Why ?. Why did Scott and his men perish on the ice and is the story the same now as it was 100 years ago ? Some writers argue that Scott would have made it back to Cape Evans except for an unforeseen immediate event, while others will say his fate was sealed before he ever set sail. Like any disaster that struck the heart of a nation its impact reverberated far beyond the lost lives of five brave men. Cherry-Garrard recreates an image of the whole Empire mourning the loss of heroic sons.
Scott made it clear in his message to the public why the expedition had run into difficulty, they were the immediate unexpected issues of the moment and yet when telling the tale of polar exploration the story begins in the North and the historical and accepted practices of the Navy. Manhauling was an enshrined method of transport deeply embedded in the culture of British polar exploration long before Scott was ever introduced to the Antarctic. Breaking tradition and culture is hard and often costly and Scott knew that his sponsor, Sir Clements Robert Markham, favoured manhauling after his own expeditions in the North. Scot is also a man of his time and comparison to modern culture and pressure needs to be mindful that Scott was a son of the most powerful empire the world had seen. Although imperial dominance was starting to decline it played a significant part in the culture and expectation of the expedition, from the supplies used to the men selected. It is difficult to know how Scott handled such pressure, he didn’t appear to challenge it or even significantly change it, but he did add elements to the expedition that perhaps showed he understood its limitation. He took a Norwegian skier, Gran, and new equipment, such as the tractors for pulling. He knew of the success of dogs and so they came and also the current furthest south point was reached with horses and so they would be added as well. Scott takes the old culture, the institutional expectation and the imperial etiquette with him to the Antarctic but added onto that he has new ideas and differing perspectives. Perhaps that was not the help and advantage he sought, it may well have diluted both positions. That dilution may have been ever more profound when they actually set sail in the Terra Nova as Scotts original plans had called for two ships, but finances decreed only one, something had to go.
While the ship is sailing south Meares is taking a different route to New Zealand and buying dogs and horses on route. Scott knows the horses are not the best they could be when he sees them and it is a significant moment in the relationship between Scott and Oates. Oates got the best from the poor stock but he despised Scott and this view may have had a bigger impact than simply the single relationship between the two men. Oates was popular and if others were aware of the tension it would ripple through the team. While on the way south Teddy Evans had formed a poor opinion of PO Edgar Evans but Edgar had the full support of Scott and perhaps another tense relationship is now present within the party. With one ship, poor livestock and some tense relationship brewing they headed south.
Through severe storms they made it to the Antarctic coast. Unloading the supplies was problematic as they were some way away from secure land and so ferried goods across the ice flow. During this time one of the tractors was lost as the ice cracked and dragged it to the bottom of the sea. Scott’s plan to get to the pole was a staged pyramid, with a large team setting out dropping supplies and then returning to base with a final four men making for the pole. This plan required deports dropping this summer and so the work began. Accidents on ice floes saw some of the horses lost and the struggle to lay the depots resulted in a change to the plan. Scott decided to position One Ton Depot 30 miles further north, this would make it 30 miles further away for the returning party. Scott and Oates clashed again at this decision. They returned to Cape Evans and prepared to shelter during the long polar winter. During this cold dark period Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard make the famous trip to collect penguin eggs, ‘the worst journey in the world’. They nearly die during the few weeks they are away but they survive and their experience with food and rations helps Scott plan the attempt on the pole. The work of preparation and science continues during the winter. As the return of the sun heralds the start of a the polar challenge, Scott shares his plan, leaves instructions with those at base and sets out. The men of the expedition had individual roles as well as generic duties. These may have not been the best balance for the mission, inexperience with the use of ski, only a small number of men with navigation skills and an even smaller number with dog sledge experience radically reduced the options available for task allocation.
On November 1st 1911 Scott takes the first step south, he is forced to start later than Amundsen as the horses would not have coped with the cold. Other members of the party have been laying more supplies and Teddy Evans is well ahead with the tractors. The tractors fail and those men turn to manhauling, the dogs do very well but the horses make heavy work of the march across the barrier. Bad weather delays them and eats into the margin of error allowed within the timetable. In order to get to the Glacier the dogs are taken further than planned and therefore get back to base camp later than expected. They are tired and the main dog expert prepares to leave on the Terra Nova and will not be available for any rescue attempts. They struggle to the top of the Beardmore but had begun on the extra rations sooner than anticipated. At this point another group turn for home and amongst them is Wright, Gran believes he should have been in the final party and Scott made a mistake omitting him. Wright says that he and Cherry-Garrard (who is also returning) are in better shape than at least one of those going on. PO Evans injures his hand fixing the sledge and keeps it quiet, Oates is said to have a leg injury and doesn’t want to continue, but this is also contentious and kept quiet, they struggle at times and it is hard work. There are two teams manhauling to the pole, Scott makes one team leave their ski behind. Blizzards, the poor condition of the snow made pulling harder and the low temperatures are faced by Scott’s men as they manhaul across the plateau. Then Scott informs the men who will return and who will go on to the pole.
Three men are set to return leaving five to go on. This is a change to the plan and carefully prepared supplies now need to be divided appropriately. Teddy Evans, Bill Lashly and Tom Crean all set off north, back to Cape Evans. Smith believes it was a ‘fundamental’ error not taking Crean forward to the pole. He was strong and resilient, attributes he demonstrated as the three men struggled back, with Teddy Evans near death from scurvy Crean made a magnificent solo march to get help. Scott’s choice of the final five is worthy of consideration, Wilson his personal friend is very resilient, PO Evans was a huge strong man, a lower rank and a favourite of Scott, Bowers was a powerhouse and another navigator, Oates represented the army and had done great work with the horses. These often stated reason are acceptable, but don’t relate to how fit they were at the time and how much effort they have already put in. It’s the last minute selection that may be the problem. Scott thought that he would wait and see how people performed on the march, this competitive position seemed to contradict the pyramid plan and played into Scott’s secretive nature. If the aim was to get four men into position for a final push, perhaps they should have had lighter duties prior to that final push. Smith describes Scotts attempt as a ‘relay race’ with the men in the final stages also having run all the previous laps.
Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and PO Evans march on. Bowers is not on ski, Oates is struggling with his leg and PO Evans has a hand injury that is not healing. On the plateau they are at altitude and may be tiring quicker and using greater calories. They arrive at the pole only to find that Amundsen had been there weeks before. Their morale was hit badly and they turned for home knowing they were in a race for their lives. PO Evans was the first to suffer, he was a big man on the same rations as others, did he have enough vitamin C, did he fall an injury himself, was his morale crushed harder than the others, was he isolated from the officers or was he not the strong character Scott believed. The men continued the scientific work and spent time collecting samples, time that they were not in harness moving north. As Evans worsened he slowed the party down, each minor delay had a major impact. He is the first to die. The four remaining men struggle on, the weather varies and so do the conditions but Oates continues to deteriorate. They continue across the barrier, the low temperature and the sun turn the soft snow into sand like crystals and the pulling is hard, but they continue to make slow progress. Back at Cape Evans the last returning party is in a poor way and the men consider what action could be taken, they have written instructions from Scott before he left but confusing orders had come back with the party. Men are sent out to One Ton Depot but Scott does not show and they are unsure of what to do next. The blizzards slow Scott and the miles they are achieving are not enough. Oates is in a poor way and leaves the tent to die, they are past the point at which the One Ton Depot should have been placed. There has been a problem with the fuel cans and hot food and water is limited. Scott, Wilson and Bowers finally camp 11 miles short of One Ton, the weather is so bad they cannot move forward, food and fuel run out and they slowly die.
Scott’s message to the public placed the reason for failure in the immediate moment, the loss of horses when they first arrived, the weather slowed them down and the snow in areas was impossible to pull through. It is certain by the distance covered that success and failure were close run and Scott is right about those elements impacting on the expedition. But Scott also states that the plan was good, the equipment satisfactory and the food sufficient. Over the last hundred years other reasons have been added to Scott’s rationale, but have not replaced the significance of the issues he highlighted. The right men were not chosen at the right time, the rations were short on vitamins, scurvy was a bigger problem than anticipated, the tractors failed early, the horses were of poor quality, the dogs not used properly, men were not trained to use ski correctly, too few men were trained to be navigators reducing future options, there was a confusion of orders, depots were in the wrong place, five men were taken to the pole not four, the fuel tanks leaked and injured men went forward to the pole slowing the return party. The reason this expedition failed is complex and and multifactorial.
Scott the leader is held accountable for many of these issues. He is described by some writers as being secretive and this could have impacted on the plans, orders and final choice of men. He was anxious at times and covered this by giving specific orders which he did not welcome being challenged. If Scott had created an environment where challenge was seen as healthy and a gift to the leader to be heard and responded to he may have created a little extra performance from the expedition. He may have heard Oates at One Ton, may have heard the need for more training with dogs, skis and navigation. He may have trusted others more with his intent and his detail and perhaps other rescue attempts may have been made. They died 11 miles from One Ton and it may not have needed many of these factors to swing a little bit the other way to have meant the difference between life and death. Scott was caught between a new age and an old empire, between exploration and science, between innovation and trusted technique and he was also caught between himself and the leader he wanted to be. While Teddy Evans was the official second in command Edward Wilson fulfilled that role for Scott. Wilson perhaps had the attributes Scott desired for himself as a leader, likable, calm, consistent and popular. This expedition is so complex in its planning, its numerous relationships and its operational reality that perhaps the flaw in the expedition was much more simple than people realise. Wilson was the man Scott wanted to be and not the man he needed as a deputy. Wilson smoothed the scene after Scott had upset others but this just isolated Scott further and prevented Scott for repairing broken relationships. Wilson also backed and supported Scott and offered him very little resistance, he also offered him very little challenge. Scott took Wilson as a scientist, confidante and a person he admired greatly and I wonder if the Terra Nova expedition would have turned out differently had he not taken a personal friend but a critical one.