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Scott of the Antarctic

We shall stick it out to the end but we are getting weaker of course and the end cannot be far away. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. For God’s sake look after our people’

So ends the final entry in the diary of Robert Falcon Scott written on 29th March 1912. Scott and his team had reached the South Pole on January 18th but waiting for them was a message from Roald Amundsen the Norwegian explorer informing Scott that the Norwegian expedition had arrived at the same spot a month earlier. It was not until November 12th that a search party found Scott’s tent half buried in the snow. Inside were the frozen bodies of Scott and his two colleagues Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers. They had perished on their return journey from the Pole just eleven miles short of their supply base where there was food, fuel and shelter waiting for them.

map of the antartic

It is difficult to realize now that despite being sighted in 1820 there had been little exploration of the continent of Antarctica until the joint announcement by the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of the British National Antarctic Expedition (later called the Discovery Expedition). ). The leader of the expedition would be Robert Falcon Scott sailing on the ship RRS Discovery, the aim being the scientific and geographical exploration of the interior of Antarctica. Aged only 32 and a Royal Navy officer Scott was a modern and innovative leader of men able to command the respect of naval personnel and civilians alike. It was during this expedition, which left on 31st July 1901 ,that Scott and his team investigated the geographical features of Antarctica, collected scientific data and specimens, observed the natural life of the continent and gained first-hand experience of how men, dogs and equipment functioned in the extreme climate.

Returning to England in the autumn of 1904 Scott found the expedition had captured the public’s imagination and that he was now a national hero. He had been the leader of the most extensive scientific and geographical expedition ever undertaken and despite tensions between some members of the crew, physical exhaustion and the Discovery being ice bound for two years the expedition was deemed to be a success.

In 1909 Robert Scott announced his second Antarctic expedition as leader of a team who would attempt to be the first men to reach the South Pole. Scott’s announcement was made in the full knowledge that Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, would be launching an attempt on the North Pole. However, on 15th September 1909 Robert Peary an American claimed to have successfully reached the North Pole. On hearing this news Amundsen changed his plans and decided that he too would also launch an attempt on the South Pole although he told no one of this and it was not until Scott and his expedition arrived in Australia on the ship Terra Nova that they became aware of Amundsen’s intentions. The race to the South Pole had begun.

Ship in the Antartic

From the beginning the weather was appalling. After having left New Zealand the Terra Nova became trapped in pack-ice in Antarctic waters for twenty days .This delay meant that there was less time for preparatory work and the severe weather conditions hindered the acclimatisation of the expeditionary team. However despite all this the team surveyed, mapped, recorded and sketched. Herbert Ponting took photographs of the day to day activities of the men as well as the Antarctic landscape forming a photographic record of the expedition. But there were problems. Many of the ponies that Scott had taken with him had died on the outward journey while others had to be shot because they could not cope with the polar conditions. The motorised sledges that Scott was pioneering often broke down and there were not enough dogs to pull the sledges so the members of the expedition had to haul them themselves which was slow and exhausting and used up their strength. The tinned food that Scott had taken with him, we now know, was not nearly as nutritious as was then supposed and the weight of it was enormous. Despite these setbacks the spirits of Scott’s men were high and Henry Bowers wrote:

One gets down to bedrock with everybody sledging under trying conditions. The character of a man comes out and you see things that you never expected. I think more highly than ever of our leader….’

At the beginning of January 1912 Scott announced the names of the men who would accompany him on the final part of the journey to reach the South Pole. They were Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans, and Lawrence Oates. Over eight hundred miles of the harshest terrain imaginable lay before them. The weather deteriorated even further and the conditions were appalling with blinding blizzards alternating with dazzling sunshine.

Ice in the Antartic

The temperatures plummeted making hauling the sledges difficult, but eventually on Jan 17th1912 a black speck was sighted on the horizon. As they got closer Scott and his men saw that it was a tent which flew the Norwegian flag. The race to the Pole was over. Amundsen had arrived at this point four weeks earlier. He had employed a totally different strategy using dogs to pull his sledges, travelling faster and subsequently using up less energy. Rather than use the Beardmore Glacier route to the polar plateau which at the time was the only known route Amundsen had gambled on finding a different crossing point further east and a glacier that the dogs would be able to cross. Luck had been with him as not only did he find a passage across the ice joint but also a glacier that was not split by crevasses or chasms and which the dogs could transverse.

Suffering from frostbite, exhausted and demoralised , Scott and his men started the return journey hauling the sledges with their supplies on. By now Evans was behaving erratically and eventually fell behind the others. They found him in a state of collapse and he died without gaining consciousness. The four remaining members of the party were only able to travel a few miles a day so horrendous were the weather conditions. They were now all suffering from severe frostbite, malnutrition and exhaustion but Oates could barely walk. His feet were swollen and blackened by frostbite and gangrene. He became incoherent with lack of food and an old war wound that he had sustained as a professional soldier opened up and became a festering mess. Unable to bear the intense pain any longer and knowing that his end had come he walked out into the blizzard with the words ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He was never seen again

Ice in the Antartic

From then on Scott and the remaining two members of the party made little progress being mostly blizzard bound in their tent short of fuel and supplies . A search party from the base set out to look for them but after thirty five miles they too were beaten by the ferocious weather and had to turn back. It was not until eight months later that the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers were found. The search party built a cairn of snow over the tent and a cross of skis was erected. On the hill overlooking Scott’s base hut the crew of the Terra Nova made a wooden cross which bore the names of the five men who had perished on that ill fated expedition together with a line from Tennyson’s poem Ulysses ‘

"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"

Further Reading

The following reference books can be found on Floor 4 of the Central Library

The Last Great Quest by Max Jones shelved at 919.8904092

Scott and Amundsen: Duel in the Snow by Rainer K Langner . Shelved at 919.8904

An Unsung Hero by Michael Smith Shelved at 998

Scott of the Antarctic by Elspeth Huxley Shelved at 999.09

I Am Just Going Outside by Michael Smith. Shelved at 998

Antarctic Destinies by Stephanie Barczewski Shelved at 919.8904

Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford. Shelved at 999.09

The Longest Winter by Meredith Hooper. Shelved at 919.8904

The Ice by Stephen J Pyne. Shelved at 998.904

Another World by Herbert Ponting shelved at GQ779 on Floor 3 of the Central Library

Lending copies of books about Antarctica, Captain Scott and the polar expeditions can be found in Central Lending at the Central Library and in Community Libraries.

These are a few websites that you might find interesting. Please note that we are not responsible for the content of another organisation’s website

www.nmm.ac.uk/scott National Maritime Museum
www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/dundee/discoverypoint/index.html RRS Discovery-Dundee Heritage Trust
www.south-pole.com/p0000089.htm Biography of Robert Scott
www.freezeframe.ac.uk/resources/ponting-herbert-george Gallery of Herbert Ponting’s polar expedition photographs
www.projectgutenberg.org Scott’s polar diaries available to read online or to download