The Worst Has Happened. Today they are 15 miles from the pole and see the first signs of the Norwegians, they have reached the pole and Scott and his men must now suffer such great disappointment. Edward Wilson made one simple entry in his diary, ‘The Norwegians came up evidently by another glazier’. No other entry is recorded. Oates recorded ‘we are not a very happy party tonight’. Bowers wrote to his mother, ‘It is a bleak spot – what a place to strive so hard to reach’. He went on to note that ‘I am glad we have done it by good British man haulage, that is the traditional British sledging method’.
Amundsen and his men at the pole – December 17th 1911
Scott’s Journal 16th January 1912. ‘The worst has happened’. As they were marching they noticed what looked like a snow feature, then thought it was a cairn but as they got closer they saw clearly it was a black flag. They had started off the day in high spirits thinking they were getting so very close. It was the keen eyes of Bowers who first spotted the signs and once they arrived at the flag they saw the remains of a camp and of the presence of dogs. Scott’s diary entry is short. ‘The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the pole. It is a terrible disappointment and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts come and much discussion we have had. Tomorrow we must march to the pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go, it will be a wearisome return. We are descending in altitude – certainly also the Norwegians found an easy way up’.
Commentary. A cruel blow as the men had not seen any sign of the Norwegians and hopes had risen that they were first. It is difficult to say how much of that belief was based on fact or fantasy. They had convinced themselves that Amundsen would follow the same route and so the mental anguish must have been even greater. Did they function with a realistic set of concerns and judgements ? Huntford sees Scott as the manipulator of the truth of their predicament from the outset, he encouraged the belief that the Norwegians would have to follow the same route. It is difficult to understand the small nuances that would have made a story or belief take on a level of truth. The balance the leader has between full brutal disclosure and keeping a level of optimism and motivation is complex. Scott may well have told the full story back at camp or on the glazier, the men may have heard the words but understood their own meaning. Fiennes describes the moment they approached the flag as an ‘awful tug of dread’ and considers the impact the disappoint must have on the men. What heartbreak and what a challenge to Scott as the leader, what effect would the loss of the pole have on the ability of the men to pull, would they lose a few hundred yards a day or a mile, what impact motivation on morale and on effectiveness ?