of rock to the sled load, when perhaps pace was more in need of gathering. Day by day they weakened, the temperature plummeted alarmingly, yet they bravely battled onwards, almost knowing they were marching to their death. Evans was first to die at the foot of the Beardmore, and a month later Oates decided to embrace the inevitable sooner than endure it.
For Scott, Bowers and Wilson the situation was bleak – their only hope of survival was to meet up with the relief dog teams Scott had ordered to meet with them between latitudes 82º S and 83º S, but this never happened. Scott had sent the order back with Edward Evans, who had almost died but for the efforts of Crean and Lashly, and whether the word ever got through, in the ensuing drama, is unclear. Prior to departure Scott had instructed a relief team to meet with the returning Polar Party, but had stressed that the dogs were not to be risked unnecessarily, as they would be needed for further excursions the following season. Unfortunately for the three dying men, this was the command that was adhered to, and Apsley Cherry Garrard and Dimitri Gerov had brought the dog team no further than One Ton Depot, where they had waited for days for the returning men, before leaving on March 10th.
When the blizzard hit on March 20th, Scott, Wilson and Bowers took to their tent for shelter, each day hoping for a break in the weather that would allow them to reach One Ton Depot, but it never materialised, or if it did they were simply too weak to take advantage. Resigned to their impending doom the men penned final letters, and Scott wrote his famous Message To The Public. Scott’s summarisation of their plight in journal entries, bore no malice and appointed no blame, despite the fact that he must surely have felt let down, by the failure of the relief team to materialise.
It is thought that Scott was the last of the three to die, and it is assumed it was on March 29th – the day of his final journal entry. Antarctica had claimed another three brave and gallant souls, of men who had dared to venture into its icy expanse, on a quest of discovery, achievement and honour. They had attained all three.
*Huxley, Leonard, ed. (1913). Scott’s Last Expedition, Volume I: Being the Journals of Captain R.F. Scott, R.N., C.V.O. London: Smith, Elder & Co.