The Death of Captain Lawrence Oates.
Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica, March 17th, 1912.
“Tragedy all along the line..”
“We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far.”
― from “Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition (Oxford World’s Classics)”
Antarctica’s ferocious elements, enveloped the tiny camp – a solitary anomaly on the vast white landscape, of the once named Great Ice Barrier. Within the tent, huddled four men, in desperate condition and circumstance, but none more so than Lawrence Oates. None yet, as it would inevitably transpire. Tragedy was stalking all of them, and they sensed it tangibly.
Outside in the white scree noise, of the frigid weather that churned around them, it was -40º C, at midday, and they were cold to their very bones. On reaching the previous two depots the weary group had discovered that the cached oil had evaporated, and so too had dissipated their hopes of survival. Any notion that a dog team would meet the returning party, would never materialize. They were on their own.
March 17th, 1912, was Lawrence Oates’ 32nd birthday, and was the day he would walk from the tent of the doomed Polar Party, and into the annals of Antarctic heroes. “I am just going outside and may be some time”, his parting words, before disappearing into the raging blizzard. Gone. Lost forever in a desert of endless ice, that would never yield him back. His final thoughts were of his Mother, Scott had recorded. That curious maternal haunting that afflicts men, who have been afforded that moment in time, to realize that they are going to die. The mortally wounded soldiers of countless battlefields, have expelled their final breath, desperately calling for the comfort of their mothers cradling presence.
But Oates was calm and reflecting. His mother had always been the dominant character in his life, and she simply adored her Lawrie. Resigned to the fact that he was going to die, Oates would have wanted her to know, that he was thinking of her.
The Iconic Tom Crean Portrait
The Endurance Expedition 1914 – 1917
It is 104 years to the day, since Frank Hurley took this iconic photograph of the Irish explorer Tom Crean, during the Endurance Expedition. The setting for the powerful image was on the drifting ice floes of the Weddell Sea, where Crean, Hurley and the crew of Shackleton’s Endurance, had found themselves ensnared. It is, above all other photographs of Tom Crean, the one image that has become synonymous with his immense strength, unwavering courage and indomitable character.
Despite the unfavourable prospects of their situation, Crean fixes the camera with a stare of steely determination, yet somehow manages to exude the altruistic side of his aspect, that made him such a popular character with all who endeavoured with him. Continue Reading →
February 4th 1902
On 4 February 1902, Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition, landed on the Barrier and unloaded an observation balloon which Scott had brought along for the purpose of achieving aerial surveys. Scott himself was first to climb aboard the balloon and it rapidly ascended to a height of 180 m, but thankfully the balloon was firmly tethered. Ernest Shackleton piloted the second ascent, and as with Scott, the only thing observable, even at that height was the seemingly endless expanse of icy whiteness that constituted the Barrier. The expeditions junior doctor and zoologist, Edward Wilson privately thought the flights to be “perfect madness”.
Scott, Shackleton and Wilson return to Discovery
Discovery Expedition 1901 – 1904
On February 3rd 1903, Scott, Shackleton and Wilson made it back to their ship Discovery, after their arduous Southern march, which had commenced on November 2nd 1902. The objective had been, according to Wilson’s Diary “to get as far south in a straight line on the Barrier ice as we can, reach the Pole if possible, or find some new land”, but it is safe to suggest it was never really likely that the Pole would be attained on this particular excursion. The men lacked the skill and experience required with dogs, and indeed the ice, and from the offset progress was slow, and planning poor.
Memorial Cross Raised On Observation Hill.
Terra Nova Expedition.
On January 22nd 1913 Tom Crean, and the Terra Nova expedition team, raised a memorial cross in honour of the Polar Party, all of whom had died on their return march from the South Pole. The cross was placed on the summit of Observation Hill, which is 754 ft high and looks out across the Ross Ice Shelf, where the men tragically perished.
Prior to this Tom Crean was also part of the search party that had located the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers in their tent on November 12, 1912. The Relief Expedition had discovered the top of the tent protruding from the snow, at first thinking the mound was merely an old supply cache. History owes these men a huge debt of gratitude, for without their discovery, the fate of the Polar Party, would never be known. Their journeying, after January 4th 1912, when the last support team of Crean, Lashly and Evans, parted company with them, on the polar plateau, would be merely a subject of speculation and counter theory.
For those that discovered the frozen bodies of their three former comrades, and close friends, it was a truly horrific experience. Having identified the tent, it had to be excavated from the snow, before anyone could enter, with enough light to determine the gruesome scene within. Tom Crean wept bitterly, cradling Scott in his arms. It appeared that Scott was last to die. Bowers and Wilson looked at peace in their sleeping bags, perhaps as though Scott had tended to them, when they had passed.
Strewn about the tent were their belongings, journals, letters, and the paraphernalia of their efforts to survive there.
The equally grim fates of Edgar Evans and Lawrence Oates, were learned from Scott’s journal. So too, the fact that they had successfully reached the South Pole, as had Amundsen, a month prior to them; knowledge of which mattered little at that moment of intense grief.
“Then Atkinson read the lesson from the Burial Service from Corinthians. Perhaps it has never been read in a more magnificent cathedral and under more impressive circumstances—for it is a grave which kings must envy. Then some prayers from the Burial Service: and there with the floor-cloth under them and the tent above we buried them in their sleeping-bags—and surely their work has not been in vain.”
from “The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctic 1910-1913 – Apsley Cherry-Garrard
The Endurance Trapped
Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
On the 5th of December 1914 the Endurance slipped from the rugged shores of South Georgia. Its destination was Antarctica, and the goal was a trans-continental march, via the South Pole, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. With the south pole conquered by both Amundsen and Scott, the last great objective was to traverse the entire continent.
Before departure from South Georgia, Shackleton had been warned by the Norwegians that manned the whaling stations on the island, that the ice in the Weddell Sea was more abundant, and further north than they had ever before seen.
Scott’s Polar Party Reach The South Pole.
Terra Nova Expedition.
“Great God! This is an awful place …..”
Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Edgar ‘Taff’ Evans and Lawrence Oates arrived at the South Pole on January 17th 1912. It was an enormous achievement, but this fact was all but lost on the Polar Party, as they realised they had been beaten to the accolade of ‘First to the Pole’, by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team. As they had approached the Pole they had spotted a black flag, dog tracks and footprints. The sickening realisation that they had lost the race, dawned upon them.
For Scott, reaching the South Pole had been eleven years and two expeditions in the making. For the achievement to be shrouded in such disappointment, was a cruel blow to the great Antarctic pioneer.
Scott summed up their despair in a particularly poignant journal entry, where he wrote – “The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected … Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here.”
No solace could have assuaged their disappointment, and tragically the men would not survive to pluck eventual satisfaction from the enormity of their feat.
The Terra Nova Expedition.
Journal Entry – December 25th 1910.
“An event of Christmas was the production of a family by Crean’s rabbit. She gave birth to 17, it is said, and Crean has given away 22! I don’t know what will become of the parent or family; at present they are warm and snug enough , tucked away in the fodder under the forecastle.”
― from “Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition (Oxford World’s Classics)”
The expedition ship Terra Nova left New Zealand in November 1910, and headed for the ice of Antarctica. On board were 65 men, 34 dogs, 19 Siberian ponies and one concealed rabbit. Whilst all of the men and animals were officially accounted for in the ships inventory, it seems no-one knew of the rabbits presence, save for the man who had smuggled it on board.
Tom Crean was an animal lover, and he found a comfortable berth for his rabbit, among the horse fodder, aboard the heavily laden Terra Nova. This leads to the suspicion that perhaps Lawrence Oates was also aware of the animals presence, as his was the task of tending to the ponies.
On Christmas Day, 1910, while the ship was still at sea, the rabbit surprised all by producing 17 offspring, as rabbits do. Continue Reading →
Public Announcement of Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
On This Day – January 13th, 1914.
On this day in 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton publicly announced his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which had been in planning for quite some time. The main objective of the expedition was to cross the Antarctic continent, via the South Pole, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea.
The journey would be a gruelling 1,800 mile trek, in the harshest and coldest conditions on the planet, but this did not seem to deter those who applied to be among the crew. In all, Shackleton received almost 5,000 applications, from which he picked 56 men, to sail south aboard the Endurance and the Aurora.
Tom Crean was appointed Second Officer, of the Endurance, less than a year after returning from Scott’s ill fated Terra Nova expedition.
Of the 31 men who had ventured south with Scott in 1910, only one would ever attempt to return to Antarctica, and that man was Tom Crean.
Shackleton struggled to raise the required funds for the venture but eventually he secured £24,000 from the main contributor, James Caird, £10,000 from Dudley Docker and an undisclosed but sizeable donation from Janet Stancomb-Wills. The lifeboats aboard the Endurance were later named after the three contributors, and an additional £10,000 grant from the British Government ensured that the expedition would go ahead.
In the words of the British skiing pioneer Sir Harry Brittain, Ernest Shackleton had become “a bit of a floating gent”, since his return from the Nimrod Expedition, in 1909. Shackleton had set a new farthest south record, and had stood, an agonizingly close, 97 miles from the South Pole. Unfortunately he was forced to abandon the quest for the pole, due to dwindling supplies, and both he and his three companions were very lucky to survive the return journey. Continue Reading →
The Aurora Crew Are Rescued.
Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
On this day, January 10th 1917, over four months after Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley had rescued the last of the Endurance crew from Elephant Island, Shackleton arrived at Cape Royds, Antarctica, to save the stranded men of the Aurora.
The Aurora crew had been tasked with laying the supply depots, that Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic team would avail of, having come through the Pole from the Weddell Sea. Of course this would never happen as the Endurance was held fast in the ice of the Weddell, and never even made landfall on Antarctica.
As the expeditions second ship, the Aurora sailed to the other side of the continent, through the Ross Sea, and made landfall at McMurdo Sound. They followed in the footsteps of Scott, and laid supply depots across the Ross Ice Shelf all the way to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier.
Ross Sea party members: Back row from left: Joyce, Hayward, Cope, Spencer-Smith. Centre: Mackintosh third from left, Stenhouse fourth from left.