Edward Lawrence Grace Oates (Titus/Soldier) Today is the day to focus on courage and one act stands above the many on this heroic journey. When Oates leaves the tent and mutters those immortal words, ‘I’m just going outside, I may be sometime’ one of the most memorable moments in exploration history is secured. Those words send a shiver down the spine even today and they have come to represent the overwhelming cultural memory we have of Scott’s trip, heroic failure. Oates was born to a family of ancient landowners who can trace their roots to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Oates followed a well trodden path through Eton and into the army joining the Inniskilling Dragons. He served throughout the Empire and was wounded during the Boer War where famously he refused to surrender when surrounded at an ambush. He was frustrated in the army and was locked into a complex relationship with his mother who controlled his financial capacity. After writing to her he purchased a place on Scott’s expedition for £1000 and because of his background he was placed in charge of the horses. Through his letters to his mother and his appearance in the diaries of other members of the expedition it is clear that the image we have of Oates may not be complete. There is much more to his story and one of the best books I have read on the expedition tells Oates’ story well, ‘I am just going outside’ by Micheal Smith. Review from the Guardian with some surprising news.
Scott’s Journal November 11th. The weather had improved but the snow from yesterday made the ground soft and in places it lay in heaps. There were scattered but hard sastrugi and overall a ‘worse set of conditions’ could not be imagined for the horses. The difference in quality of the horses showed today. The strong ones did well but the weaker ones struggled and they could only manage 9miles. More lost miles and again the anxiety in Scott’s journal starts to tell. He expected the marches to be tough but not as bad as this. It starts to snow again as they camp. Scott is not sure what is happening with the weather and he wishes the sky would clear. In spite of all this the dogs worked well and completed 20miles through the night. Weather and the performance of the dogs will become significant talking points in the story of Scott’s journey.
Commentary The story of Scott, Oates and the others has a certain amount of fluidity between myth and fact and the Oates element of the tale now exists as a national truth, but do the facts back that up ? Shortly after Scott’s expedition the first world war began and a story of British courage, sacrifice and endeavour was important for motivating the nation. A story of poor leadership, incompetence and bad planning did not fit the requirement of the day. The story desired was clear and the facts assembled to fit that story. Later a different story would be told and the facts reassembled by Huntford to fit the story told in ‘The Last Place on Earth’ and as a consequence to that telling Ranulph Fiennes connected the facts to redress the story once more in ‘Captain Scott’. Making the facts fit the story you want to be true is not unique to this tale, it happens in our organisations and our lives. Courage is as important today as it was 100 years ago. We may not find ourselves in the same level of physical danger but we are aware of the consequences of courage and can often be paralysed in those moments. The moments where you need to challenge a senior colleague or say ‘no’ when everyone says ‘yes’ may seem minor in comparison but they can induce fear and anxiety. Doing the right thing can often take courage and may lead to personal hardship, but it remains the right thing.