One hundred years ago tomorrow, the world was shocked to learn the tragic news that the celebrated Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his British Antarctic expedition party had been found dead in the frozen waste as they returned from the South Pole, just 11 miles from safety. There had already been claims made that the British explorers had been beaten in the race to become the first persons to reach the Pole, by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition, but there was a reluctance to believe this without proof - so news of Captain Scott’s return to civilisation was eagerly expected.
The British party – Scott, Greenock-born Lieutenant Henry “Birdie” Bowers, Captain Lawrence Oates, Petty Officer Edgar Evans and Doctor Edward Wilson – had not been heard from since early April 1912, when the Terra Nova ship brought news of Captain Scott’s dispatch of 3 January that year, in which he wrote cheerfully that the prospect of success seemed good. He was unaware that Amundsen had already reached the Pole first on 14 December, and a crestfallen Scott would, on 17 January, discover the Norwegian flag planted at his destination. Initial reports estimated that Scott had died three days before that final, optimistic January dispatch had even been reported to the waiting world.
It would be almost eleven months after Scott’s death, on 10 February 1913, that the terrible tragedy was confirmed, along with the substantiating of “Amundsen’s claim”. The following extracts from The Scotsman published on 11 February 1913 give a sense of the shock, disbelief and struggle to come to terms with the unthinkable loss of a national hero. Much of the vast coverage was taken up by speculation, and The Scotsman went to press just as Scott’s final diary entry – containing many of the answers to the immediate questions – was wired to newspapers. The report was cut off only half complete, with Scott’s poignant words carried in a second edition of the day’s paper, published at 5am and headlined: ‘Captain Scott’s diary – waiting on death with fortitude’,
Tragedy of the far south
At this late date in the annals of Polar expedition the Antarctic has claimed its Franklin. Less than ten months ago the world was reading with intense interest the personal accounts of Captain Robert F. Scott and other members of the British Antarctic Expedition concerning the invaluable work already accomplished by the largest and most perfectly equipped party ever sent forth in an endeavour to lay bare the secrets in the extremities of the earth. It was known that Amundsen had forestalled the Englishman at the Pole itself, but Scott, writing cheerfully on January 3, when within 150 miles of his destination, reported that the prospect of success seemed good, and there was little doubt in the minds of those who read his message that his indomitable pluck and perseverance must have had their reward long before the publication of the message in the world’s Press. So it was indeed, but swift on the heels of triumph came tragedy appalling in its completeness. At the very moment when praise of the man and his work was in everybody’s mouth, Captain Scott and the four other members in the Southern party were lying dead in the silent wastes of the Ross Barrier, victims to exposure and starvation, within a few miles of the depot of provisions, christened by Scott ‘One-Ton Camp’ and situated in latitude 79 and one third S. It would seem that Scott himself died about March 29, just three days before the Terra Nova brought his dispatches back to civilisation.
Fellow explorers on the disaster
NEW YORK – Sir Ernest Shackleton was amazed when he was shown dispatches from New Zealand reporting the fate of Captain Scott. “I cannot believe it is true,” he said. “It is inconceivable that an expedition so well equipped as Captain Scott’s could perish before a blizzard.” Sir Ernest added that he had faced the severest blizzards without disaster, but he declined to comment further until fuller reports are received.
Captain amundsen’s emotion
MADISON, USA – “Horrible, horrible.” This is all that Captain Amundsen was able to say at first when he was informed of Captain Scott’s fate. Like Sir Ernest Shackleton, he was surprised to hear that such a disaster could overtake a well-organised expedition. He finds it hard to understand how the weather could be so severe as to cause the death of the explorers. When he was told that Captain Scott had found the Norwegian flag at the Pole, Captain Amundsen said: “Correct.” He did not know Captain Scott personally, but admired him as a fine brave man.
“I am deeply grieved to hear the very bad news of the loss of Captain Scott and four of his party just when we were hoping shortly to welcome them home on return from their great and arduous undertaking. I heartily sympathise with the Royal Geographical Society in the loss to science and discovery through the death of these gallant explorers”
– GEORGE, R. AND I.
Dr w.S. Bruce, the well-known scottish authority on the polar regions, writes:
Antarctic exploration has suffered a heavy blow with the bad news that has reached the civilised world reporting the disaster to Captain Scott’s Expedition, which has cost him his life as well as the lives of his four companions.
Antarctic exploration has been singularly clear of any disaster of the kind. Some of the severest hardships experienced by human beings from the time of Captain Cook of 1773 up to the present day have been experienced by Antarctic explorers, but on every occasion they have come through triumphantly out of even almost insuperable difficulties. Consequently, the blow has been heavier because it was thought that Captain Scott and his companions would overcome all those difficulties, as his predecessors had done before him. One of the reasons for immunity from disaster has been that nothing in the way of winter work was done before the gallant Belgian expedition wintered in the Antarctic during 1899 and 1900, and that nothing in the way of extensive sledge journeys was done until Captain Scott himself initiated them in the winter of 1902-03.
Captain Scott was well known in Scotland, for he paid frequent visits during the building of the Discovery, and he not only lectured to the four centres of the Royal Scottish Geographic Society, but was also entertained by that Society on his return from his first expedition, and received the high honour from that Society in the form of the Livingstone gold medal. In Antarctic circles Captain Scott’s death removes a distinguished explorer, who has added much to the annals of Antarctic discovery, and who, had he been spared, would probably have made still more important discoveries. The sympathy of all will be extended to his widow and infant son in their bereavement.
Mrs scott on the voyage to new zealand
Mrs Scott, the widow of the gallant explorer, left England at the beginning of the year in the hope of greeting her husband on his return to civilisation. She was, however, delayed on her journey and only reached San Francisco on the 4th February. She is now on the sea, and will probably receive her first news of the tragedy by wireless when approaching Auckland. A Reuters New York telegram of yesterday’s date says: Mrs Scott is now on board the Aorangi, which is on its way from San Francisco to Auckland. The vessel’s first port of call is Papeete, but there is no cable to that island, and the Aorangi will not touch any point where there is a cable service until she reaches New Zealand. It is therefore improbable that Mrs Scott will learn the sad news until her arrival there, although efforts are being made to reach the Aorangi by wireless telegraphy.
Scott’s final message
I do not think human beings ever came through a month as we have come through, and we should have got through in spite of the weather but for the sickening of a second companion, Captain Oates [Petty Officer Evans had perished already, on 17 February, from concussion on the brain], and a shortage of fuel in our depots, for which I cannot account, and finally but for the storm which has fallen us within 11 miles of this depot, at which we hoped to secure the final supplies.
Surely misfortune could scarcely have exceeded this final blow. We arrived within 11 miles of our old ‘One Ton Camp’ with fuel for one hot meal and food for two days. For four days we have been unable to leave the tent, a gale blowing about us.
We are weak. Writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardship, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.
We took risks – we know we took them. Things have come 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.
But if we have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country, I appeal to our countrymen to see that those who depend on us are properly cared for.
Had we lived I should have had the 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.
But surely a great, rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent upon us are properly provided for.
R. Scott, 25 March 1912