This month in history: Terra Nova Expedition 1910-13

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

On 17 January 1912, the British Antarctic Expedition (or Terra Nova, meaning ‘new land’), led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott CVO (Gazette issue 27346), reached the South Pole, only to find that 34 days previously, a party from Norway, led by Captain Roald Amundsen, had beaten them to it. It was a gruelling trip, and tragedy would be soon to follow.

Why risk such a dangerous expedition?

The expedition was Scott's attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, as well as carry out important scientific research along the coast of Victoria Land on the Ross Ice Shelf.

The scientific work was considered by chief scientist Wilson as the main work of the expedition, though Scott felt that the main objective was to reach the South Pole, and to secure ‘for the British Empire the honour of this achievement’ of reaching the remotest place on earth, and its southernmost point, first.

Scott’s previous Discovery expedition had seen him return as a hero for having reached the furthest south, and he had similar ambitions to reach the Pole first, perhaps at any cost.

The expedition was made up of seamen and scientists, as well as paying guests, who could take up various duties. Scott’s second in command was Admiral Edward Evans, 1st Baron Mountevans. Evans was the recipient of numerous honours and decorations for his Antarctic efforts, military service and lifesaving, and in 1913, received the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (Gazette issue 28719).

The attempt to reach the most remote spot on earth was in itself brave and ambitious, but international rivalries added to the pressure. Japan, Norway, Germany, Sweden, France and Belgium were all making attempts at that time. Norwegian Captain Amundsen had an extra incentive, having previously narrowly missed being the first man to set foot on the North Pole.

Race to the Pole

In early January 1911, Scott’s men arrived in Antarctica. Conditions were extremely harsh, with temperatures plummeting as low as minus 60 degrees C. In the months to follow, the team laid down supplies and made preparations.

Scott and his men left base camp on 1 November 1911 with support parties, motor sledges, dogs and ponies. Problems were soon encountered, as sharp grooves and ridges (‘sastrugi’) hampered progress, the ponies suffered due to the temperature and minimal amounts of food, and motorised sledges had to be abandoned. The party moved onwards, and on 4 January 1912, Scott nominated Wilson, Oates, Edgar Evans and Bowers, to join him on the final strike for the Pole, a further 240km (150 miles) away, with the remaining (Edward Evans, Lashly and Crean) returning. It was an emotional parting.

In recognition for Lashely and Crean’s ‘gallantry’ in ensuring the survival and return of Evans, who suffered from snow blindness and scurvy as they made their way back to base camp, they were awarded Albert Medals of the Second Class in 1913 (Gazette issue 28741):

‘Lieutenant Evans was found to be suffering from scurvy. His condition rapidly became worse. When 151 miles from the base he was unable to stand without support on his ski sticks, and after struggling onward on skis in great pain for four days, during which Lashley and Crean dragged their sledge fifty-three miles, he collapsed, and was unable to proceed further. At this point Lieutenant Evans requested his two companions to leave him, urging that eighty-three miles lay between the party and the nearest refuge hut, and that unless they left him three lives would be lost instead of one. This, however, they refused to do, and insisted on carrying him forward on the sledge. Favoured by a southerly wind, Lashley and Crean dragged Lieutenant Evans on the sledge for four days, pulling for thirteen hours a day, until, on the evening of February 17, 1912, a point was reached thirty-four miles from a refuge hut, where it was thought possible that assistance might be obtained… But for the gallant conduct throughout of his two companions Lieutenant Evans would have undoubtedly lost his life.’

The end of the race

The chosen party of 5 finally reached the Pole on 17 January, devastated to have spotted the dog tracks, a Norwegian flag and a tent that confirmed that the British team had lost the race to the Pole.

Scott wrote in his diary:

‘The POLE. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.’

The fateful retreat

On 19 January 1912 the deflated group began their 800 mile (1,300 km) return journey. After a good start they began to suffer from slow starvation, hypothermia and scurvy. Even so, they stayed true to their scientific quest, taking geology samples whenever possible.

The final demise of the men was harrowing, amid worsening weather conditions. Edward Evans died on 17 February at the base of Beardmore Glacier, having fallen and suffered damage to his head. Captain Oates had severe frostbite and walked out into the cold to the words, later recorded by Scott: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time...’, walking out into a blizzard to sacrifice his life so the other men could carry on unhindered.

In due course, having taken shelter in tents and written farewell messages to their family, Scott and his two surviving comrades, Bowers and Wilson, perished from most likely starvation and exposure to the extreme cold. Their bodies were found 8 months later.

The last entry in Scott’s diary on 29 March 1912 read: 'The end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more'.

In 1913, a wooden cross was erected on Observation Hill, Ross Island, inscribed with the names of the dead and the apt Tennyson quote:

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

The honours

In 1913, Scott’s late wife, Kathleen, was made a widow of a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. Scott had not received a posthumous knighthood, and Kathleen was not entitled to be called Lady Scott, but she could be treated as if she were the widow of such a knight.

In July 1913, members of the expedition (Bowers, Oates, Wilson, Edgar Evans, Scott and Brissenden posthumously), were awarded the Polar Medal (silver or bronze) with clasp inscribed ‘Antarctic, 1910-1913’ (Gazette issue 28740).