Very long ago, when I was at boarding school in England in the 1960’s, we had a Sunday-morning ritual following chapel. Mr. Gervis, our remote and forbidding headmaster, assembled everyone in the big hall and read to us from an improving book. Over the years, I can remember generous helpings of everything from The Pilgrim’s Progress to The Screwtape Letters, and at least one rousing declamation of Elizabeth I’s words to her troops while awaiting the Spanish Armada. The Rev. Richard Wurmbrand’s recently published Tortured for Christ kept even the most feckless ten-year-old boy riveted in his seat. Churchillian idiom was also quite familiar to me in those days. My own early attempts at creative writing were spent reluctantly under its giant shadow. On national holidays, Mr. Gervis frequently treated us to John of Gaunt’s speech from Act 2, Scene 1 of Richard II, his voice rising to a fever pitch of emotion as he reached the line about “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” To this day, I can never read that play without recalling those bitingly cold Sundays and that peak-decibel voice from the lectern. Shakespeare’s language, as it was boomed out to us, seemed more like a mountain carved into runnels and crags by time than like something handmade. There was, in the end, something that went beyond eloquence; there was something appalling about it.
For raw drama, however, none of these texts had the impact of the diaries of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, Royal Navy. In February and March 1912, with frozen fingers, little light, and storms raging outside his tent, Scott recorded the death throes of his expedition’s attempted return march from the South Pole to its base camp at the northern end of the Ross Ice Shelf. This was a trek of some 880 miles, farther than the distance between New York City and Atlanta. Every step of the way had to be undertaken on foot, with or without skis, as Scott’s pack ponies had all perished on the outward journey. Even in the few hours of light each day, the temperature steadily remained as low as -40° F, falling to -70° at night. There were near-continuous northwesterly gales and often impassable terrain. When the snowfall periodically lifted, it was replaced by blinding sunshine. In the face of these challenges, what came through was Scott’s stoical, even at times seemingly suicidal, perseverance. Often the worst asperities were relayed as dark comedy. Scott wrote of being so snow-blind when he approached crevasses that he had simply closed his eyes and taken a running jump to clear them, much as we might have done in our school playing field—only we were vaulting over imaginary cracks in the earth, not real ones.
As well as Scott, who was 43, there was a team of four explorers: Edward Wilson, 39, a physician and painter; Petty Officer Edgar “Taff” Evans, 35, who had joined the Navy at 15 and come under Scott’s command shortly thereafter; Capt. Lawrence Oates, 31, a cavalry officer and professional adventurer; and Lt. Henry Bowers, 28, described as an “indomitably cheerful and hard-working Navy man,” who was largely responsible for the party’s navigation and supplies. Each of these five had volunteered his services, and each spoke unashamedly of his motivating Christianity and patriotism. Their deprecation by certain modern academics is a cautionary tale about what can happen to the reputation of a brave man who displays such flagrantly unfashionable values in the face of insurmountable odds.
After an 11-week march, Scott and his men had reached the Pole on January 17, 1912, only to find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had preceded them by 34 days. “We started [our return] at 7.30,” Scott wrote the following morning,
none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery . . . Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here, and the wind may be our friend to-morrow. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.
It would be fair to say that there was a hushed awe in the schoolroom as the headmaster read those words. Ten-year-olds, by and large, provide the surest nucleus for an enduring popularity; they are attracted instinctively to what is honest and forthright and uninhibited in a character, and when great skill and bravery are allied to a personality of their own uncomplicated integrity, they take that personality to their hearts.
Each day of the return journey, the weather seemed to grow more severe. “Edgar Evans has nearly broken down in brain, we think,” Scott wrote on February 16, a month into the ordeal, after his friend and subordinate had been found on his knees in the ice, clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and with a “wild look in his eyes.” Evans was placed on a makeshift sledge and taken into a tent, where he died quietly that night.
On March 6, the party had walked some 380 miles from the Pole, with 500 more miles to go. They were still nearly 60 miles short of their midway supply point, One Ton Depot, which contained fuel and food. “‘Titus’ Oates’ feet are in a wretched condition,” Scott recorded. “The poor soldier is very nearly done.” Ten days later, Scott wrote, “Oates slept through the night, hoping not to wake; but he woke. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.” To us, it seemed that Captain Oates’ death was a perfect expression of a certain British sense of self-denial and forbearance, and Scott’s phlegmatic diary entry later that night still resonates today:
Should this be found, I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery.
In an entry dated March 23, Scott wrote of his hopes for his family and his two-year-old son, Peter, before falling into a poignantly staccato report:
Blizzard bad as ever—Wilson and Bowers unable to start—to-morrow last chance—no fuel and only one or two of food left—must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural—we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.
They were Scott’s final recorded words, save for a brief entry on March 29:
Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
After signing his name, Scott added the words, “For God’s sake, look after our people.”
On November 12, 1912, a search party found the tent of Captain Scott and his two companions half-buried in the snow. The position of the bodies suggested that Scott was the last of the three to die. He had evidently opened the flaps of his sleeping bag, unbuttoned his coat, and awaited the end. As well as his diary, Scott left behind a “Message to the Public,” which concluded,
We took risks, we knew 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. 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 . . .
Fifty years ago, the proper response to Scott’s fate was one of mourning and respect. In particular, the diary seemed to recount an archetypal story of British derring-do, fortitude, and resignation. As such things became unfashionable, Scott’s biographers turned increasingly to reinterpretation. Or, for the more daring, iconoclasm. By 1979, the Cambridge historian Roland Huntford felt able to describe Scott as an “incompetent amateur,” whose “Message to the Public” was no more than a “deceitful self-justification from a man who had led his comrades to their deaths.” By and large, the word bungler has since come to dominate published wisdom on the events of January-March 1912. Scott’s reputation has taken a sustained battering in the living-room war to malign what was once universally admired, a victim of the baroque politics of academic consensus and denigration. A great man, who heroically reached the southern extremity of the earth? Or a culpable buffoon?
In the course of his widespread research, Professor Huntford has gathered an impressive collection of adjectives with which to beat his subject over the head: vindictive, cruel, manipulative, egocentric, effete, self-important, untrustworthy, thin-skinned, hypocritical, suspicious, and on and on. Like most of us, Scott was not without his humanizing contradictions. In contrast to the academics’ idyllic home lives, it’s possible that as a young man he once enjoyed a relationship with a considerably older, married woman, and that he and his wife, the sculptor Kathleen Bruce, later took an unusually open view of their own wedding vows. No doubt his management style at times failed to conform to today’s egalitarian ideal. Scott made decisions, rather than invited debate. Perhaps the main reason for his fall into modern biographical disrepute was this tendency simply to issue orders, and move on. Scott was as likely to have called for a folksy chat and a show of hands when deciding what to do next on the ice shelf as are his modern detractors to follow in his footsteps. Many of these same despised qualities of self-confidence and unflinching devotion to God, country, and rank had once allowed a small European island to create and maintain an empire that governed roughly one third of the world’s population and completely dominated its oceans.
Robert Scott was born on June 6, 1868, in the English naval town of Plymouth. His life leading up to the events of early 1912 does not suggest him as the prototype for one of P.G. Wodehouse’s effete and charming young idlers. At age 25, Scott was supporting his widowed mother and his five siblings on a Navy lieutenant’s pay. If he was driven by his relentless ambition and sense of duty, then he was a reflection not only of the culture of the day, but of his personal circumstances. In 1901, he accepted a civilian commission to lead a two-year survey of the Antarctic, which eventually brought Scott, Edward Wilson, and Ernest Shackleton to within 500 miles of the Pole. As their journey made abundantly clear, there is more to science than sitting around a laboratory writing on a blackboard. What resulted was no less than evidence of a period of exponential expansion and contraction of the earth’s surface that put to shame all other research on the subject up until then. The Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian and author Edward Larson believes that “long overdue recognition” should be given to the pioneering discoveries made by Scott and his men, from such fields as “terrestrial magnetism, geographical discovery, oceanography, and meteorology to biology, geology, and glaciology.” On the whole, these are not accomplishments dwelt on by Professor Huntford and his school. The rock samples personally collected by Scott, dismissed as “junk” by one biographer, weren’t junk at all, Larson adds; they contain impressions of the “long-sought Glossopteris plant, whose presence in Antarctica support[s] the hypothesis that the southern continents once formed an immense supercontinent.”
Perhaps the questions to ask are the basic ones. Did Scott consistently exhibit personal courage and fortitude in adding to our understanding of our planet? Did he inspire the unwavering trust and loyalty of his subordinates, such that Edward Wilson, for one, instantly volunteered to accompany him on his next expedition? Did he ask nothing of them that he would not do himself? Where do we put the man who then left a comfortable Admiralty position in London to return to the ends of the earth, declaring it his ambition “to reach the South Pole, and to secure for God and the British Empire the honour of this achievement”?
Yes, in hindsight, Scott made mistakes. His preference for horses rather than dogs to haul supplies was debatable, at best, and perversely stubborn, at worst. More thought might have been given to the precise location of the expedition’s fuel and food depots, which in the event proved tantalizingly, and disastrously, diffuse. Because of delays in the party’s sea voyage from England and deteriorating weather conditions on their arrival in Antarctica, the main supply point was laid some 33 miles farther north than originally planned, which might have proved the difference between life and death in the desperate circumstances that ensued. But set against this were factors that neither Scott nor anyone alive could possibly control. The polar winter was unusually early, and brutal, that year. February 1912 was a season of cold, incessant light, and March 1912 was a season of colder, incessant darkness. Scott and his companions were attired in a variety of parkas, gloves, and fur-lined boots that were the best available at the time, but the sort of thing we might wear while enjoying some light winter sport today. By March 16, when Captain Oates walked to his death, each of the surviving members of the expedition was hobbled by advanced frostbite to his hands and feet. They would all have been experiencing respiratory problems, dizziness, and excruciating cramps. Edward Wilson, the party’s doctor, could do little or nothing to alleviate their suffering. Even common medical supplies such as adhesive bandages are useless in those conditions: They won’t stick. Had any of the men been tempted to utter the phrase “I’m freezing” or “I’m starving”—and there is no evidence that they did—he would have been stating the literal truth. Scott dispassionately records in his diary of March 29, 1912, “We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th.” It is thought that he died within 24 hours of recording this fact.
Just over two weeks after Scott and the last of his companions perished in the Antarctic, the Titanic sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The two events share some broad characteristics, and each has since become the center of a cottage industry. As well as the relic quests, computer recreations, and Hollywood tributes, both tragedies have attracted a certain armchair reassessment of the principals now thought responsible for the loss of life. Whether all the revisionism speaks more of the motivation and complexes of the revisionist than it does of the subject of his scorn is not for a journalist to say. I prefer to recall those frigid mornings nearly 50 years ago spent listening to Mr. Gervis bark out the last, heart-rending entries from Scott’s diary. Even in his melodramatic way, and in a room full of antsy schoolboys, he had his audience utterly spellbound as he came to the climactic passages. I don’t know how he did it, and I was there. I still am.