|British Heroism They Would Rather We Forgot||Dr Donald Stevens recalls Scott's epic expedition|
Forty or fifty years ago, I would not be writing this account. Every reader would know the story, many better than I. However, successive governments have endeavoured to destroy our national heritage and memory and wipe the word "heroism" from our vocabulary. Therefore, it is for the reader of this generation that I write.
It is the autumn of 1911. Five men, with their provisions and equipment, have just landed on the edge of the Antarctic Continent. Their leader is Robert Falcon Scott: His task is to reach the South Pole before the members of a Norwegian expedition under Roald Amundsen.
Scott's expedition got off to a bad start. The men had hoped to use Norwegian hill ponies instead of the usual husky dogs, but the ponies failed to cope with the Antarctic conditions and the five men had to proceed on foot to the Pole.
We must remember that this was before radio communication, support helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft. Once the handful of men set off, they were on their own, isolated from the rest of the world. They would have no help from anyone; they would have to cope unaided with illness and accident - in sub-zero temperatures.
The terrain was that of an ordinary country, with hills and mountains, valleys and ravines, plains and plateaus, but covered by snow and ice. When the wind blows, it blows particles of snow and ice; when it blows strongly, it is a blinding, stinging blizzard.
Base camps were established on the edge of the Antarctic: these were huts containing bunks, chairs and tables, stocks of food and the oil necessary for stoves used to cook the food and provide some heat. The Scott expedition, like all such expeditions, had a large sledge with food, equipment, fuel and spare clothing on it. This heavy sledge had to be hauled up slopes and over rough ground. On a downward slope, the men would walk behind the sledge, hauling it back so that it would not run away.
The expedition started in a light-hearted way. The members might have been schoolboys on holiday, with jokes and mild pranks. Each member took it in turn to have a rest and ride on the sledge (except when it was going downhill) but it was too cold to remain inactive for long.
Everything went well until the party was nearing the Pole. The sledge was going down a steep slope, and one of the party, Lieutenant Evans slipped and fell, sliding down the slope before the others. They hurried down and found him unconscious at the bottom. They picked him up and strapped him on the sledge; the member of the team who had been resting had the job of rubbing Evans' hands and feet to keep his circulation going and prevent frostbite.
This was a serious blow. Evans, who was a tough and experienced sailor in the days when sailors had to climb a thirty-foot mast to furl sails in a gale, was the hardiest of the five. Now their strongest member was no longer a help but a hindrance.
Sobered by this accident, the others pushed on, dragging the much heavier sledge, following the compass due south.
Then came the second catastrophe. Following the carefully worked out calculations made by international geographers, they arrived at the Pole, only to find that Amundsen's party had beaten them there. A message from Amundsen wished them well, and with it was some provisions left there by the Norwegians, who had arrived a month before. All that now remained was the return journey.
Naturally, this would not be the way they had come, since they would need fresh provisions from a new base camp. Heavy hearted, but not dispirited, they set out.
The weather worsened. It was the Northern Hemisphere's winter and the Southern Hemisphere's summer. However, in Antarctic conditions the temperature was always well below freezing. The wind rose and blew ice and snow in their faces.
Evans died. He had been suffering from concussion, and now had stopped breathing. They wrapped him in a Union Jack and Captain Scott read the burial service over him. They made a sort of grave for him and left him to the eternal snow and ice. Now there were four.
One member of the expedition, Captain Oates, was suffering from frostbitten feet. This made him painfully slow. He stumbled along, trying to keep up with the others, for it was urgent that the team should reach a base camp to find shelter from the increasing wind. The others helped him, but it was slow going.
At last, towards the end of February 1912, half a year after they had started, they halted for the last time. Inside the small tent they erected - despite the difficulties caused by a blizzard - they were out of the biting wind. Here they could heat food on the little stove and change their clothing.
Outside, the wind howled. There could be no going on until it abated.
The men waited. Food was running low. Even more serious was the shortage of fuel for the stove. As long as the stove could be lit there was warmth and hot food. When the fuel ran out there would be only cold food and whatever warmth could be provided by their clothing.
Oates makes the sacrifice
Captain Oates considered. With his frostbitten feet he was a liability to the expedition. Without him, they could travel faster and there would be more food for the others. He made up his mind.
It was March 17th 1912, his 32nd birthday. Most people receive gifts on their birthdays; he was going to give his companions the only thing he had to give - his life.
Quietly, he said to Scott: "I'm just going outside, and may be some time." There was nothing unusual in this; it was a polite term for saying one was going to the toilet, which was always done outside, even in those sub-zero temperatures. But Captain Oates meant literally what he said; and he did not want the others to risk their lives trying to rescue him. It would indeed be "some time" in fact for ever.
He went out. He walked ahead as the Antarctic wind howled and lamented about him. We do not know how far he managed to stumble on his frostbitten feet in the biting, whirling blizzard. We will never know. Eventually he fell, never to rise again.
We do not know where his body is. Somewhere, in an unmarked grave, covered with blown snow and ice, lies a gallant man who gave his life for his friends.
And yet it was in vain. The others were trapped in that tent by the blizzard, and they died there when fuel and food ran out. Calm to the last, one of the members of the expedition took a photograph of Captain Scott seated at the table, writing his diary to the last. It was he who recorded the self-sacrifice of Captain Oates - "a Christian gentleman," he described him with typical British understatement.
A relief expedition, sent out when Scott and his fellows failed to reach the coast of the Continent, found them.
I said above that Oates' death was in vain, and so it was, because it failed in its purpose to save his comrades. Yet in a sense it was not. Thanks to Scott's diary, we know the story. And that account of Captain Oates' supreme sacrifice inspired others to do the same in the Great War that was so soon to burst upon Europe, and again in the Second World War. Who knows that it may yet inspire others, in this selfish, greedy society of today, to rise above the contemporary worthlessness of modern Britain, to show once more to the world that the true spirit of our nation, the spirit of Captain Oates, the spirit of heroism to be found in any worthy country, is not dead?