On this day in history : 17th January 1912 – British explorers, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, reach the South Pole….only to discover a Norwegian team, led by Roald Amundsen had got there before them….

Scott, a naval officer and explorer, had unsuccessfully tried to reach the South Pole on a previous occasion, in 1902. His party had been forced to turn back because of ill-health and severe sub-zero weather conditions….

It was on the 15th of June 1910 that his converted whaling ship the ‘Terra Nova’ left Cardiff to begin the journey south….carrying on board – dogs, ponies and mechanical sledges – as well as the explorers and all of their supplies. It was Scott’s intention to carry out a series of scientific experiments and studies – he wished to learn more about the biology, geology and meteorology of the Antarctic…. He also wanted to test the newly motorised sledges they were taking with them…. Having a go at being the first to reach the South Pole was to be an added bonus….

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Captain Robert Falcon Scott, in polar gear 1911 – Public domain

However, Scott had a rival – one that he was initially blissfully unaware of…. Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen was a respected Norwegian explorer. It had been his original intent to take an expedition to the North Pole….but then two Americans, Frederick Cook and Robert Peary made separate claims as to having reached the North Pole – (claims that were later to be dismissed)…. Amundsen, being a competitive adventurer, kept his plans a well-guarded secret; it wasn’t until his ship ‘Fram’ left Oslo on the 3rd of June 1910 – supposedly bound for the North Pole – that he revealed his true intent to his team…. He knew that in the eyes of many his open challenge to Scott on racing to be the first to the South Pole would not have been entirely acceptable….

The first Scott knew of this rival expedition was when he reached Melbourne and found a telegram waiting for him…. It simply read – “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen”…. Scott was understandably shocked – but was determined to stick to the original plan – he had experiments and studies to conduct… Amundsen would have had little time for such matters as science and technical trials; as far as he was concerned it was all about the race to the South Pole…. Amundsen and his team reached the Pole on the 14th of December 1911….

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Taking an Observation at the Pole (1911) Expedition of Norwegian team by Roald Amundsen – Image credit: Euclid vanderKroew via Flickr

Scott and his team set out 11 days after Amundsen – on the 1st of November 1911…. It was not long before it became evident the mechanical sledges and ponies could not cope – so the expedition continued without them…. In mid-December the dog teams turned back….leaving just Scott and four of his companions to journey onwards:- Henry Bowers, Edward Wilson, Edgar Evans and Lawrence Oates….

The team arrived at the South Pole on the 17th of January 1912….thirty-four days after Amundsen’s expedition had arrived there…. It was a day of bitter disappointment for Scott and his men….

“Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority”….the words of Scott….

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Last expedition of Robert Falcon Scott. The image shows Wilson, Scott and Oates (standing); and Bowers and Evans (sitting)

It would have been with heavy hearts that the five men would have begun the eight hundred mile journey back to base camp….the journey that was to be their last and one so full of tragedy….

As the men dragged their equipment over ice fields and glaciers their exhaustion increased by the hour…. Evans was the first to succumb…. Scott had noticed on the 7th of February and recorded in his journal that his colleague was repeatedly falling behind the rest of the group. Ten days later Scott found him on his knees….Evans died later that night – as a complete group they had made it as far as the base of the Beardmore Glacier. The cause of death was possibly a brain injury – which Evans may have sustained during a fall, which the others had not witnessed….

The weather took a turn for the worse….and the team were still hundreds of miles from base camp. The men were forced to spend much of their time huddled against the elements in their tent….with their food supplies rapidly dwindling away….

By mid-March Oates was suffering from severe frost bite and was barely able to walk – he would have been acutely aware that he was a hindrance to the others…. It was reputedly with the words “I am just going outside and may be some time” that Oates walked out into the blizzard…. The others tried to dissuade him – but in the words that Scott recorded “the act of a brave man and an English gentleman”….

Three weeks later the remaining team members – Scott, Bowers and Wilson – were caught in yet another raging blizzard; they were just 11 miles (3 days of walking) from the next supply depot…. But the three never made it out of their tent again….having been claimed by exhaustion, starvation and exposure….

Eight months later a party of explorers from base camp came across the bodies of the three men still within the tent…. Scott was lay in the middle, his colleagues on either side of him…. The tent was removed and a cairn of ice built over them – forming an icy tomb….

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Image credit : Australian National Maritime Museum via Flickr

All three had written letters in their final hours – to family and friends. Scott’s last words written on the 29th of March….“It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write any more….R. Scott”….”For God’s sake look after our people”….

It wasn’t until February 1913 that word of the tragic events reached back to Britain. A memorial service at St. Paul’s was held soon afterwards…. King George V and the Archbishop of Canterbury were amongst the many dignitaries who attended…. Britain was in mourning – 10,000 people gathered outside the Cathedral….

Amundsen’s success was celebrated worldwide – he received personal telegrams from King George and President Theodore Roosevelt…. Scott was also recognised for his achievements – and was posthumously made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath….

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