Hello, and welcome to those who have joined up since our last newsletter.
In this issue
- This week: The Terra Nova expedition
- Virtual Snacks
- Bizarre Searches
- Quotation and joke
I’ve just read the book Cherry by Sara Wheeler. It’s a biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who was one of Captain Robert “Con” Scott’s party on the Terra Nova Antarctic expedition. It’s an interesting read, though it’s very much a book of two (or possibly three) parts: the first half divided almost equally between his early life and the expedition itself (which lasted nearly three years in all between the departure from the UK in June 1910 and the return in June 1913); the second half a description of the rest of his life – which was profoundly affected by his experiences in Antarctica.
The Terra Nova expedition has gone into the British national consciousness as a truly heroic failure. Undertaken partly as a scientific expedition, partly as an attempt to explore – and to reach the South Pole first, it also had a largely unstated end of reasserting patriotic pride (and moral fibre: as one of Scott’s companions wrote, “It will be a fine thing to do that plateau with man-haulage in these days of the supposed decadence of the British race”). But, heartbreakingly, Scott and his four companions on the final dash to the Pole got there on 17 January 1912 only to find that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it by five weeks. Then, even more tragically, all five perished on the way back. Petty Officer Edgar “Taff” Evans died at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier suffering from malnutrition exacerbated by frostbite and concussion; Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates, almost crippled by frostbite and scurvy, famously walked out of the team’s tent into a blizzard to try and save his remaining companions; but in vain, as the three others – Scott, Lt Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr Edward “Bill” Wilson – died just 11 miles short of a depot of food and fuel (“One Ton Depot”).
The immediate public reaction was one of deep mourning at the tragic loss, coupled with great pride at the dead men’s bravery. This was reinforced by the message Scott left to the public (“Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale”); his edited diaries – which largely glossed over the shortcomings in the expedition’s organisation and conduct; and the photographic record of the expedition, which was shown to front-line troops in the trenches as inspiration during the First World War. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that, having been beaten to the Pole, Scott was worth far more to the Establishment as a dead hero than a living runner-up. The British love heroic failures.
The truth was rather more complex than that.
The whole expedition was hampered by having a dual purpose. The decision to conduct scientific research as well as explore meant that neither was done entirely satisfactorily; and when in September 1910 Roald Amundsen telegraphed from Madeira to inform Scott (by then in Australia on his way to the South Pole) that he too was heading southwards, it added to the pressure on Scott to hasten his dash to the Pole. All the more so when Scott discovered that Amundsen had located his base camp on the same side of the continent, and even closer to the Pole than Scott’s own. At one point there was even wild talk of going to fight the Norwegians, with “no law south of sixty degrees”. During the journey itself, too, Scott handicapped his team by picking up extra weight (in the form of geological samples) on the way back from the Pole, at a time when their health was already starting to deteriorate.
Scott’s own disdain for the use of dogs to pull sledges, based on his experience from an earlier Antarctic expedition (the Discovery expedition of 1901-04) made matters worse. He took with him a number of Siberian ponies, but they were of indifferent breeding and were ill-suited to Antarctic conditions; the ten taken on the final journey to the Pole all died before reaching the Beardmore Glacier, about halfway along the route. He also took three motor-sledges; one fell through the ice on unloading and was lost, and the other two broke down shortly after setting out. Only the dogs performed well, pulling their loads 345 miles further south than originally planned – but Scott had taken relatively few of these, not enough to take his team all the way along the journey.
A last-minute change of plan involving the composition of the Polar team may well have made matters worse. All the plans had been based on four-man teams; 12 men ascended the Beardmore Glacier, and the first support team turned back at latitude 85° 20′. But at latitude 87° 32′, Scott decided that five men rather than four would go to the Pole, leaving the remaining three to return. This meant a complex recalculation of weights and rations; and of the three who returned, one (Lt Edward “Teddy” Evans, the expedition’s second-in-command) fell seriously ill with scurvy and had to be rescued, causing further effort to be diverted at a crucial time. (It also meant, incidentally, that five men went to the Pole with only four pairs of skis.)
There was further confusion concerning resupply of One Ton Depot, the major depot some 200 miles away from the base camp. Just before setting off up the Beardmore Glacier, Scott had instructed Cecil Meares – the dog-handler – that five extra sets of rations, or three at all costs, were to be taken to One Ton Depot, with as much dog food as could be carried; but the dogs were not to be risked, nor was Scott depending on them for his return. But the delay in the dogs’ return meant that Meares (who was due to leave Antarctica in December 1911) had no time to see to the dog food before his departure, and no-one else picked up the dropped ball. Meanwhile, the redisposition of the last two teams meant that Scott was now relying on the dogs for a safe return after all; and he gave orders to Teddy Evans that a team of dogs should come further south than One Ton Depot to meet the returning Polar team. But Evans’s illness meant that that order too was lost in transmission – with fatal effect.
(One self-recrimination that haunted Cherry after his return from Antarctica was the knowledge that when he had left One Ton Depot after resupplying it in March 1912, Scott’s team were just 70 miles away. Cherry and his team of dogs could perhaps have gone to Scott’s rescue. However, this would have meant breaching Scott’s orders that the dogs were not to be risked – journeying further without dog food would have meant having to kill some dogs to feed the others – and at the time, there was no reason to suspect that Scott and his party had fallen severely behind schedule. Cherry was himself a late substitute for this supply run; the more experienced Edward “Atch” Atkinson had planned to carry it out but was diverted to deal with Teddy Evan’s illness as he was the only available doctor.)
Scott’s final Message To The Public stated: “The causes of the disaster are not due to faulty organisation but to misfortune”. Certainly it seems in the light of current knowledge of the Antarctic climate that Scott’s journey to the Pole was plagued with unusually severe weather even by Antarctic standards, both in the laying of depots (it had been planned to lay One Ton Depot more than 35 miles further south, which could well have saved Scott, Wilson and Bowers) and in the journey itself, notably the blizzard which stopped their progress for over a week those few miles short of One Ton Depot. And Ranulph Fiennes – himself well-versed in polar exploration – has defended Scott in the face of a torrent of criticism over the last 25 years or so, questioning the critics’ technical competence to condemn Scott’s decisions.
Nevertheless, Roald Amundsen – who beat Scott to the Pole essentially through clarity of purpose, good planning and careful selection of equipment – deserves the last word:
“I may say that this is the greatest factor – the way in which the expedition is equipped – the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order – luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”
Do you have anything to say about this topic? Or do you have some suggestions for other issues we might discuss in our weekly email? Why not comment and tell us?
Just a few suggestions if you have a little time to spare:
The British may love a heroic failure, but they also like keeping their sense of humour in adversity. Here’s an interesting story in The Times online about the passengers on the cruise ship Endeavour, which hit an iceberg off the Antarctic coast in November 2007.
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Till next time…
Kay & Dave
Editor & Deputy Editor
British Expat Magazine
“To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate (1809-92), from his poem “Ulysses”
(quoted on the memorial cross erected at Observation Point, Antarctica, by the surviving members of the Terra Nova expedition)
An astronomer is in Darkest Africa on an expedition to observe a total eclipse of the sun which will only be observable there. The day before the eclipse is due, he’s captured by cannibals. Knowing that the eclipse is due around noon, to gain his freedom he plans to pose as a god and threaten to extinguish the sun if he’s not released, but the timing has to be just right. So he asks his guard what time they plan to kill him.
The guard answers, “Tradition has it that captives are to be killed when the sun reaches the highest point in the sky on the day after their capture so that they may be cooked and ready to be served for the evening meal.”
“Phew! Thank goodness for that,” the astronomer thinks.
The guard continues, “But because everyone’s so excited about it, in your case we’re going to wait until after the eclipse.”