Thursday, 29 March 2012

Great Scott

Captain Scott writing in his journal in October 1911
Captain Scott lay trapped in his death tent for more than a week before he wrote in his diary for the last time. He was out of food. He had neither light nor heat. A wild blizzard howled outside, ending any chance of going on. "I do not think we can hope for any better things now..." he wrote. "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."

That diary entry - a century ago today - tells you all you need to know about the immense character of Robert Falcon Scott. By that point he and his men had been dragging their sledge across Antarctic for months. They had lost the race to the South Pole. They had seen two friends die on the trail. It was cold enough to crack teeth.

That Scott found the strength to write anything is a miracle. And yet, incredibly, there were letters, too. Two other men had made it this far with him. To the wife of Dr Edward Wilson, the 43-year-old explorer wrote, "I should like you to know how splendid he was at the end - everlastingly cheerful." To the mother of Henry Bowers, just 29 when he died, "He remained cheerful, hopeful and indomitable to the end."

A third note was addressed to Scott’s great friend James Barrie, creator of Peter Pan. “We are in a desperate state, feet frozen etc…” it reads, “but it would do your heart good to be in our tent, to hear our songs and the cheery conversation.” And there was also a plea to the public to look after the families of his men: “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. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale…”

Once a national icon, Scott’s reputation has taken a pummelling in recent years. He was a bungling amateur, it’s been claimed; an incompetent fool who made a dreadful hash of things. I’m not so sure. Ranulph Fiennes, the world’s greatest living explorer, thinks this version of the story is a travesty. And in his 2003 biography of Captain Scott, he convincingly draws on his own grim experiences of polar travel to robustly rebut the critics. 

“No previous Scott biographer has manhauled a heavy sledgeload through the great crevasse fields of the Beardmore Glacier, explored icefields never seen by man, or walked a thousand miles on poisoned feet,” he observes. “To write about Hell, it helps if you have been there.”

I’m with Fiennes. Scott made mistakes. We all do. But for me he remains a hero, a man of astonishing guts and courage. His life – and the way he exited it - is the true stuff of legends. What do you think?

Friday, 16 March 2012

A very gallant gentleman

A Very Gallant Gentleman, by John Charles Dollman
One hundred years ago today – on 16 March 1912 – a brave British Antarctic explorer struggled to the door of his wind-battered tent, untied its lashings with frozen hands, and stepped outside into a raging blizzard. His name was Lawrence Oates. He told his colleagues he "may be some time".

Oates had just walked to the South Pole with Captain Scott. Finding that Norwegians on skis had beaten them to their goal, Scott’s men then turned around and walked back. By mid-March they had been trudging across the earth’s coldest, driest and windiest continent for four months. One of the party, Edgar Evans, was already dead. Oates, his feet severely frostbitten, knew he would be next.

So the 32-year-old army captain sacrificed himself. He knew he had become a burden on his friends. He knew their chances of survival would improve without him. So off he walked, alone, into oblivion. Scott and the other two men in the tent watched him go. No one stepped in; no one tried to stop him. They understood what was happening. They accepted it. Without fuss or fanfare, Captain Oates was quietly laying down his life for his friends.

You wouldn’t get that past health and safety today. We live in different times. Poor old Oates would have had to fill out a risk assessment form before setting off. So this blog is a little celebration of our braver past. The hope is to fill it with the extraordinary adventure stories of men and women who once regularly went barrelling off into uncharted jungles, deserts and frozen wastelands armed only with a stiff upper lip and a pound of shag tobacco.

We may learn something from them; we may not. But either way, stories of old-fashioned pluck and courage never fail to inspire. So if you know any good ones, please chip in. And you can follow @historynuts on Twitter, too. 

Now, I am just going outside and may be some time. I need to buy my three-year-old son a scooter-helmet.