On This Day – November 1st 1911 – The Push For The Pole
The Terra Nova Expedition
On November 1st 1911, Captain Robert Falcon Scott departed the base camp hut at Cape Evans, for the last time. The Pony Party consisted of Scott and nine other men, each tasked with leading a pony along the route. It was the second phase of the disjointed exodus south, the men and ponies following in the wake of the Motor Party, which had forged ahead on October 24th. Cecil Meares and Demitri Gerov would complete the number of the sixteen man team, by following Scott’s group with a dog team.
Those remaining behind at Cape Evans, gave the departing group a cheering send off, and watched on, as they gradually disappeared south into the vast Antarctic whiteness, some never to return. Even by the time they had vanished from the view of those at the hut, the problems facing Scott’s group were patently evident, as each man battled with the particular temperament of the ponies they were handling.
Some of the beasts galloped uncontrollably while others had to be coaxed and almost dragged forward. Tom Crean led one of the calmer ponies named Bones, as did Cherry Garrard, who guided Michael, a pony Taylor had noted as “a steady goer”.
Many of Scott’s men had deep rooted misgivings about their Captain’s decision to use ponies to haul supplies across the ice, and none more so than the chief pony handler, Lawrence Oates. Nicknamed ‘The Soldier’ by his Terra Nova fellows, the popular Oates was an English cavalry officer, who had served with honour in the Boer War. He had applied to join the expedition, having become somewhat disillusioned with life in the army, and Scott had taken him on board, mainly because of his vast knowledge and experience with horses.
“Bones ambled off gently with Crean and I led Snippers in his wake.”
Robert Scott Diary – 1st November 1911
Yet Scott somehow chose not to consult Oates before the expedition’s departure, when the process of acquiring the animals was at hand. Scott seemed quite at ease, having his equine expert busy at work, helping to kit out and stock the ship, while he dispatched Meares, the dog handler, to Russia to purchase the ponies. Meares, who by his own admission, knew nothing about the creatures, returned with what Oates dismally described as “a wretched load of crocks.”
His diagnosis proved quite accurate when the ponies were put to task on the ice of Antarctica. During the previous seasons depot laying expedition, when supply caches were being laid for the southern journey, they had struggled and floundered in appalling conditions, and many of the animals died.
The situation came to a head when Scott decided to lay the main supply depot – One Ton Depot, thirty mile short of it’s intended destination, rather than put the ponies through any more suffering. Oates had argued that they should forge ahead and shoot the beasts as they weakened, and use their meat to sustain the men. It is speculated that Scott vetoed this idea, as he was simply too squeamish to consider the prospect.
They cache was duly dumped thirty miles shy of it’s predetermined point, a decision which would prove fatal for the returning Polar Party. Lawrence Oates walked to his death on that return journey, at the latitude where One Ton Depot should have stood.
“It is perfectly wretched starting off with a bunch of cripples and Scott won’t believe how bad they are.”
Lawrence Oates – Letter to his mother, penned shortly before the departure of the Southern Party, on Nov. 1st 1911.
As the pony party headed out across the icy floe on November 1st 1911, and almost immediately disintegrated into a caravan trail of men and fractious beasts, Scott’s assault on the South Pole was at least under way. His rival Amundsen had started his own quest on October 19th, and did so with fast and extremely efficient dog teams. The effectiveness of dogs was something that Scott had refused to acknowledge, or perhaps just simply failed to appreciate.
Scott’s himself, however never seriously doubted his chances of beating Amundsen, and his optimism was also buoyed by the prospect of the performance of his motorised sledges, which were capable of transporting huge quantities of supplies across the ice fields.
Unbeknownst to Scott the two sledges had covered a mere fifty miles of a proposed 200, before breaking down. Ironically the second of these motors had spluttered to a halt on November 1st – the same day he and the ponies left Cape Evans. Lieutenant Evans, William (Bill) Lashly, Bernard Day and F.J. Hooper were now man hauling what supplies they could manage, leaving the rest behind with the crocked machines.
As the ensuing pony party stumbled upon the evidence of the failed motor quest in the following few days, the supplies were transferred to their sledges and the ponies began dragging loads, in excess of 700 lbs.
In terms of the ‘Race To The Pole,’ it was effectively over before it had even begun. By Scott’s departure date of November 1st, Amundsen, who had established his base camp one degree nearer to the pole, than Scott’s, was 13 days into his journey and had already passed his depot at latitude 81ºS. His dog teams were performing impressively, and his daily distances were far in excess of anything Scott would achieve on his outward journey.
The men of the Terra Nova Expedition had taken their first steps towards the South Pole, and the first chapter in a tale of remarkable bravery, courage, tragedy and triumph, was underway. What lay ahead for them was hellish.
The Southern Party
The Motor Party
Lieutenant Evans, William (Bill) Lashly, Bernard Day and F.J. Hooper
The Pony Party
Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates, Atkinson, Cherry-Garrard, Wright, Edgar Evans, Keohane and Tom Crean
The Dog Team
Cecil Meares & Dimitri Gerov
Sources – An Unsung Hero, Michael Smith. Scott Of The Antarctic, David Crane.
Photo Gallery – On This Day: November 1st 1911.
A Collection of photographs taken on November 1st 1911, as the Southern Journey gets underway.
Scott’s Southern Journey, Day 1 – Photo Gallery. – Tom Crean