On This Day, January 4th 1912 – Tom Crean parts company with the polar party.
Crean and Scott’s Last Farewell
Terra Nova Expedition
January 4th 1912
On January 4th, 1912, Tom Crean would bid a final farewell to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, on the Polar Plateau, approximately 150 miles from the South Pole. Crean had served with Scott on the Discovery Expedition 1901 – 1904, and afterwards at Scott’s request, Crean joined him as a member of the crew of the Victorious in 1906. The two men would serve together from this point, right up until Scott’s untimely demise on his return from the South Pole, and they had formed a strong mutual respect for each other.
Above: Camp on the polar march taken during the last, tragic voyage to Antarctica by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, among them Lieutenant Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers who took this photograph, circa December 1911. Bowers and Scott were both tutored by Herbert Ponting, the renowned photographer who was the camera artist to the expedition, which enabled them to take their own memorable pictures before perishing on their return from the South Pole on or after 29th March 1912. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
On the 3rd of January Scott had announced that his Polar Party would consist of 5 men, namely Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Taff Evans and Oates, while Tom Crean, Bill Lashly and Lieutenant Teddy Evans were to return to base, as the last supporting team. Crean was sorely disappointed, not to have been among the number of the Polar Party, and privately he had surely thought he would have been selected. When one takes into consideration, the amount of time he had served under Scott, coupled with his vast experience on the ice, he probably should have been. Crean had also been spared the rigours of man hauling the sledges, on the 400 mile Barrier section of the outward journey, as he had been tasked with leading one of the ponies. He did not fall into harness until the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier, and as a result would have had more reserves of strength than some in the Polar Party, who had hauled for the duration.
Scott referred to the returning party in his diary on January 3rd, 1912 – “They are disappointed but take it well.” But it appears Scott did have a lingering sense of guilt, regarding his decision not to elect Crean. On hearing Crean clearing his throat, Scott by way of a justifiable excuse, opined, “that’s a bad cold you have Crean.” While Crean was not a man to hold a grudge, or indeed question the orders of his Captain, he knew Scott was dishonestly trying to validate his decision.
“I understand a half-sung song, sir,” was his curt response.
It (among many other facets of the journey) has long since been argued that Scott made a grave error, by not selecting Crean, and denying the Polar Party the benefits of his indomitable spirit, character, strength and stamina. Many hold the opinion that, had the Irish Giant been among the polar party, things may not have taken such a tragic turn. The truth is we will never know.
What did transpire on the morning of January 4th, 1912, after their rations and supplies had been reapportioned, the two groups readied themselves to go their separate ways. The five man Polar Party faced a trek of 150 miles to the Pole, and the return march, while Crean, Evans and Lashly faced a 750 mile journey back to base.
The eight men walked together in the direction of the Pole, for a short distance, before exchanging letters, good wishes and handshakes of farewell. Scott noted, “Poor old Crean wept and even Lashly was affected.” Tom Crean, Lt. Evans and Bill Lashly watched and waved as the Polar Party slowly disappeared into the Antarctic whiteness, never to be seen alive again.
The Polar Party at the South Pole
Standing from left is Wilson, Scott and Oates – Seated from left is Bowers and Evans
* It is worth noting that Scott’s decision to take five men to the Pole rendered Crean, Lashly and Evans as a three-man sledge hauling team, as opposed to the normal four-man team. When Evans fell out of harness, due to snow blindness, during the decent of the Beardmore Glacier it was up to Lashly and Crean to drag their supplies. Shortly afterwards Evans was afflicted with scurvy, and not only could he not contribute to the effort, he was placed on the sledge and hauled onward by the two men, who refused his order to leave him behind and save themselves. The three-man team had now become a two-man team, hauling one man on top of their provisions.
Source Michael Smith Tom Crean – An Illustrated Life. The Collins Press, 2011
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