Robert Falcon Scott was born in Devonport near Plymouth on 6 June 1868, to a prosperous middle class family and a father, the owner of a local brewery, who imbued in his children not just a work ethic but a strong sense of patriotism.
Even though his father’s ambitions were focused on his older brother Archie, Robert, who was never less than competitive would also and make his father proud.
Like a great many ambitious young men from his region Robert opted for a life at sea and he joined the Royal Navy being commissioned a Lieutenant in March, 1888. His Navy career was steady rather than spectacular and he did not make the rapid progress he had hoped for. In the meantime, things had taken a turn for the worse at home.
In 1894, his father went bankrupt and the family were forced to sell up and move to Shepton Mallet in Somerset and although the family’s poverty was relative rather than absolute the need for Robert to advance his career and earn more money increased When his father died soon after the responsibility for the maintenance of his mother and two younger sisters fell upon him and Archie.
When Archie died four years later of typhoid fever the burden fell upon Robert’s shoulders alone, but then he was never to shirk responsibility.
For a number of years Scott had been a close personal friend of Clements Markham, the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society and in 1899 learned that the society intended to finance an expedition to the Antarctic.
On 11 June, he visited Markham at his London home and volunteered to lead it.
Scott knew nothing of Antarctic exploration, or indeed exploration in general, and there were others involved in the expedition far more qualified than him to lead it. As a result, there was an attempt to place him only in command of the expedition ship Discovery but he remained adamant that he was the man to lead and despite the resistance of others his friend Markham forced it through, but it was a decision that caused a great deal of resentment.
The Discovery Expedition set sail on 31 July, 1901, and was to be far from an unqualified success. The ship became stuck in the ice for the best part of two years and in the end had to be dynamited free, and any scientific benefits were limited.
There was also considerable animosity between Scott and another leading member of the expedition who would later find fame in his own right, Ernest Shackleton. Often at loggerheads their disagreements would be heated and in the end Scott ordered Shackleton home on the pretext that he was suffering from exhausted, and though their relationship was to improve over the years Scott always treated Shackleton more as a rival than a colleague.
Despite all its problems and lack of any tangible results the Discovery Expedition had caught the public imagination and Scott returned a popular hero. He enhanced his reputation further by embarking upon a lucrative speaking tour and addressed the Royal Geographical Society to a standing ovation.
He may even have begun to believe his own publicity as the Great Antarctic Explorer.
On 2 September 1906, he married the artist and socialite Kathleen Bruce and no longer just a celebrity he was now moving in the most exalted artistic and social circles.He had become part of the Edwardian Establishment.
Over the next few years however his fame diminished as the spotlight fell upon his old rival, Shackleton.
On 19 October 1908, Shackleton began his Nimrod Expedition but despite repeated requests to do so Scott refused to co-operate with the expedition and indeed appeared to put impediments in the way of its success.
Shackleton failed to reach the South Pole but the expedition was deemed a success nonetheless making a number of geographical and scientific discoveries both significant and verifiable unlike Scott’s earlier findings which were criticised for insufficient rigour and were of scarce value to the scientific community.
Shackleton returned to great public acclaim and was knighted by the King. He was also awarded a gold medal by the Royal Geographical Society, though a proposal that it be made smaller than the one awarded to Scott was rejected.
In public at least, Scott remained tight-lipped regarding the praise heaped upon Shackleton and the correspondence between them was cordial but it clearly rankled with him. It also inspired him to try again.
In 1910, he announced his own expedition to the Antarctic to be called Terra-Nova, after the ship that was to transport them to the icy wastes. The Royal Geographical Society expressed its hope that it was being undertaken for scientific purposes but Scott soon made it plain that he had other plans:
“I intend to reach the South Pole and to secure for the British Empire this achievement.”
He had learned lessons from his previous expedition ha said, but alas they appeared to have been the wrong ones.
He chose the members of his Terra-Nova Expedition for reasons of sentiment and compatibility rather than expertise and reliability. The ponies he chose were insufficiently hardy, and distrusting dogs became over-reliant on motorised sledges which had a tendency to break down in adverse weather conditions. He also placed too much faith in his men to overcome any difficulties they might encounter.
Criticism was made of his preparations but he was to prove a stubborn man and one not inclined to take advice.
In 1910, whilst he was in Melbourne, Australia, he received a telegram informing him that he was now in a race to be the first man to reach the South Pole with the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen.
He informed his team that this changed nothing and that they would proceed as planned, but the news had made him reckless.
The expedition seemed ill-starred from the start when not long after reaching the Antarctic when the Terra Nova became stuck in pack ice for twenty days, one of the motor-sledges was lost overboard, and the ponies became sick and many died. Captain Laurence Oates, who was in charge of the ponies reported to Scott that they were worse than useless and suggested, they be killed for food. Scott refused forcing Oates to reply:
“Sir, I think you will regret not taking my advice.”
Oates later wrote that he found Scott’s ignorance about marching with animals colossal.
He also did not heed the advice to move his main supply post One Ton Depot, 35 miles further south.
Having established his Base Camp, Scott began his journey South on 1 November 1911 with seven men, just about the worst possible time in respect of the weather, but then this was no longer just an expedition it was a race.
His plan was to reduce his team to three men before making his final push for the Pole. In the meantime, he had left those remaining at the Base Camp with conflicting orders that left them in a state of some confusion.
After marching some hundreds of miles and with most of the dogs he did take with him dead and the motorised sledges out of action on 4 January 1912, he made his decision. Instead of taking three men with him he would take four and they would be Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans, and Laurence Oates.
Those who were sent back to the Base Camp – Tom Crean, Edward Evans, and William Lashly were bitterly disappointed unaware that it would save their lives.
Edward Wilson who had previously been a missionary and worked as a doctor with the poor in Battersea, London, was probably the nearest thing Scott had to a friend on the expedition. A committed Christian his deep faith served as a comfort to those around him.
Edgar Evans was a short thick-set Welshman who by the time of the expedition had begun to turn to fat. He was however immensely strong and despite his fondness for the bottle he was someone who Scott was determined to take with him because of his always cheerful, optimistic outlook, and willingness to do whatever he was told without complaint.
Henry Bowers was a short, stout man who was as strong as an ox and as tough as old boots. The decision to take him for the final push had been made at the last moment. By taking him Scott now had to split their limited rations five ways but he thought that the party would benefit from his physical strength and always cheery and positive disposition.
Laurence Oates was an Officer in the Royal Navy, a heavy drinker and a known womaniser who was not always considered reliable. But he was tough and resourceful and calm under pressure.
Oates, who had previously served in the Royal Inniskilling Dragoons and had been seriously wounded during the Boer War, had only got on the expedition as a result of his willingness to contribute to it financially and to say that he and Scott did not get on would be an understatement. He had written:
“I dislike Scott intensely and would chuck the whole thing if it were not a British expedition.”
He also wrote:
“He (Scott) is not straight. It is always him first and the rest nowhere.”
Scott’s antagonism towards Oates was always less marked, though he did consider him to be somewhat of a pessimist.
The party reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to discover the Norwegian flag already flying there, and a letter from Amundsen dated 14 December, 1911.
He had preceded them by five weeks and Scott was devastated writing in his journal:
“The worst has happened. Great God! This is an awful place.”
After resting for two days the party began the 800 mile journey back to their Base Camp but with no pack animals and no transport they were reliant upon their own momentum to get home.
On 4 February, Edgar Evans, who had earlier cut his hand which had since turned gangrenous sustained a heavy fall off Beardsmore Glazier that left him both physically and mentally incapable. Unable to move of his own accord he now had to be either helped or carried.
Following a further fall on 17 February, he died.
Scott and his party still had more than 400 miles to travel across the Ross Ice Shelf and the weather that was always bad at that time of year was deteriorating rapidly; and they were all suffering from varying degrees of frostbite, snow-blindness, and malnutrition. There was also little light and they were travelling in at best semi-darkness.
Laurence Oates, hampered by his old war wound was barely able to walk and expressed the belief that he was slowing all of them down and by doing so putting their lives in danger. On 16 March, whilst resting in their tent he rose to his feet saying:
“I am just going outside and may be some time.”
The others knew what he intended and tried to dissuade him but he left anyway. He was never seen again.
Scott was to write in his journal that he died a true English Gentleman.
Over the next two days they managed to walk barely 20 miles and on 19 March they pitched their tent for the final time. Exhausted and close to starvation they were just 11 miles short of One Ton Depot and their salvation.
Because of Scott’s earlier stubbornness it was 24 miles short of where it could have been.
That night Scott wrote in his journal:
“We took risks, we knew we took them, things have turned out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the Will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. Had we lived I would have had a tale to tell of hardihood, courage, and endurance of my companions which would have stirred the blood of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”
As the night drew in and the storms raged outside the men retired to their sleeping bags for the last time.
On 29 March, Scott wrote in his journal:
“Last entry: For God’s sake, look after our people.”
That night Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, and Robert Falcon Scott froze to death. Their bodies were not found by a search party until 12 November, eight months later.
The discovery of Scott’s journal which detailed the endurance, sufferings, and heroism of all those involved made him a national hero.
There is no doubt that Captain Scott made mistakes, some of them even crass and stupid. He was also arrogant egotistical, self-regarding and vain but he also displayed the virtues of stoicism and loyalty that he himself so admired.
And journal also displayed a genuine concern for the men under his command.
In every way, he had died the hero’s death in the best Edwardian tradition. A death that some have since suggested he had sought all along. But his self-sacrifice and dignity in-extremis in pursuit of man’s eternal mission to conquer nature captured the imagination of a generation and has continued to serve as an inspiration to those that have followed ever since.
He would forever be – Scott of the Antarctic.